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It is the end of the year, or, rather, it is this time of the year when we all make various pledges -- again! -- to be better people and to do things better in the new year. Yet imagine a whole new game plan: it is the first day of the new year and... nobody dies. Would we make any pledges if the grand Dame puts down her scythe and the all-too-human fear of death is rendered meaningless? Or, else, do we make pledges out of ethical necessity imagining the demise of our souls, not the demise of our unquestionably perishable bodies?
In his novel Death with Interruptions the Portuguese writer and Nobel prize winner José Saramago creates a fictional universe which resembles an ideal scenario, or so it seems -- the granting of eternal life for all. The mythical goal has been achieved or, rather, Death decides to conduct a small experiment of her own: what if no one dies anymore and she becomes simply "one of us"? While this fantastic, phantasmagoric scenario unfolds, it becomes quite clear that the much dreamed-of goal is in fact a most serious problem for a world which still does not know how to handle life.
With the initial enthusiasm gone, the government of the unnamed Catholic country which receives the gift of eternal life is the first one to face the very practical political and economic problems. The Prime Minister, as the role requires, has to face the media and address the nation on the issue which he rightfully fails to comprehend by saying that, "one could not exclude the hypothesis that this was merely a fluke, a freak cosmic change that could not possibly last, an exceptional conjunction of coincidences impinging on the space-time equation, but that, just in case, the government had already begun exploratory talks with the relevant international organizations to enable the government, when necessary, to take efficient, coordinated action." (9) The well-known political jargon leads him further to acknowledge that, "We will accept the challenge of the body's immortality [...] if that is the will of god, to whom we always offer our grateful prayers for having chosen the good people of this country as his instrument. Which means, thought the prime minister when he finished the reading his statement, that the noose is well and truly round our necks." (9) Why such a pessimistic conclusion one might ask and soon it becomes clear that the apparent blessing is a ticking time bomb.
The country's religious leaders also panic in the wake of the supposedly happy event: the cardinal reproaches the Prime Minister for the hidden message in his speech which makes pointless the holy premises upon the church operates. The cardinal points out therefore that, "without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church." (10) The reader does not need much imagination to see the holy and practical repercussions of such a message: the interests of the church, both spiritual and economic, will be endangered and the losses will wreak havoc in the otherwise well-structured religious domain.
After the initial excitement, society wakes up to the reality that without Death, notions such as life-insurance policies and benefits become obsolete, the dying turn into a permanent load to their families, and people working in the undertaking business are left jobless. The illusion that the ultimate state of happiness is achieved is quickly disrupted by commotion and anger at society's own inability to deal with the "gift" or "curse" of eternal life, because it turns out the latter, ultimately, does not guarantee the former.
But what of Death and her experiment leading to these events? Sitting in her cold apartment and contemplating a series of "what if-s," Death decides to shed her idiosyncrasy, even spell her name with a small d, and become simply human in all respects. If "becoming human" does not mean being mortal any more, then it will mean for her falling in love with a cellist. As the narrator tells us, "Due to some strange optical phenomenon, real or virtual, death seems much smaller now, as if her bones had shrunk, or perhaps she was always like that, and it's our eyes, wide with fear, that make her look like a giant. Poor death. It makes us feel like going over and putting a hand on her shoulder and whispering a few words of sympathy in her ear..." (159) This illusion -- that death is one of "us" -- might lead people to feel sorry for her, but finally she is the one who decides to destroy in the name of love the "letter" she usually sends to those about to die, and to lie down next to the cellist and fall asleep.
Death with Interruptions, just like his previous works Baltasar and Blimunda, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Cave, and Blindness among others, showcases Saramago's prolific style and literary virtuosity. Highly symbolic and poetic in a down to earth manner, the novel is a great book which reminds the readers of the eternal to be found in otherwise mundane matters. And what more eternal and mundane than the essential questions of life and death, and what we, human beings, make of these questions? In this novel too, Saramago is far from offering answers; quite the opposite: in the reformulations of the eternal questions, the writer finds ways to embed some hopes rather than illusions for the future of the humankind.
© 2010 Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis
Dr Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis is an Assistant Professor in the Languages Department at the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, specializing in modern British and American literatures, psychoanalysis, and continental philosophy.