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Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-Death With InterruptionsPortuguese writer José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998, at the age of 75. His novels in translation include Blindness, Seeing ( 3 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2006), The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, among others.

The Story: On New Year’s Eve, in a country resembling present-day Portugal, a funny thing happens: in what is hailed as "humanity’s greatest dream since the beginning of time," people simply stop dying. After the initial ecstasy of apparent immortality wears off, though, an unpleasant political and economic reality ensues: what to do with citizens who should otherwise be dead? In the second half of this two-part novel, the Grim Reaper (a woman), after a seven-month hiatus, begins totting up victims again by sending them violet-colored letters announcing that they have a week to live. What she doesn’t anticipate is falling in love with one of her marks, a middle-aged cellist.
Harcourt. 238 pages. $24. ISBN: 0151012741

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"No writer since Orwell has zeroed in with such precision and vigor on the language of self-serving administrators, and Death with Interruptions contains some of Saramago’s best satire about government corruption, military jingoism and media hysteria. … This is a story that can’t possibly work or affect us, but it does, deeply, sweetly." Ron Charles

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"The range of Saramago’s satire seems limitless, but so does his power to humanize. … For Saramago, in this extraordinary mode in which ideas become flesh, nothing seems impossible, not even Death giving up her dominion." Alan Cheuse

Los Angeles 4 of 5 Stars
"Why did Saramago … write this strange, gorgeous novel? He is fond of allegory—political, spiritual, literary. Like so many magical realist writers, he likes to play God." Susan Salter Reynolds

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"In Saramago’s hands, and in translator Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of his challenging Portuguese text into English, the thorny nature of his prose delivers its own distinctive pleasures and rewards. And the mind at work is never less than invigorating." Michael Upchurch

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The book’s humor is thin. … Indeed the feel of this book is really the sound of no sound, of the unsaid and the unsayable and the too tired to say." D. T. Max

Critical Summary

Few writers work at the top of the game in their mid-80s, but with Death with Interruptions, José Saramago delivers a brief allegory long on shrewd social commentary. His work has consistently been compared to that of Franz Kafka and George Orwell, and the dark humor here only sharpens Saramago’s satirical cudgel. Margaret Jull Costa’s translation reins in the author’s difficult style—dialogue whose attribution is rarely clear and missing punctuation, pages-long sentences and paragraphs, characters known only by their function in society—and brings Saramago’s genius to the page. Despite one critic’s feeling that Saramago is "pushing us away" (New York Times Book Review), the author’s risk taking—after all, he posits death as an elegant, lonely woman questioning her own modus operandi—pays big dividends.