Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf: Death With Interruptions

So about six months ago, I was about 50 pages into Jose Saramago’s Blindness, which, at the time, I thought was the best novel I had ever read. For those of you who don’t know, I’m going damn blind. Getting my first pair of spectacles is one of my earliest memories. And every six months, sometimes twelve, I pop in to see the eye doctor, because my glasses are no longer good enough to let me read road signs and books and things like that. Now, I can’t always get to the doctor right away, and my vision is bad enough that my new specs generally run me $300. I’ve given up on contacts, of late, just because their expense was even more devastating to my frequently meager wallet. Sometimes, the vision changes so harshly and frequently I’m struck by bouts of misery, as I can’t really do anything. My night vision is terrible, and in the winter (ya know, like right now), I generally go to bed much earlier and sleep somewhat later than I do in summer, because I struggle to see in the dim lighting of evening.

So, needless to say, when a Nobel Prize-winning author produces a novel about a world gone blind, I’m interested, because it’s playing directly into, perhaps, my most primal and unabating fear. That particular novel starts is absolutely heartbreaking fashion, and that sadness is replaced by hope and inspiration. The book begins astonishingly engrossing. It then becomes ruthlessly vulgar, and repetitively so, and I couldn’t continue. I finish every book, as a rule, and I’ll finish Blindness, sooner or later, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, and I’m terrified at the prospect of seeing that movie.

But, back in the summer when I was in those bright, sunny, early sections of Blindness, Amazon, in their devious wisdom, sent me an email to let me know Saramago had a new novel coming out, and I could pre-order it. And I did, and by the time it arrived, I was so disgusted with Blindness that I wanted no part of Death With Interruptions. Having run through a couple of non-fiction books in rapid succession here (most notably, this book, as a reference because Mrs Thursday and I are getting one of these), and finding myself unwilling, at the present, to tackle Vladimir Nabakov, I decided to take a crack at Saramago, again.

The beginning is similar to Blindness, in that a supernatural, and, in many ways, catastrophic event strikes an unknown country. In this case, everyone has stopped dying. Unusually, however, Saramago spends the first 150 pages of this rather short novel (only about 230 pages total), characterless, painting the story in very broad strokes, so to speak. His narrative pops in the the Prime Minister here, an unknown family there, the despondent undertakers over there. The narrative meanders, but intentionally, until, with 2/3rds of the novel extinguished, Saramago introduces, finally, a named character. That is, of course, death, herself, with a lowercase “d”.

The death storyline is truly bizarre. Having decided to start killing people again, after seven months vacation, she decides to give people a little notice of their impending deaths, by delivering to them violet letters with short and clear messages that the recipient will die, irrevocably, in one week. Then, of course, a letter is, mysteriously, returned to sender. Her efforts to confront that confounding fact make for the book’s finale.

My favorite literature is able to engage me both intellectually, and emotionally. Death With Interruptions does the former admirably: I’m not sure how many books I’ve read that have been more fascinating that this one was, once it got rolling. But the dearth of characters, and their short and limited existences, make it difficult for me, the reader, to cling to anything in the book emotionally. The book is brief, however, and its brevity serves it well. Certainly, the scant necessary days to complete its reading are worthwhile.

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