For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. (Portugal, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Jose Saramago is the third Nobel Prize winner (along with Imre Kertesz and Halldor Laxness) to make the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, and his latest novel, Death with Interruptions, is the perfect book to write about on New Year’s Eve:
The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one. Not even from a car accident, so frequent on festive occasions, when blithe irresponsibility and an excess of alcohol jockey for position on the roads to decide who will reach death first. New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities, as if old atropos with her great bared teeth had decided to put aside her shears for a day.
Saramago’s most notable novels—_Blindness_, The Stone Raft, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ—are all “what if?” stories. What if everyone suddenly went blind? What if the Iberian Peninsula broke off from Europe? Or, in this case, what if people suddenly stopped dying? What would happen to society? Would the prospect of eternal life for all really be a good thing?
The systematic and imaginative way in which Saramago explores all the various ramifications of these “what if” situations is what makes his novels so much fun. For instance, if no one dies, than there’s no need for funeral parlors, causing the whole industry to have to retool. On the other hand, hospitals and nursing homes are suddenly overrun with people on the brink of death, but who can’t die. And how the mafia gets involved in all of this—whenever there’s a money-making opportunity, the mafia, or “maphia” as they call themselves in this novel, is there—is both ingenious and raises some interesting ethical questions for Saramago to play with.
Just the other day, Goodloe Byron wrote an essay on Saramago for Ed Champion’s Reluctant Habits that focuses on Death with Interruptions and does a great job describing the second half of this novel:
But thankfully, death returns! She is classically personified, coming to us with skull, scythe, and all, a contrast to the modern view of death as a biological process. Now the story happens again, localized to a single character: an unsung cellist whom death is unable to kill. Suddenly, the story focuses and takes on the tone of an old school romance, and interestingly shares some traits with romantic obsession narratives such as Marc Behm’s Eye of the Beholder. It is a Da Capo al Fine move, repeating the central premise of the book but altering environmental physics from the purely positive world of his later phase, into the classical fables that characterized his first. Though something along this lines was hinted at in Seeing, to my mind, this is a transition radical enough to be considered entirely new for Saramago, and it presents us with the skeleton key to the book. This time, Death is amazed by her own impotence in the face of the human being, who remains ignorant of her, a nice reversal of the working order. This goes to the core of what Saramago’s all about, recalling the distinction between the human will (the mortal, individual spirit that dies with or before us) and soul (the eternal part of man removed from its human excess) that he explored in Baltasar and Blimunda. Instead of judging humanity by what is naturally effective (a la Deng Xiaoping), Saramago is suggesting that we should judge nature by what is morally affective (which, for Saramago, is grassroots Marxism).
What’s always surprised me is just how popular Saramago’s books are despite the fact that they embody almost all of the elements that supposedly drive readers away from translated literature: long paragraphs with idiosyncratic punctuation, dialogue that isn’t set off by quotation marks or anything else, occasional moments in which the narrator breaks the “fourth wall” and addresses the reader directly. In a recent Guardian article Margaret Jull Costa—who has done an amazing job of rendering Saramago in English—describes his unique writing style and its connection to traditional Portuguese literature:
With Risen from the Ground, about three generations of an Alentejo peasant family, he began the great novels of the 80s, and invented his distinctive style of “continuous flow” with sparse punctuation. His English translator Margaret Jull Costa says his “seamless narrative voice” is meant to sound like speech. He orchestrates sounds and pauses. She also likens him to the 19th-century realist novelist Eça de Queiroz, “in a tradition of mocking Portugal, making fun of it”.
Granted, winning the Nobel Prize helped bring a lot of attention and readers to Saramago, but I think the warmth of his voice and the unique way that his fairytale-esque novels read as if they could be oral histories, that has made him one of today’s most widely read international authors.
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