May 10, 2011

Reading José Saramago

"The following day, no one died."
So begins the novel Death with Interruptions by Portuguese writer José Saramago. Like his book Blindness, which I believe is one of the greatest books of the 20th century, in which all the inhabitants of a city except one suddenly go blind, this novel begins with an unaccountable occurrence: the people of an unnamed country stop dying. The old and very sick simply linger in their close to death state. Saramago brings us an unimaginable world and shows us how individuals and different parts of society react to it. He is a serious skeptic, skewering government, businesses, religion (oh, especially religious institutions) and criminal elements. Human beings are shown as deeply flawed and wreak violence on each other in many ways.

What makes these novels so moving and so powerful to read––and I would add The Elephant's Journey, a more lighthearted story of an elephant traveling in 16th century Europe––is the great belief in a core of human, and animal, goodness and love; love that transcends whatever is weakest within us, that brings compassion and kindness, that after all, makes life worth living. After reading pages of very tough stuff, written in clear prose but with no character names or capitalization, no quotation marks around speech, we are greatly rewarded with a sense of spiritual beauty, and hope. I was in tears at the end of Death with Interruptions, incredibly touched by what had occurred. Saramago is one of the world's great writers, not for the beauty of his prose, but for his fabulous vision and his deep humanity.

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