Annotation by Kate Maruyama
At first, I thought it was the lack of punctuation. I had read Saramago before, I’m not sure what the book was, I know I found it difficult to get through and it didn’t stick with me later. But reading page after page with no paragraph breaks and no dialogue punctuation is wearing. About three chapters in I realized that was not the exhausting part, the exhausting part was the novel’s complete lack of characters. I had nothing to latch onto, nowhere to grab hold. An interesting premise opened our story: people suddenly stop dying. First there is joy, then problems arrive. Those due to die just…stay.
Saramago takes a wide sweeping view of things, talking about an entire nation dealing with the crisis, we take peeks into the suspended life of people and into various cabinet meetings on the subject, but we seldom get closer. He teases us with the hope of characters when we look at the first family to transport their dying over the border of the country where they may die (and more than a few echoes of AS I LAY DYING as they complete the task), but pulls out again for that maddening wide-angle view. I had a glimmer of hope on page forty when the chapter opened, “The protagonists of these dramatic events, described in unusually detailed fashion in a story which has, so far, preferred to offer the curious reader, if we may put it, a panoramic view of the facts, were, when they unexpectedly entered the scene, given the social classification of poor country folk.” AAAARGH! Hope with the word “protagonist” at the front of the sentence, despair as the sentence proceeded.
For 149 pages, reading was drudgery, and more frustrating because the idea for the book was so great and the author was giving me no satisfaction whatever. I’d space out and have to reread (no easy task finding my lost spot when the paragraphs run on for two or three pages at a time). Skimming was impossible, because important (and sparse) dialogue would be buried deep in the middle of So. Many. Words.
FINALLY on page 149, we are properly introduced to a character who has a name, death (lower case, the author warns us). And, as we get to know her character in more detail, the lack of paragraph separation or punctuation marks, the dearth of periods, all of that no longer mattered because a beautiful and engaging story was being told. Sadly, the book is only 238 pages long.
The resulting story of death’s having a death-warning letter returned, her investigation and following love affair with a poor cellist, this could have been pulled out and kept as a perfect short story, or opened up a little into a beautiful novella.
Saramago’s descriptions are concrete and yet vague enough to keep death a mystery, “…If it’s true that she doesn’t smile, this is only because she has no lips, and this anatomical lesson tells us that, contrary to what the living may believe, a smile is not a matter of teeth.” We get to know death, the little room she dwells in, her vague hold on life, her unspoken relationship with her scythe (this I will hold onto to steal some day I am certain). We also get to know the cellist as she observes him…this is the only death-letter marked “return to sender” and frustration over this leads her to consider the interloper.
Here, death, in a time honored fashion, feels human, “death fell to her knees, for she had a body now, which is why she had legs and feet and arms and hands, and a face which she covered with her hands and shoulders, which, for some reason, were shaking, she can’t be crying…” After observing the cellist, she goes home, puts the scythe in charge for a week, takes on the form of a beautiful woman and goes back to meet the cellist in person. Of course they fall in love, and Saramego captures all of the awkwardness of a non-human who knows she has a terrible assignment–to make sure the cellist gets his letter—falling in love with her victim. And here is a perfect story.
There were no new ideas to take away (although death’s relationship with the scythe and the cellist’s with his dog will stay with me until I can steal them). But I can see how the awful first TWO THIRDS of this book were overlooked when Saramago came to his point at the end. Perhaps he is too honored or too old for his editor to have said, “Uh, José? This part at the beginning? I’m not feeling it.” So I’ll join the masses and overlook it and keep the story of death and the cellist with me. But I will stick with my belief that a story needs characters to hold onto, otherwise it ends up being just a lot of words.