Death's Absence, Writ Large And Small Two new novels explore the consequences of a personified Death who fails to perform expected duties. Jonathan Carroll's The Ghost in Love focuses on an individual saved from Death, while Jose Saramago's Death with Interruptions examines an entire nation.
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Death's Absence, Writ Large And Small

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Death's Absence, Writ Large And Small


Book Reviews

Death's Absence, Writ Large And Small

Death's Absence, Writ Large And Small

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  • Transcript
Jonathan Carroll's 'The Ghost in Love'
The Ghost in Love by Jonathan Carroll, hardcover, 320 pages
Jose Saramago's 'Death with Interruptions'
Death with Interruptions by José Saramago, hardcover, 256 pages

Two new novels featuring the Angel of Death are out this month: The Ghost In Love, by Jonathan Carroll, and Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago.

Expatriate writer Carroll is, to put it bluntly, the best writer of fantastic — notice I didn't say fantasy — novels in English, and his new work is no exception. As the result of a seemingly temporary glitch in the age-old chain of life to death, a young fellow named Ben Gould falls and hits his head on the pavement. It's a fall that should kill him — but it doesn't.

To sort things out, the Angel of Death sends a spirit named Ling to sort things out. Some job she does: She falls in love with Ben's girlfriend and cooks up a storm while longing for her. A lesbian ghost? Sure, why not?

And why a Chinese ghost? Our narrator explains:

A Chinese farmer invented the idea of ghosts three thousand years ago as a way of explaining to his precocious grandson what happens to people after they die. God thought it such a novel and useful idea he told his angels to make the concept real and allow it to flourish within the system. In honor of the inventor, ghosts have always had Chinese names.

In this passage you catch the spirit of Carroll's heavy-duty whimsy. An intense struggle follows, a battle among the various fragments of the supposed-to-be-dead man's splintering psyche, while Ling goes on longing for Ben's former girl friend.

We first meet the Angel of Death in a local cafe as he takes a meal with ghostly Ling. But Death plays only a peripheral role in all this. As he explains to Ling, Ben's fate "is out of our hands. Plus, we're fascinated to see what will happen to him now ..."

You'll be fascinated too, if you're alive to the experience of immersing yourself in the most seriously entertaining writing of the day. Though the plot sags at the very end just a bit, all the rest is absolutely brilliant.

Whatever the genre, Carroll creates novels so fascinating and intelligent and seriously delightful that no other writer in English can touch him. But in Portuguese there's Nobel-winner Jose Saramago.

Saramago's novel, Death with Interruptions, just appeared in a translation by Margaret Jull Costa, and shares some themes with Carroll's work. Death takes a holiday. But this Death is a woman, and one who has only taken a temporary break from her work.

Where Carroll focuses on how a cessation of death effects individual characters, Saramago turns his brilliant light on collective institutions. In the country where these events take place — a country much like Saramago's native Portugal — the end of death takes its toll on government, the church, the family, the army, the mafia, insurance companies, funeral homes and other established bulwarks of society.

The range of Saramago's satire seems limitless, but so does his power to humanize. Like the ghost in Carroll's novel, Death falls in love with a human being — in this case, a star cellist in a city orchestra who is scheduled to die. While attending a rehearsal, Death observes the conductor working the orchestra. As the maestro starts and stops the musical flow, Death sees herself. "That is what art is like," she concludes, "things that seem impossible to the layperson turn out not to be." And for Saramago, in his extraordinary mode in which ideas become flesh, nothing seems impossible — not even Death giving up her dominion.

Excerpt: 'The Ghost in Love'

The Ghost in Love
By Jonathan Carroll
Hardcover, 320 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $25.00
Jonathan Carroll's 'The Ghost in Love'


The ghost was in love with a woman named German Landis. Just hearing that arresting, peculiar name would have made the ghost's heart flutter if it had had one. She was coming over in less than an hour, so it was hurrying now to make everything ready. The ghost was a very good cook, sometimes a great one. If it'd spent more time at it or had more interest in the subject, it would have been exceptional.

