I’m the kind of reader who easily becomes immersed in my reading. I get caught up in the story and semi-oblivious to my surroundings. But that just didn’t happen with Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago. Not because I didn’t like it. In fact it was brilliantly written and clever. But its cleverness actually took me out of the story. As I read, I would find myself thinking, “Oh how clever that line is”.
The premise of the book is laid out in its first sentence, “The following day, no one died.” (A sentence that is intriguingly different from the cover blurb’s first sentence “On the first day of the new year, no one dies.”) The first half of the book is a satirical description of how various institutions- the government, the church, the insurance industry, and the mafia- respond to the absence of Death. The second half is… completely different.
There are several aspects of the book’s style that make for a removed, rather than an immersive, reading experience. For one thing, the narrator regularly makes comments about the way in which the story is being told. I sometimes got the impression that he/she/they/it was deliberately trying to provoke me in an attempt to get inside my head and tell me what I was thinking. ‘You’re thinking I’ve gone on about this part of the storyline for too long’, the narrator might say after having rambled on extensively.
The other obvious stylistic quirk, apparently found in all Saramago books, is the lack of quotation marks to delineate dialogue. There’s no indentation or ‘he said’/’she said’ either, just a comma separating the speech of different characters. Since Saramago also tends to use long sentences, there are plenty of ordinary commas sprinkled in too. For me that had the effect of disrupting the flow of my reading, forcing me to stop and parse through who is saying what. Personally, I found this a hassle, but I’m trying to be open-minded about it and appreciate how it deliberately shaped my experience of reading the book.
Beyond all of the devices, the book also manages to be just plain funny. It must have been quite a job to translate and maintain that sense of humor and wordplay. Margaret Jull Costa deserves a lot of credit.
Some notes about the cover:
Later in the book there is a passage that references the Death’s Head Hawkmoth. I thought, ‘Ah, that must be the moth on the cover!’ and proceeded to look it up. It turned out that the Death’s Head Hawkmoth actually looks completely different. That seemed strange to me and I started to do some sleuthing based on the cover photo credit to Roger Tidman. It turns out that the moth on the cover is a juxtaposition of the body of a Death’s Head Hawkmoth and the wings of a Large Emerald Moth.
There’s another cover that actually does have a Death’s Head Hawkmoth on it. I have to admit that I can see why they decided to get a bit creative with their biology for the English edition:
For some reason this French cover shows what appears to be a strangely asymmetrical butterfly instead: