Monday, December 22, 2008

Literature with interruptions

All those words to say the same sad thing. That’s what these people are like, they’re never quite sure what they mean.

--Jose Saramago from "Death with Interruptions"

I’ve told this story elsewhere, you may have seen it. If so, don't worry, or stop reading. It’s apropos here for entirely different reasons. This time it's about literature, not religion.

One fateful day, I think it was sometime in the autumn of 1999, I randomly picked up two superficially related books that would lead, each in its own way, to a lot more reading over the years. The first was “The Jesus Legend” by George Albert Wells which would serve as my introduction to the study of first century Palestine and the historicity, or not, of the Jesus character in the Bible. The second book was “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” a novel by soon-to-be Nobel Laureate for Literature Jose Saramago. The Wells book demonstrated that what so many people take for truth can be mostly fiction. The Saramago book demonstrated how much truth can be contained in a work that is unapologetically fiction. The Wells book led me off in one direction to read a lot more New Testament studies. The Saramago book took me down another path. Reading Jose Saramago.

This passage form “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” provides a good introduction to Saramago. You’ll immediately note his idiosyncratic style. Long run-on sentences, non-standard punctuation, particularly for dialogue. Quite a bit of rambling. Beautiful language on occasion.The rare flash of stunning insight into the human condition. The following scene takes place at the end of the time Jesus spent with Satan in the wilderness. God has just appeared.

"To hear you Lord is to Obey, but I have one more question. Stop asking Me questions. Please, Lord, I must. Very well then, speak. Can I save my sheep. So that's what's bothering you. Yes, that's all, may I. No. Why not. Because you must offer it in sacrifice to Me to seal our covenant. You mean this sheep. Yes. Let me choose another from the flock, I'll be right back. You heard Me, I want this one. But Lord, can't you see, its ear has been clipped. You are mistaken, take a good look, the ear is perfect. It isn't possible. I am the Lord, and with the Lord all things are possible. But this is my sheep. Again you are mistaken, the lamb was Mine and you took it from Me, now you will recompense Me with the sheep. Your will be done, for You rule the universe, and I am Your servant. Then offer this sheep in sacrifice, or there will be no covenant. Take pity on me, Lord, I stand here naked and have neither cleaver nor knife, said Jesus, hoping he might still be able to save the sheep's life, but God said, I would not be God if I were unable to solve this problem, here. No sooner had he finished speaking than a brand-new cleaver lay at Jesus' feet. Now quickly, said God, for I have work to do and cannot stay here chatting all day long. Grasping the cleaver by the handle, Jesus went to the sheep. It raised its head and hardly recognized him, never having seen him naked before, and as everyone knows, these animals do not have a strong sense of smell. Do you weep, God asked. The cleaver went up, took aim, and came down as swiftly as an executioner's ax or the guillotine, which has not yet been invented. The sheep did not even whimper. All one could hear was, Ah, as God gave a deep sigh of satisfaction. Jesus asked Him, May I go now. You may, and don't forget, from now on you are tied to Me in flesh and blood. How should I take my leave of You. It doesn't matter, for Me there is no front or back, but it's customary to back away from me, bowing as you go. Tell me, Lord. What a tiresome fellow you are, what's bothering you now. The shepherd who owns the flock, What shepherd, My master, What about him, Is he an angel or a demon, He's someone I know. But tell me, is he an angel or a demon. I've already told you, for God there is no front or back, good-bye for now. The column of smoke was gone, and the sheep too, all that remained were drops of blood, and they were trying to hide in the soil.

When Jesus returned, Pastor stared at him and asked, Where's the sheep, and he explained, I met God. I didn't ask you if you met God, I asked you if you found the sheep. I offered it in sacrifice. Whatever for. Because God was there and I had no choice. With the tip of his crook, Pastor drew a line on the ground, a furrow deep as a pit, insurmountable as a wall of fire, then told him, You've learned nothing, begone with you."

See what I mean? Great piece, eh? After “The Gospel” I started reading his other novels. He is most famous for “Blindness,” which is undoubtedly one of the most brutal books ever written. Why anyone would want to see, let alone, make, a movie based on that novel is a mystery. Then there was “All the Names,” “The Cave,” “The History of the Siege of Lisbon,” “The Double” and “Seeing,” which is a sequel of sorts to “Blindness.” If I had to choose, I guess I'd say "Seeing" is his best. I'm not sure a lot of people would agree with me on that.

Much of Saramago’s work seems based on thought experiments. What if everyone suddenly became blind? What if they discovered the poor souls in Plato’s cave living below a modern apartment building? What if they held an election and no one showed up to vote? Maybe you can get away with it once, but after a few novels it starts to get a bit irritating. And the rambling can definitely be a put-off. I'd quote an irritating passage, they're not hard to find, but I figure I'm lucky if you've stayed with me this far. Saramago typically has one major idea whose plot progression could be easily managed in short story, yet he strings it out in sentences that span pages and paragraphs that become long chapters. I often question why I’m reading that shit. But then a passage comes along that just knocks me over. Or the story arrives at an emotional payoff that you don’t see coming but hits you like an oncoming tractor trailer. Reading Saramago, for me at least, is a love/hate kinda thing.

Anyway, his new novel, “Death with Interruptions” begins with one of those thought experiments. What if nobody died? Okay. Think about it. What if nobody died? People would still suffer, wouldn’t they? Suffer horribly, no? How would the government react? How would organized crime take advantage of it? Saramago’s novels are (or maybe they're not) typically strong on what you might (or might not) call “character development,” but most of “Death with Interruptions” has no characters at all. It's all about broad happenings. But slowly death (with a small d) is introduced as a character. After eight months or so she allows people to start dying again, but now she gives them a week’s notice with a violet-colored letter. Another thought experiment? What would happen if everyone received a warning from death?

From there Saramago finally gets to the heart of the story. One of the letters keeps being returned to sender. The appointed hour of one man’s death, an obscure cellist, inexplicably passes. death goes to investigate and make things right and restore the order of things. Before you know it death has become a compelling character. Here’s a good passage. death goes to see the cellist in concert:
“The orchestra has fallen silent. The cellist starts to play his solo as if he had been born for that alone. He doesn’t know the woman in the box has in her brand-new handbag a violet-colored letter addressed to him, he doesn’t know, how could he, and yet he plays as if he were bidding farewell to the world, as if he were at last saying everything that he had always kept unsaid, the truncated dreams, the frustrated yearnings, in short, life. The other musicians stare at him in amazement, the conductor with surprise and respect, the audience sighs, a shudder runs through them, and the veil of pity that clouded the sharp gaze of the eagle is now a veil of tears. The solo is over, the orchestra washed over the cello’s song like a great slow sea, gently submerging it, absorbing and amplifying that song as if to lead it into a place where music was transmuted into silence, into the merest shadow of a vibration that touched the skin like the final, inaudible murmur of a kettle drum on which a passing butterfly had momentarily alighted. the silken, malevolent flight of acherontia atropos fluttered quickly through death’s memory, but she brushed it away with a wave of her hand...”

Typical Saramago. Often frustrating. Sometimes brilliant. Well worth the effort.

Ed. note: Long time readers may note that I've quoted that same long passage from "The Gospel" and made a few similar points in much earlier posts. If so, I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me. One, that passage is just so great, I can't think of any good reason you wouldn't want to read it many times (read it again, tell me I'm wrong) and two, I seem to have a few more readers than I did back then so a few people probably missed it.