“The following day, no one died." So begins Jose Saramago's latest fabulist parable, following Blindness and The Cave, as he teases out the implications of his metaphysical twist.
In a certain country, death takes a holiday, sparing persons about to die but relegating them to perpetual death-but-not-death. It creates huge stresses on insurance and funeral industries, and the "eventide homes." Relatives tire of the burden, and a "maphia" arises to help transport the not-dead across the frontier, where they instantly expire. The church faces a crisis, since without death there can be no resurrection.
Saramago predicates that only the final act of life, death, is interrupted, not the degradation of the human body, so the bureaucratic dysfunction is rather contrived. Yet this constraint reveals how comfortable we have become with the reality of death, having reduced it to functional abstraction.
Death soon interrupts her interruption, announcing she will instead send violet-colored letters warning people a week before they die, which creates its own problems.
Most excruciating for death, one of the letters, destined for a lonely cellist with a dog, keeps being returned undelivered. In the second half of the book, death assumes the form of an attractive woman to personally deliver the letter, and Saramago descends from the jingoistic macro to the lyrical micro level, exposing the dysfunction in death itself when it too has to confront uncertainty. Will death overcome her growing sympathy for the cellist enough to perform her mission? Or can death be vulnerable to the ambiguous charms of life?
The unexpected payoff, for the reader willing to accept Saramago's idiosyncratic style, is the humanist's victory over the institutions set up to manage our fears, neutering us as creative beings. Death is the only thing that is absolutely not an abstraction. We violate this at grave risk.
Anis Shivani's collection, ''Anatolia and Other Stories,'' will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2009.