Death Takes a Holiday
by James Wood October 27, 2008
The philosopher Bernard Williams once wrote a paper, "The Makropulos Case," in which he argued that eternal life would be so tedious that no one could bear it. According to Williams, the constancy that defines an eternal self would entail an infinite desert of repetitive experiences, lest the self be so altered as to be emptied of any definition. That is why, in the play by Karel Capek from which Williams takes his title, the three-hundred-and-forty-two-year-old Elina Makropulos, having imbibed the elixir of eternal life since the age of forty-two, chooses to discontinue the regimen, and dies. Life needs death to constitute its meaning; death is the black period that orders the syntax of life.
In "Death with Interruptions" (translated, from the Portuguese, by Margaret Jull Costa; Harcourt; $24), José Saramago, a writer whose long, uninterrupted sentences are relative strangers to the period, has produced a novel that functions as a thought experiment in the Capek/Williams field. (His novel makes no explicit allusion to either.) At midnight on one New Year's Eve, in a nameless, landlocked country of about ten million inhabitants, Death declares a truce with humanity, a self-interruption, so as to give people an idea of what it would be like to live forever. At first, of course, people are euphoric:Having lived, until those days of confusion, in what they had imagined to be the best of all possible and probable worlds, they were discovering, with delight, that the best, the absolute best, was happening right now, right there, at the door of their house, a unique and marvelous life without the daily fear of parca's creaking scissors, immortality in the land that gave us our being, safe from any metaphysical awkwardnesses and free to everyone, with no sealed orders to open at the hour of our death, announcing at that crossroads where dear companions in this vale of tears known as earth were forced to part and set off for their different destinations in the next world, you to paradise, you to purgatory, you down to hell.
But "awkwardnesses"—metaphysical, political, pragmatic—soon reënter. The Catholic Church is the first institution to sense a danger. The Cardinal phones the Prime Minister to point out that "without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church." For the Cardinal, life without death is tantamount to God's willing His own demise. Life without death abolishes the soul. A panel of philosophers and clergymen is convened, and both sides agree that religion needs death "as much as we need bread to eat." Life without death is like life without God, one churchman says, because "if human beings do not die then everything will be permissible." (This is a version of the Dostoyevskian fear that without God everything is permitted.) One philosopher, sounding like the slyly secular Saramago, suggests that since death was "clearly the only agricultural implement god possessed with which to plough the roads that would lead to his kingdom, the obvious, irrefutable conclusion is that the entire holy story ends, inevitably, in a cul-de-sac."
A country in which no one dies inevitably becomes a Malthusian zoo. Old people who were on the brink of death on New Year's Eve simply remain on the brink, frozen in their desuetude. Undertakers, those selling life-insurance policies, and the directors of hospitals and old people's homes are variously threatened with unemployment or overactivity. The state will soon be unable to pay for the maintenance of its citizens. And although this sudden utopia may now be the very best of all possible worlds, humans can always be relied upon to wreck utopias. Families with aged, infirm members realize that they need death to save them from an eternity of bedside care. Since death has not been suspended in neighboring countries, the obvious solution is to transport ailing Grandpa over the border, where death will do its business. A Mafia-like organization takes over these death runs, an operation secretly connived in by the government, since no state can afford infinite expansion. As the Prime Minister warns the King, "If we don't start dying again, we have no future."
"Death with Interruptions" is a small-ish, toothy addition to a great novelist's work. It efficiently mobilizes its hypothetical test case, and quickly generates a set of sharp theological and metaphysical questions about the desirability of utopia, the possibility of Heaven, and the true foundation of religion. Recent work by Saramago has tended toward the sparely allegorical, with nameless, universal actors in place of individual characters. These books would be baldly essayistic were it not for Saramago's extraordinary sentences, and the subtlety of their narration. In the absence of vivid fictional people, Saramago's sentences, in which a narrator or group of narrators is always strongly present, constitute a kind of community of their own: they are highly peopled.
