Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Death With Interruptions, by José Saramago

Harcourt, 2008
originally published as As intermitências da morte, 2005
translated by Margaret Jull Costa
238 pp


"It’s not that I’m laughing at death, because no one can laugh at it. But why take it so seriously?" -- 
                                José Saramago,  LA Weekly

Like the author, we may not laugh at death, but in this novel there's a lot of black humor that surfaces surrounding death, or rather its absence.  Life in one unnamed country changes when, on New Year's Day  "no one died."
"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..."
but everything  changed since that "zero hour"  and "there was no record in the whole country of anyone dying."    At first, this phenomenon was seen by some as "humanity's greatest dream since the beginning of time," and after a few days, even the pessimists and skeptics joined others in the streets "to proclaim that life is beautiful."  It doesn't take too long, though, for the problems inherent in such a situation to arise, and they do so in a very big way.  The Church is less than happy since, as one cardinal notes, "without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection, there is no church," along with myriad other problems; then of course the funerary businesses weigh in, as do the hospitals, homes for the aged and infirm, the life insurance companies, etc., etc.  Then, of course, there are the family members taking care of their terminally ill, who will themselves one day become too old to continue to give their loved ones the care they need; even more importantly, the question becomes one of "how the country in years to come" would be able to continue paying the "millions of people" who receive disability pensions, who would "for all eternity" be "joined by millions of others."  And that's just the tip of the iceberg as people begin to realize that eternal life, this "global gift," this "greatest marvel ever," is, in fact, the opposite.  As things are coming to a head, though, death (with a lower-case d) speaks, and new rules are formulated between herself and "mortals," leading to the second part of this book which personifies death herself and leads her to an encounter with some very unexpected results.

So far none of what I've described here can fall under the aegis of "black humor," really, as people begin to wake up to the nightmare that death's absence has brought to this country, but up until that time, Saramago takes us along for the responses from politicians and the government, the Church, philosophers, the people themselves, the criminal underworld, and especially the media.  There is more than a touch of irony here that makes for simultaneous fun and serious reading, and I kind of see it as a way in which he asks his readers to question the answers received from all of these institutions in the event of a crisis. I could be off base here, but certainly it's something I'll take away from this novel.

I've seen some reader reviews of this novel that call it a "philosophical novel," and while the author is definitely asking people to think here, for me it goes well beyond that label. There's a lot going on in here with language and ideas, and while some people have commented on their dislike of Saramago's writing style, I have to disagree.  I think his style is actually rather brilliant.  In fact, I enjoyed the book immensely,  heard myself laughing through parts of it and I can certainly recommend it.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

Riverhead Books, 2017
276 pp

"All these things happen according to the law, but not according to justice."
                                          -- 237

When deciding which, if any books on this year's Man Booker Prize longlist I wanted to read, I came across a review on NPR that said " 'Home Fire' Puts a Topical Spin on Ancient Greek Tragedy." I didn't go on to read that review (which is standard operating procedure for me) because I don't want someone else's ideas in my head while reading the book, but wondering which greek tragedy the author was going to rework,  I kept looking.  Then I came to the New York Times review that revealed that Home Fire was "a bold retelling of Sophocles' 'Antigone,' " and that's all I needed to know. Book bought, book read, and I wasn't disappointed.  In conjunction with the second read of this novel, I also read Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone, one of the sources the author notes at the end of her book. I wasn't disappointed in that book either, although for sure there's no beating Sophocles' original.  

Home Fire is yet another one of those novels best left to readers to experience so this post will be brief. The story centers around the Pasha family living in London.  The elder sister, Isma, had been like a parent to her younger twin siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz since the death of their mother; their father had been imprisoned at Bagram and had died on the way to Guantanamo.   As the story opens, Isma is in America, having been detained at the airport in London  to answer ridiculous questions about her British patriotism, simply by virtue of being a Muslim.  She has come to the US to continue her graduate studies, keeping in touch with her sister via Skype, but with her brother it's obviously a different story.  We're not sure what's happening with him; all we know is that something has gone very wrong and Isma is extremely  concerned.  While in Amherst,  Isma happens to meet Eamonn, the son of a British politician who takes an incredibly tough stance on immigration issues.  As the dustjacket blurb says, the "two families' fates" will become "inextricably, devastatingly entwined," but how that happens I won't say.

The story is revealed from the viewpoints of the major characters in this novel, and unfolds little by little until we have a very clear picture of exactly what's going on.  Betrayals abound, and as in Antigone, family and other loyalties are tested, especially those between the individual and the state, but this book goes beyond a "retelling" or a rehashing of Sophocles' work to become something original in itself.  While it starts out rather slowly, later around chapter five it becomes a bit of a nail biter, leading to a most dramatic, surprising ending.

While I didn't exactly love this novel, I found myself caught up in it and couldn't let it go until it was over.  I found it to be topical and especially relevant to our world today and in that sense, it's a book that should not be missed.   Readers contemplating this novel don't necessarily need to have familiarity with Antigone, and in a big way (meaning if you don't want to know what's coming down the pike)  it might be better to read Shamsie's book first and then go to the play afterward, and Heaney's book provides an updated version written in modern English.

I certainly recommend this novel --  it didn't make it to the Man Booker Prize shortlist but it's very much worth reading.  And don't read any summaries that give away too much  before reading it!