Review and summary of Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago
Spoiler Free Review
If you’ve never read a novel by Jose Saramago before there are a couple of things you should know. One, is that his style is intimidating. You’ll open the book to see a wall of text. There are few paragraph breaks, no markers for dialogue, and long run on sentences. Two, is that adapting to this style will be worth it to discover a story unlike any other you’ve ever read.
I started reading Death with Interruptions at the wrong time. I had a very busy week and was feeling pretty tired so I kept having to put the book down for fear of my eyes betraying me. His style can have the side effect of drowsiness because the solid page of words begins to look hypnotic. Make sure you’re not overtired when beginning this book. It’s not boring by any means but the pages may deceive you.
Style aside, Death with Interruptions is an engaging thought experiment containing a series of “what ifs.” What if death took a break? What if death changed the rules? What if death fell in love?
A small country starts a new year with 24 hours without a single death. That 24 hours stretches out to many more. Dying no longer occurs within these borders. The sick and injured are left to suffer without hope and the young and healthy are left to be reckless. The government scrambles to restore order but has no precedent for how to precede.
When death sends a letter proclaiming her period of absence over people briefly think that things will return to normal. However, death has a new plan. She has decided to give a week’s notice to those that are on her list to die. This will allow for them to make the proper preparations and say their goodbyes. Obviously, this is not what happens.
Death with Interruptions follows these trains of thought to their natural conclusions. The novel is told without traditional plot or character arcs. Death isn’t even introduced until the final third of the book. The society at large is the main character that must navigate these new circumstances but conflicting interests make this very difficult.
Above all, the novel is philosophical. It has less to do with storytelling than it does with simply saying “wouldn’t this be weird?” It is interesting to allow your own thoughts to run alongside Saramago’s though. I found many conversation starters within these pages that kicked off some interesting discourse.
My biggest problem with the novel, my only real complaint, is the ending. It just sort of, stops, and it doesn’t really mean anything. Yes, I should take that ending and continue my own train of thought but it somehow felt unsatisfying.
Ending a novel feeling unsatisfied means that will forever be my impression of the book. I was engaged, intrigued, and at times emotional at the winding stories but all I’ll remember years from now is that I was ultimately disappointed.
4/5 deaths 💀💀💀💀
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Death with Interruptions Summary
One fateful New Year one country experiences a full 24 hours without a single death. This includes individuals who definitely should have died. People in bad car accidents, the very old, the very sick, people who are suffering and for whom death would be welcome. No one dies.
Death with Interruptions explores a society without death. Just this one country is dealing with the phenomenon and everyone quickly learns how valuable the end of life can be.
The government springs into action to keep the country afloat. They start with the most important issue, the jobs of those in the funeral and mortuary services. The novel has a tongue in cheek humor throughout and picking up on it requires the reader to wade through solid blocks of text with few paragraph breaks and little punctuation but it’s worth it when you find it.
After dealing with the angry funeral providers they move on to the hospitals who are overflowing with people who should die and clear out a bed. They decide to send them home to their families since they cannot be cured in any way and are a burden regardless of where they are placed.
Next, is the question of the life insurance companies. Surely, they should be given accommodations to remain wealthy. The solution is to pay out policies when someone turns 80 with the option to renew. Please don’t cancel your policies people!
The book shifts to the story of an unnamed family dealing with an aged and sick patriarch and what should have been a stillborn baby. They travel to the border of the country to allow them to die. As they step over the border they are both released from their tortuous bodies and the family lovingly buries them. This is an extremely touching interlude, there will be a few of these, that somehow evoke a lot of emotion without any names or character back story.
The family’s neighbor catches them and reports them. This spawns a philosophical debate. Is what they did murder? If you ask me, no. Maybe assisted suicide but I’m a firm believer in the right to die under your own terms.
The country doesn’t know how to deal with people attempting to flee the country in order to die. Is it even enforceable by existing laws? In response to this a “maphia” develops. These vigilantes stake out at the borders and stop people trying to end the lives of those suffering.
As would be the realistic response, these vigilantes start getting attacked back. Many end up in comas without a visit from the afterlife just like those they were trying to stop.
death is angry. It’s high time we stuck our tongues at her.Jose Saramago -Death with Interruptions
Legislators go back and forth on how to solve this problem and maintain order. They finally decide that since the dying wanted to be carried to the border the deaths should be recorded as suicides but that opens up a different can of worms.
Philosophers, who previously had no professional purpose, finally step into their spotlight. One decides that since animals and plants are still dying that their deaths are different from human deaths. This makes us very special.
Then an economist steps in and clearly states that a society cannot sustain an exponentially aging population. This changes the public attitude on their elders. When they previously cared for them as beloved family members many switch their behavior to discarding them on the side of the road.
The next shift comes for the monarchy. Kings should not be allowed to hold the throne for eternity. A coup is in the works.
Just as society begins to crumble quickly a mysterious letter is made public. It’s signed by death, with a small “d”, and it states that her experiment is over. Now they should understand the curse it is to not have her around. The letter states that people will resume dying at midnight but she’ll do them the courtesy of providing everyone a week’s notice for when they will die going forward. This way they can make preparations.
This concept is similarly explored in They Both Die at the End and sounds like a nightmare in both books. Humans seriously can’t deal with this knowledge. Death with Interruptions goes on to prove that we’re not responsible enough to have this information.
At midnight 62,580 people drop dead.
In the next few weeks people are not happy with the new rules. Delicate violet colored letters arrive to warn people of their deaths and few people use the time to make peace and preparations. It’s mostly chaos.
Society wants to talk with death. They attempt to summon her by creating art based on her assumed form of a shrouded skeleton. She is this, Death with Interruptions contains a very classic grim reaper.
She continues writing the letters with her own bony hands until a letter returns to her marked as “return to sender.” The original addressee of the notice is a 49 year old man who has now made it to his 50th birthday against the fate of the universe.
She becomes obsessed with this cellist who just won’t die. She stalks him and fantasizes about how to kill him and restore her order. She transforms into an attractive human form and sets out to seduce him and hand over his death notice personally.
After spending so much time observing him and then getting to know him over conversation she begins to feel attached. He is bewildered but entranced by her. She ends up sleeping with him, first in the euphemistic sex way, then actual sleep, for the first time in her long life.
She burns the letter marking him for death and the next day nobody dies. The end.
Death with Interruptions has an open ending that allows the reader to form their own conclusions. Personally, I’m not sure what to do with it. I like the idea of death falling in love but is the proper response to that to cause widespread suffering? Does death herself think that death is a bad thing? Maybe she’s just taking a day off to sleep in with her new lover. It’s up to you to decide.