Some of the more significant writing of the past thirty years has taken delight in the long, lawless sentence—think of Thomas Bernhard, Bohumil Hrabal, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño—but no one sounds quite like Saramago. He has an ability to seem wise and ignorant at the same time, as if he were not really narrating the stories he narrates. Often, he uses what could be called unidentified free indirect style—his fictions sound as if they were being told not by an author but by, say, a group of wise and somewhat garrulous old men, sitting down by the harbor in Lisbon, having a smoke, one of whom is the writer himself. This community is fond of truisms, proverbs, clichés. "It is said that one cannot have everything in life," the narrator of "Death with Interruptions" tells us, and he adds, "That's how life is, what it gives with one hand one day, it takes away with the other." The narrator of a previous novel announces, "Fame, alas, is a breeze that both comes and goes, it is a weather vane that turns both to the north and to the south." And elsewhere: "It has been said, from classical times onwards, that fortune favours the bold." These platitudes are neither quite validated nor disowned; they are ironized by the obvious gap that exists between the knowing postmodern Nobel laureate writing his fictions and the person or persons seemingly narrating those fictions.
The run-on style is an important part of that irony: the breathlessness lends a sense of chatty unruliness, as if different people were breaking in to have their say. A single long sentence often seems to have been written by different voices, and the unpunctuated welter allows for sly twists and turns, as when a cliché catches itself in the act of being a cliché, and atones: "Such a man, apart from rare exceptions which have no place in this story, will never be more than a poor devil, it's odd that we always say poor devil and never poor god." In the sentence about the people's early euphoria when death is suspended, notice that a poetic image for the Grim Reaper ("parca's creaking scissors") gives way to a more ordinary image ("sealed orders to open at the hour of our death") and then to a frank, weary cliché ("this vale of tears known as earth"), and that this progression allows for the simultaneous presence of the writer, who has his images, and the people he is writing about, who have theirs. And a magical exchange occurs: by the time we reach the end of that sentence about death, the fancy mythical image seems somehow much less powerful than the most banal image.
Saramago's narration thus feels modern and ancient at once. The writer is self-consciously at work, constantly drawing attention to the narration, yet the narration seems to dip easily into a universal knapsack, to flourish its bony, wise truths. It is this cunningly modest approach that allows Saramago to write his speculative and fantastical fictions as if they were the most likely events, and to give them a solid literalism—an unnamed country gripped by an epidemic of blindness, the Iberian Peninsula broken off from the European continent and turned into a huge floating island, a man walking the streets of Lisbon who is both undeniably real and a literary ghost. His work is in some ways closer to that of an ancient satirist like Lucian, whose sketches imagine people travelling to the moon or to Hades, or the gods squabbling among themselves, than to that of any contemporary novelist. When, in Saramago's new novel, Death finally decides to end her "interruption" and let mortality have its way again, the Church, which had been praying for such a restoration, is pleased: "The prayers had taken nearly eight months to reach heaven, but when you think that it takes six months to reach the planet mars, then heaven, as you can imagine, must be much farther off, three thousand million light-years from earth, in round numbers." That prodding voice, with its anti-theological bias, is reminiscent not only of Lucian but of the Lucianic Leon Battista Alberti, whose fifteenth-century satire "Momus" imagines the chaos that might ensue in Heaven if everyone asked God to answer a prayer at the same time.
Saramago's brief novel provokes similar questions. If eternal life could not possibly work on earth, why is heavenly eternity so ardently to be desired? Perhaps it is because we desperately hope that Heaven will be the same as earth but also very different, given that man ruins Edens. For Saramago, as for Bernard Williams, the problem is not just that humans are natural-born utopia-killers; it is that eternity itself —life forever uninterrupted—seems unbearable. And Saramago does more than tease Dostoyevsky in this novel. For if the disappearance of God means that "everything is permitted," and the disappearance of death means that everything is permitted, then, by the novelist's tacit catechism, God must be death, and death must be God. No wonder religion needs death: death is the one God we can believe in.
