When Portugal’s José Saramago received the 1998 Nobel Prize, it seemed a fitting climactic acknowledgement of a brilliant career of a stubbornly independent genius who—like Tolstoy and Verdi and Picasso in their times, the late Saul Bellow and the ever underrated Hortense Calisher in our own—had demonstrated unimpaired creative power well into old age.
Saramago’s time to be thrust onto the pantheon had come, it seemed, just as his working life must be nearing its end. His 80th year was approaching, and he had dominated the international scene with an imposing succession of recent masterpieces, crowned by his luminous 1995 novel Blindness, an ingenious Orwellian parable soon to become even better known in acclaimed director Fernando Meirelles’s forthcoming film.
But Saramago wasn’t done, and increasingly complex, mischievous, astonishingly inventive books kept coming: a reimagining of Plato’s classic allegory in which a humble artisan’s graceful creations fall victim to punitive government restrictions—until he fights back (The Cave); the voyage of discovery shared by exact physical likenesses, during which both men are challenged, and fulfilled (The Double); a forthright political satire (Seeing, developed from the elements of Blindness), wherein a stiff-necked government is panicked, and given a salutary comeuppance, when a majority of its citizens rise up in protest and refuse to vote in a major election.
Much of Saramago’s biography is in his books: his unconventional writing life, begun early, then suspended for several decades while he supported himself as an auto mechanic, teacher, translator and journalist (before the critical success of his 1992 historical romance Baltasar and Blimunda); his avowed Communism and atheism (incarnated in the intricate sociopolitical texture of his finest novel A Year in the Death of Ricardo Reis and his serenely inflammatory The Gospel According to Jesus Christ); and his contempt for stultifying xenophobia and bureaucratic obtuseness (given memorable symbolic form in The Tale of the Unknown Island and All the Names).
The author looms again, we infer, in Death with Interruptions, in which a universe of dramatic possibility exfoliates from its stunning, cunning opening sentence: “The following day, no one died.” The premise’s development occupies the novel’s first half, featuring an unnamed country’s contrivance—with the aid of organized crime—to shuttle inconveniently terminally ill survivors across its borders (where the moribund keep dying, as usual) and handle the complaints of hospitals, morticians and other providers of essential services threatened with financial ruin. Then, in a spectacular tonal and thematic shift, Death herself becomes the protagonist, and the nature of her intimacy with humans becomes the vehicle for a thrilling threnody composed of grief, love (for that which cannot last) and a resigned, muted acceptance of the inevitable. Simultaneously, we may sense we hear the voice of a great artisan who may not have shown us the last of his creations; who instead whispers his promise: Not just yet, there’s more to be told.