Wednesday, September 9, 2009

José Saramago - Death without interruptions

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 196 - August 14, 2009

Some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters.—J.S.

Let’s put it this way: There are times you come across a certain writer you want to keep entirely to yourself. He belongs to me. Speaks to me, nobody else. I’ve been keeping Saramago in a dark place on my bookshelves for years now. I’ve thought about presenting his work, discussing it with others, assigning his books in an occasional writing class situation. But never did. I’m certain many others know him. No doubt know his work better than I. But of all the readers and writers in my life, all the conversations and words exchanged through the years (granted I live in a rural outpost, far from hallowed halls of academia, the temple and temperature of New York publishing)—the Portuguese writer, Saramago, has never come up.

I haven’t told anybody else about him because…? Maybe I might dilute the essence of what he means or does for me. Maybe a voice within says: Go find your own Saramago. Which was much the way I felt when I first read Camus, Coetzee, Schulz, Handke, Hrabal… I don’t know whether this makes any sense or not. It’s not jealousy. Nobody else could possibly write like this. And no serious writer should ever want to write like another writer anyway, just learn from them. So that’s not an issue.

I don’t know whether I’m the only one who inhabits this terrain of craziness, possessiveness or not. It’s a mystery to me why I quietly return to the source of certain writers like Saramago…his words, his style, his philosophy, his themes, etc….always looking over my shoulder to be sure no one else is following.

Nor do I understand why suddenly I swing the doors open wide, turn on the lights, invite everyone in to meet my old friend—the one I’ve been hiding in the dark for so long.

Saramago was born in Portugal in 1922. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. He is sometimes compared to Kafka, Borges, Camus.

But he’s José Saramago. No one else. Here’s the opening to one of his novels,


THE FOLLOWING DAY, NO ONE DIED. THIS FACT, BEING absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one. Not even from a car accident, so frequent on festive occasions, when blithe irresponsibility and an excess of alcohol jockey for position on the roads to decide who will reach death first. New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities, as if old atropos with her great bared teeth had decided to put aside her shears for a day. There was, however, no shortage of blood. Bewildered, confused, distraught, struggling to control their feelings of nausea, the firemen extracted from the mangled remains wretched human bodies that, according to the mathematical logic of the collisions, should have been well and truly dead, but which, despite the seriousness of the injuries and lesions suffered, remained alive and were carried off to hospital, accompanied by the shrill sound of the ambulance sirens. None of these people would die along the way and all would disprove the most pessimistic of medical prognoses, There’s nothing to be done for the poor man, it’s not even worth operating, a complete waste of time, said the surgeon to the nurse as she was adjusting his mask. And the day before, there would probably have been no salvation for this particular patient, but one thing was clear, today, the victim refused to die. And what was happening here was happening throughout the country. Up until the very dot of midnight on the last day of the year there were people who died in full compliance with the rules, both those relating to the nub of the matter, i.e. the termination of life, and those relating to the many ways in which the aforementioned nub, with varying degrees of pomp and solemnity, chooses to mark the fatal moment…

So, there’s a little of the author in his own words– translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Here’s how the publisher describes the book:

ON THE FIRST DAY OF the new year, no one dies. This, of course, causes consternation among politicians, religious leaders, morticians, and doctors. Among the general public, on the other hand, there is celebration—flags are hung out on balconies, people dance in the streets. They have achieved the great goal of humanity: eternal life. Then reality hits home—families are left to care for the permanently dying, life-insurance policies become meaningless, and funeral parlors are reduced to arranging burials for pet dogs, cats, hamsters, and parrots. Death sits in her chilly apartment, where she lives alone with her scythe and filing cabinets, and contemplates her experiment: What if no one ever died again? What if she, death with a small ‘d’, became human and were to fall in love?
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