From its large bed in a corner of the kitchen a mixed-breed, black-and-oatmeal-colored dog watched with great interest as the ghost prepared the meal. This mutt was the only reason that German Landis was coming here today. His name was Pilot, after a poem the woman loved about a Seeing Eye dog.

Suddenly sensing something, the ghost stopped what it was doing and eyeballed the dog. Peevishly, it demanded "What?"

Pilot shook his head. "Nothing. I was only watching you work."

"Liar. That is not the only thing. I know what you were thinking: that I'm an idiot to be doing this."

Embarrassed, the dog turned away and began furiously biting one of its rear paws.

"Don't do that. Look at me. You think I'm nuts, don't you?"

Pilot said nothing and kept biting his foot.

"Don't you?"

"Yes, I think you're nuts, but I also think it's very sweet. I only wish she could see what you're doing for her."

Resigned, the ghost shrugged and sighed. "It helps when I cook. When my mind is focused, I don't get so frustrated."

"I understand."

"No, you do not. How could you? You're only a dog."

The dog rolled his eyes. "Idiot."


They had a cordial relationship. Like Icelandic or Finnish, "Dog" is spoken by very few. Only dogs and dead people understand the language. When Pilot wanted to talk, he either had to get in a quick chat with whatever canine he happened to meet on the street when he was taken out for a walk three times a day, or he spoke with this ghost—who, by attrition, knew more about Pilot now than any dog had ever known. There aren't that many human ghosts in the land of the living so this one was equally happy for the dog's company.

Pilot asked, "I kept meaning to ask: Where did you get your name?"

The cook purposely ignored the dog's question and continued preparing the meal. When it needed an ingredient, it closed its eyes and held out an open hand. A moment later the thing materialized in the middle of its palm: a jungle-green lime, a small pile of red cayenne pepper, or a particularly rare saffron from Sri Lanks. Pilot watched, absorbed, never tiring of this amazing feat.

"What if you imagined an elephant? Would it appear in your hand too?"

Dicing onions now almost faster than the eye could see, the ghost grinned. "If I had a big enough hand, yes."

Excerpted from The Ghost in Love by Jonathan Carroll. Copyright © 2008 by Jonathan Carroll. Published in October 2008 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Excerpt: 'Death with Interruptions'

José Saramago's 'Death with Interruptions'
Death with Interruptions
By José Saramago
Hardcover, 256 pages
List price: $24.00

The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life's rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people's minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one. Not even from a car accident, so frequent on festive occasions, when blithe irresponsibility and an excess of alcohol jockey for position on the roads to decide who will reach death first. New year's eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities, as if old atropos with her great bared teeth had decided to put aside her shears for a day. There was, however, no shortage of blood. Bewildered, confused, distraught, struggling to control their feelings of nausea, the firemen extracted from the mangled remains wretched human bodies that, according to the mathematical logic of the collisions, should have been well and truly dead, but which, despite the seriousness of the injuries and lesions suffered, remained alive and were carried off to hospital, accompanied by the shrill sound of the ambulance sirens. None of these people would die along the way and all would disprove the most pessimistic of medical prognoses, There's nothing to be done for the poor man, it's not even worth operating, a complete waste of time, said the surgeon to the nurse as she was adjusting his mask. And the day before, there would probably have been no salvation for this particular patient, but one thing was clear, today, the victim refused to die. And what was happening here was happening throughout the country. 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, both those relating to the nub of the matter, i.e. the termination of life, and those relating to the many ways in which the aforementioned nub, with varying degrees of pomp and solemnity, chooses to mark the fatal moment. One particularly interesting case, interesting because of the person involved, was that of the very ancient and venerable queen mother. At one minute to midnight on the thirty-first of december, no one would have been so ingenuous as to bet a spent match on the life of the royal lady. With all hope lost, with the doctors helpless in the face of the implacable medical evidence, the royal family, hierarchically arranged around the bed, waited with resignation for the matriarch's last breath, perhaps a few words, a final edifying comment regarding the moral education of the beloved princes, her grandsons, perhaps a beautiful, well-turned phrase addressed to the ever ungrateful memory of future subjects. And then, as if time had stopped, nothing happened. The queen mother neither improved nor deteriorated, she remained there in suspension, her frail body hovering on the very edge of life, threatening at any moment to tip over onto the other side, yet bound to this side by a tenuous thread to which, out of some strange caprice, death, because it could only have been death, continued to keep hold. We had passed over to the next day, and on that day, as we said at the beginning of this tale, no one would die.