Saramago is drawn to these Gnostic inversions. In perhaps his greatest book, "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" (1991), the novelist, characteristically, tells the story of Jesus' life and death without changing any of the famous facts, while at the same time turning the theology of the Gospels upside down. One day, Jesus' father, Joseph, overhears some soldiers talking about Herod's orders to kill all children under the age of three. He races home to hide his wife and newborn son, but neglects to warn the rest of the village. For this sin, an angel later tells Mary, Joseph will suffer. And what about my son? she asks the angel. "The angel said, A father's guilt falls on the heads of his children, and the shadow of Joseph's guilt already darkens his son's brow," Saramago writes. In time, Joseph is captured by Roman soldiers putting down a rebellion and is crucified along with thirty-nine other Jews. Jesus, in turn, becomes obsessed with a sense of inherited guilt, and with the idea, as he puts it, that "Father murdered the children of Bethlehem." On the strength of a lightning strike from the storyteller's blasphemous finger, Saramago turns a familiar theological conundrum—the "good" God who brings Jesus into the world is also the "bad" God who permits the massacre of innocent babies—into a deep crux. Suddenly, Jesus is cursed by a form of original sin, and his sacrifice on the Cross becomes not an expiation of man's sin but an inheriting of it: he is following in his father's footsteps, cursed by his patrilineage. "God does not forgive the sins He makes us commit" is how the narrator puts it. On the Cross, hearing his heavenly Father declaim from the clouds, "This is My beloved son, in whom I am well pleased," Jesus bursts out, "Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done." It is the novel's final, and most wicked, inversion.
"The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" was enormously controversial in Catholic Portugal (Jesus sleeps, and lives, with Mary Magdalene), but it is the most pious of blasphemous books. Behind its savage ironies, Saramago seems to do no more than take the Incarnation as seriously as possible: if Jesus was born a man, he seems to say, then he inherits everything man is prey to, including sin, which comes from God anyway. The stakes are very high, but the authorial temperament is mild, quizzical, seasoned. And what if God were the Devil? the author seems to ask, gently peering at us through his dark-rimmed, television-size spectacles. He is in some ways the least fantastical of novelists, because he so relentlessly persists with his fictional hypotheses, following them through to large, humane conclusions. His new novel gradually becomes less and less conceptual, and increasingly affecting, without ever becoming in any conventional sense realistic, or even plausible.
He pictures Death for us as an embodied female absence, a skeleton in a sheet who lives in a frigid, subterranean room, accompanied only by her much used scythe. (He also denies her a capital "D.") After her seven months of self-interruption, this gloomy goddess sends a letter to a TV station, announcing that she is ending her experiment, because humans have acted so "deplorably." People will die again at the old rate, which is about three hundred a day. Under the new rules, those citizens whose time is up will be given one week's notice: each will receive a violet-colored letter, a notice of termination from Death herself. This apparently humane concession—the nominee now has time to take his leave, get his estate in order, and so on—is of course unbearably cruel, since most people would rather be surprised by death than condemned to it.
One such nominee, a fifty-year-old cellist, bewilders the goddess. Death has selected him for termination, but the violet-colored letter is returned to sender, again and again; the cellist seems to refuse his orders. In a series of unexpectedly beautiful scenes, Death, much perplexed, insinuates herself into the cellist's apartment, and sits quietly watching him while he sleeps; she sees how he gets up in the night to get a glass of water and let the dog out, sees a Bach suite (No. 6) on his chair, and so on. It is the cellist's time to die—"the time prescribed for them at birth has expired"—but Death seems to have no power over this "perfectly ordinary man, neither ugly nor handsome." In an earlier novel to which the new one is an obvious companion, "All the Names," a modest clerk similarly becomes obsessed with a perfectly ordinary citizen, a woman whose name on a birth certificate catches him by surprise one evening at his workplace, the Central Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths. As in the new novel, the clerk selects one citizen from the ranks of the ever-dying and living, and gradually, without ever naming her (the cellist likewise goes unnamed), endows her with metaphysical particularity.
This is what the novelist does, too: he takes a name, a character, a person, and saves her from wordless oblivion through the irradiation of words. But he can also kill her whenever he pleases: every novel is "interrupted" simply because it ends. We speak of omniscient authorial power because writers have the power of life and death over their "names." The clerk in "All the Names," who is known only as Senhor José, shares his first name with the novelist. In his new novel, Saramago again asks us to reflect on the storyteller's godlike powers. When Death's letter is published in the newspapers, a grammarian is consulted, and notes its "chaotic syntax, the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas. . . ." Death writes like José Saramago. As Death watches the cellist drink, Saramago writes that she looked at the water "and made an effort to imagine what it must be like to feel thirsty, but failed." The reader wonders: if Death cannot imagine thirst, can she possibly imagine death? And can the novelist? One answer that Saramago offers—it is the wide, universal, antique truth toward which his complex fiction has been travelling—is that if we neither recoil from death nor religiously long to vanquish it, but, rather, accept the old actuality that in the midst of life we are in death, then death surrounds us like life, and to imagine death is really to imagine life. ♦