The OF Blog: Jose Saramago, Death's Intermittence

Friday, January 04, 2008

Jose Saramago, Death's Intermittence

This is a more in-depth post devoted to a book that the majority of this blog's readers will not be able to read, at least not yet. But for those that know of my admiration for Portuguese author José Saramago's works, it will come as no surprise that I found myself thumbing through one of my bookcases (the Spanish-language one) and picking up one of his latest releases in Spanish translation, Las intermitencias de la muerte (The translated title that I gave above is but one way of rendering it). So for those of you wanting to know more about this novel, I'm going to start by giving a lengthy passage from the opener that will showcase Saramago's rather unique writing style (first in Spanish, then in English), before I discuss some of the themes of this novel.

Al día siguiente no murió nadie. El hecho, por absolutamente contrario a las normas de la vida, causó en los espíritus una perturbación enorme, efecto a todas luces justificado, basta recordar que no existe noticia en los cuarenta volúmenes de la historia universal, ni siquiera un caso para muestra, de que alguna vez haya ocurrido un fenómeno semejante, que pasara un día completo, con todas sus pródigas veinticuatro horas, contadas entre diurnas y nocturnas, matutinas y vespertinas, sin que se produjera un fallecimiento por enfermedad, una caída mortal, un suicidio conducido hasta el final, nada de nada, como la palabra nada. Ni siquiera uno de esos accidentes de automóvil tan frecuentes en ocasiones festivas, cuando la alegre irresponsabilidad o el exceso de alcohol se desafían mutuamente en las carreteras para decidir quién va a llegar a la muerte en primer lugar. El fin de año no había dejado tras de sí el habitual y calamitoso reguero de óbitos, como si la vieja átropos de regaño amenazador hubiese decidido envainar la tijera durante un día. Sangre, sin embargo, hubo, y no poca. Desorientados, confusos, horrorizados, dominando a duras penas las náuseas, los bomberos extraían de la amalgama de destrozos míseros cuerpos humanos que, de acuerdo con la lógica matemática de las colisiones, deberían estar muertos y bien muertos, pero que, pese a la gravedad de las heridas y de los traumatismos sufridos, se mantenían vivos y así eran transportados a los hospitales, bajo el sonido dilacerante de las sirenas de las ambulancias.
The next day no one died. This fact, absolutely contrary to the norms of life, caused in the spirits an enormous perturbation, certainly justifiable, enough to recall that no news existed in the forty volumes of the universal history, not even a thing for showing, of a similar phenomenon having occurred at some time, which passed a complete day, with all its prodigious twenty-four hours, counted between daytime and nighttime, matins and vespers, without producing a death by infirmity, a mortal fall, a suicide completed until the end, nothing, absolutely nothing. Not even one of those automobile accidents so frequent on festive occasions, when happy irresponsibility or the excess of alcohol play themselves out of tune on the roadways in order to decide who is going to arrive at death in the first place. The year’s end afterwards hadn’t left the habitual and calamitous trail of obituaries, as if the old, threatening, scolding atrophy had decided to sheathe the scissors during one day. Blood, however, there was, and not a little. Disoriented, confused, horrified, nausea dominating the lasting sorrows, the firemen removed from the amalgamation of miserable ruins human bodies that, of accordance with the mathematical logic of the crashes, ought to be dead and truly dead, but that, despite the graveness of the injuries and the traumas suffered, maintained themselves alive and so they were transported to the hospitals, under the blaring sound of the ambulences.
This section, which comprises the first page and the first part of a very lengthy opening paragraph, illustrates quite well Saramago's writing style, with its use of commas and complex clauses in place of "normal" sentence constructions. As is his wont, Saramago abruptly introduces something that disrupts our typical expectations and makes us question, "What's next?" What's next in a world where Death has decided during the course of a day that enough was enough and that it wouldn't take any more human lives?

Over the course of 274 pages in my Alfaguara Spanish edition, Saramago takes that postulation and stretches it into an indicting statement on the world today. How many organizations, from religious groups to charities, are predicated on the existence of pain, suffering, and a fear of dying? In a graying First World, what would all of these old and decrepit bodies still surviving mean? Would a society such as the one in which a great many of us live today manage to survive such a shock to the expected order of the universe?

What Saramago concludes from this is rather pessimistic, but yet realistic. The horror that one feels in passages such as the rescue of the bodies from a horrific car crash/explosion is found throughout the novel and its cumulative effect is to cause the reader to rethink and to question just about everything that he or she might take for granted about the societies in which we live. Such an act is a remarkable accomplishment indeed and this is one of Saramago's better story-fables. I can only hope that this novel will be released shortly in a much better translation than the rough one I have given above. This is one Nobel Prize-winning author who deserves a wider reading audience in the spec fic circles, as so many of his ideas are generated from the same sources as those we see in genre fiction. And if you happen to be like me and are able to read Spanish, there is no excuse - go out and buy and read the damn thing now!

Publication Date: (Spanish) November 2005, Tradeback; January 2007, Paperback.


Martlet said...

Very interesting article Larry.

As I've never read anything by Saramago, which book of his would you recommand as a good introduction to his work ?


Larry said...

If you could read Spanish, I would suggest this one as a possible starting place. But since most reading this will be English readers (native or second-language), I would suggest Blindness and its sequel, Seeing. I'll cover those sometime later this year.

Martlet said...

My spanish isn't good enough for a full-length novel yet, but the french translation should be there on January 10th, so I won't have to wait very long.

I'll have a look at Blindness too.

Gracias :)

Larry said...

Ah, great timing, huh? :D Well, if the premise of the novel seems appealing to you, I'd suggest that. It is about 75-100 pages shorter than Blindness, but either one is well worth a read in my opinion.

Mrinal Bose said...

Why not read "The Gospel of Jesus Christ'? Yes, it's available in English. It's a great novel where Saramago shows Christ as a human being without any divine quality. Great treatment and a unique writing style would mesmerize you.

Juliana said...

This is my favorite book ever. I love Saramago. I am lucky because I get to read him in Portuguese, his native language. So inspiring...

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