Saramago, José. Death with Interruptions. Transl. Margaret Jull Costa. Orlando: Harcourt, 2008.
Well, I’m not fat and I’m not dressed in black, and you have no idea who marcel proust was, For obvious reasons, we scythes, both those who cut down people and those who cut down grass, have never been taught to read, but we have good memories, mine of blood and theirs of sap, and I’ve heard proust’s name several times and put together the facts, he was a great writer, one of the greatest who ever lived, and his file must be somewhere in the old archives. Yes, but not in mine, I wasn’t the death who killed him, So this monsieur marcel proust wasn’t from here, then, asked the scythe, No he was from a place called france, replied death, and there was a touch of sadness in her words, Don’t worry, you can console yourself for the fact that it wasn’t you who killed proust by how pretty you look today […] (206)
The premise of Death with Interruptions is simultaneously amazingly simple and complex: in a nameless European country, the new year breaks and no one dies. death (the lowercase “d” is important, as is her female gender), eventually turns up to explain the phenomenon.
Saramago is the master of the omniscient narrator. First, he eschews the use of quotation marks and (frequently) periods, and even line breaks and indentation in distinguishing dialogue, instead indicating changes of speaker by a comma and uppercase (as demonstrated above). This formatting substantially affects the pace and mood of one’s reading process: even though Saramago employs detailed adjectival description, the way the dialogue physically runs into itself tends to subvert that description, refusing to allow the reader to linger over it. The effect is rather like reading a report. Frequent intrusions of the narrative voice into the story heighten this effect:
The protagonists of these dramatic events, described in unusually detailed fashion in a story which has, so far, preferred to offer the curious reader, if we may put it so, a panoramic view of the facts, were, when they unexpectedly entered the scene, given the social classification of poor country folk. This mistake, the result of an overhasty judgment on the part of the narrator, based on an assessment which was, at best, superficial, should, out of respect for the truth, be rectified at once. A family of poor country folk, if they were truly poor, would not be the owners of a cart, nor […] would never have been able to come out with the lovely sentence we commented on before, What will the neighbors say when they notice the absence of these people who were at death’s door […] (41-42)
The narrative voice, like the rapid “report-like” delivery of
dialogue, distances the reader from the characters and events of the story, which appears to be in the process of being written as we read the book.
Increasingly, however, as the story develops, the narrator slips into single point-of-view descriptions of such length and detail, that the reader appears to be situated within the bodies of the characters themselves. Saramago switches into these seamlessly, and the overall effect allows the reader to access the characters from several different points of entry.
I do wish the dust jacket had not revealed so much of the plot to me (and I advise not reading it beforehand), but Saramago’s writing is beautiful, interesting, and the novel is well-structured: all factors which contributed the text’s poignant and disturbing ending: I cannot recall feeling such a mixture of joy, sadness, and horror combined.
30 December 2008 ~ St. Catharines