The Violet Letter


Though a truism it may be to say that death is inescapable, we have become so comfortable with our mortality that it is easy to forget death’s omnipresence.  In our homes, in our subways, in our theaters, in our minds, in our bodies, in our hearts: she is everywhere, all the time.  Still, we go about our days free from the crushing weight of her constant presence, until she gently (or not) reminds us that she is still around: a drowning at a public pool, or the news from the doctor that you didn’t want to hear, or a body swinging from the overpass like a clock pendulum.  But what if she wasn’t always here?What if that water-logged swimmer climbed from the pool with lungs like filled water balloons yet still able to breathe?  What if that tumour failed to kill you, despite its necrotic appetite?  Or that hanging man measured the seconds not until your own death but until the fire brigade came to cut him down, suffering only from a black haloed throat and a still broken heart?  It is this thought experiment that begins José Saramago’s novel Death with Interruptions, a novel that suffers from a weak beginning but that ultimately triumphs.

Death with Interruptions is the story of death: of her absence, of her return, and of her humanization.  Saramago sets his novel in the perfect allegorical mise en scène: an unknown land in an unknown time, where nothing and nobody is named (except for the Roman Catholic Church).  The story, told by an unidentified narrator, whom we may or may not take to be Saramago, relates death’s absence on the first day of the new year and for the following seven months.  After initial joy comes the horror of the realisation of all that death’s absence entails.  Hospitals struggle to contain the ever-growing number of patients (with nobody dying, there is nobody leaving), as do retirement homes their residents.  Undertakers and funeral directors despair at the overnight redundancy of their industry, while life insurance brokers, somehow, still manage to come out on top.  And then she returns, explaining her absence as an experiment to see how we’d manage without her.  Deplorably, is her judgment.  But she is not without pity: she announces that, from now on, she will not be surprising people in the middle of their breakfast, or stopped at the traffic lights, engine idling as their heart stops, no, the doomed will now receive a violet letter personally written and signed by death warning them that they have one week left to say their farewells.  It is these events that set up the novel’s final third and save it from the tedium of the first two parts.

Death’s use of the postal service (which brings to mind Bellow’s lovely simile from Henderson the Rain King of tombstones in a cemetery being like the stamps that death has licked and posted) runs smoothly until she has a letter come back to her.  Angered and more than a little curious, death incognito attempts to give this man who won’t die, who doesn’t even know he’s supposed to be dead, this cellist, the letter herself.  Following him and watching him while invisible (death can do these things) she begins to fall in love with him and finally the  novel starts, and we are given this beautiful sentence:

The man stirred again, it seems as if he’s about to wake, but no, his breathing returns to its normal rhythm, the same thirteen breaths a minute, his left hand rests on his heart as if he were listening to the beats, an open note for diastole, a closed not for systole, while the right hand, palm uppermost and fingers slightly curved, seems to be waiting for another hand to clasp it.

In a book as ironic as this one, the sentence has a rare and touching honesty that comes as something of a relief.

It is a concession we willingly grant to old writers, this writing of death.  Passion and life are for the young, death and love for the old.  We see it in many great writers: Roth has his Everyman, Bellow his Henderson, Mann his Death in Venice (though, both Bellow and Mann were middle-aged at the time of writing), and Saramago now has Death with Interruptions.  Such works are often a writer’s struggle to come to terms with death, as though getting to know the face beneath the executioner’s hood will soften the blow of his axe.  Most of them confront the issue of death  by centralizing it in the life of human beings, by emphasising its importance, by acknowledging that the acceptance, and not the futile renunciation, of death is vital to “carrying life to a certain depth,” as Bellow’s Henderson has it.  In short, they acclimatize themselves to death by moving humanity closer to it.  But it is Saramago’s peculiarity to work in the reverse and move death closer to humanity, to state the importance of human beings to her, to humanize her.  This is not to disarm the reaper, but more to redress the balance: just as you can’t have a life without death, so too you can’t have death without life.

Saramago achieves this in a number of ways, but mostly through language.  His style is by now well established and his prose has been critically analysed countless times: the endless, see-sawing sentences; the paucity of punctuation; the dearth of paragraphs.  But it is the irony of this novel that is one of its great strengths.  Irony in Death with Interruptions is the province of the narrator and of death (because, with Saramago, they form a trinity).  The commonality is established when death announces her return via a letter delivered to the general director of television, a letter that is later analysed by a grammarian:

…the chaotic syntax, the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter…”

We can’t help but smile along with Saramago here.  People in Saramago’s novel seem unable to detect irony, unable to understand it.  That the narrator is capable of it is easily seen, while death’s response to the above letter contains the following:

…sir, in case you don’t know it [italics mine] words move, they change from one day to the next, they are as unstable as shadows, are themselves shadows, which both are and have ceased to be, soap bubbles, shells in which one can barely hear a whisper, mere tree stumps…

But the reason that the final part so affects us is because of what has come before it.  In the first parts of the book, the events narrated are happening to the entire population of a nation, and so the novel is decentralized, panoramic.  As he moves into the final act, Saramago begins to centre on death, and the story comes into focus: we have gone from ten million people to just two.  The sentences, too, begin to contract as death becomes increasingly humanized.  We go from sentences that are often longer than half a page, to some that are but a few words.  The effect is one of honesty and tenderness.  Simple, declarative sentences come as a relief after the endless dunes of the first parts of the book:

A minute later he was awake.  He was thirsty.  He turned on his bedside light, got up, shuffled his feet into the slippers which were, as always, providing a pillow for the dog’s head, and went into the kitchen.  Death followed him.  The man filled a glass with water and drank it.

While there are still the serpentine spools of clause upon clause to be found here, still, the closer death gets to the cellist, the more intimate they become, the more the sentences lose any superfluities, the more they shed their skin and, we might even imagine them contracting so much as to contain no words at all, to a sentence that is only a period, the final nothingness that is death.

Having fallen completely in love with her cellist, death is, in the end, unable to give him his letter, and she burns it in the kitchen sink with a match.  The violet letter, like Hawthorne’s scarlet, is a thing that marks the bearer as being an outsider of society, it distances them: this is something to whom the cellist, now so close to her, death will not do.  Words are ephemeral, are soap bubbles, shadows, ash, mortal remains; music eternal, immortal, remains.

I suspect that Saramago writes so tenderly in this last part of the book because it is where he finds himself to be.  In the beginning of the novel, as at the beginning of our lives, death is absent, we are invincible, immortal; then come the reminders, the return of death to our lives, sometimes in a near-fatal accident, but most often in the death of someone close to us.  And finally, her proximity and the sense of this, the acceptance of her approach, the resignation, and even the courtship.  That he does write here with such an intimate voice makes the first two thirds of the book, though regrettable, ultimately forgivable.


One Response to “The Violet Letter”

  1. Damian Says:

    One can only hope this is the beginning of a series on the works of Saramago.

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