It was already late afternoon when the rumor began to spread that, since the beginning of the new year, or more precisely since zero hour on this first day of January, there was no record in the whole country of anyone dying. You might think, for example, that the rumor had its origins in the queen mother's surprising resistance to giving up the little life that was left to her, but the truth is that the usual medical bulletin issued to the media by the palace's press office not only stated that the general state of the royal patient had shown visible signs of improvement during the night, it even suggested, indeed implied, choosing its words very carefully, that there was a chance that her royal highness might be restored to full health. In its initial form, the rumor might also have sprung, naturally enough, from an undertaker's, No one seems to want to die on this first day of the new year, or from a hospital, That fellow in bed twenty-seven can't seem to make up his mind one way or the other, or from a spokesman for the traffic police, It's really odd, you know, despite all the accidents on the road, there hasn't been a single death we can hold up as a warning to others. The rumor, whose original source was never discovered, although, of course, this hardly mattered in the light of what came afterward, soon reached the newspapers, the radio and the television, and immediately caused the ears of directors, assistant directors and editors-in-chief to prick up, for these are people not only primed to sniff out from afar the major events of world history, they're also trained in the ability, when it suits, to make those events seem even more major than they really are. In a matter of minutes, dozens of investigative journalists were out on the street asking questions of any Joe Schmo who happened by, while the ranks of telephones in the throbbing editorial offices stirred and trembled in an identical investigatory frenzy. Calls were made to hospitals, to the red cross, to the morgue, to funeral directors, to the police, yes, all of them, with the understandable exception of the secret branch, but the replies given could be summed up in the same laconic words, There have been no deaths. A young female television reporter had more luck when she interviewed a passer-by, who kept glancing alternately at her and at the camera, and who described his personal experience, which was identical to what had happened to the queen mother, The church clock was striking midnight, he said, when, just before the last stroke, my grandfather, who seemed on the very point of expiring, suddenly opened his eyes as if he'd changed his mind about the step he was about to take, and didn't die. The reporter was so excited by what she'd heard that, ignoring all his pleas and protests, No, senhora, I can't, I have to go to the chemist's, my grandfather's waiting for his prescription, she bundled him into the news car, Come with me, your grandfather doesn't need prescriptions any more, she yelled, and ordered the driver to go straight to the television studio, where, at that precise moment, everything was being set up for a debate between three experts on paranormal phenomena, namely, two highly regarded wizards and a celebrated clairvoyant, hastily summoned to analyze and give their views on what certain wags, the kind who have no respect for anything, were already beginning to refer to as a death strike. The bold reporter was, however, laboring under the gravest of illusions, for she had interpreted the words of her interviewee as meaning that the dying man had, quite literally, changed his mind about the step he was about to take, namely, to die, cash in his chips, kick the bucket, and so had decided to turn back.

Now, the words that the happy grandson had pronounced, As if he'd changed his mind, were radically different from a blunt, He changed his mind. An elementary knowledge of syntax and a greater familiarity with the elastic subtleties of tenses would have avoided this blunder, as well as the subsequent dressing-down that the poor girl, scarlet with shame and humiliation, received from her immediate superior. Little could they, either he or she, have imagined that these words, repeated live by the interviewee and heard again in recorded form on that evening's news bulletin, would be interpreted in exactly the same mistaken way by millions of people, and that an immediate and disconcerting consequence of this would be the creation of a group firmly convinced that with the simple application of will-power they, too, could conquer death and that the undeserved disappearance of so many people in the past could be put down solely to a deplorable weakness of will on the part of previous generations. But things would not stop there. People, without having to make any perceptible effort, continued not to die, and so another popular mass movement, endowed with a more ambitious vision of the future, would declare that humanity's greatest dream since the beginning of time, the happy enjoyment of eternal life here on earth, had become a gift within the grasp of everyone, like the sun that rises every day and the air that we breathe. Although the two movements were both competing, so to speak, for the same electorate, there was one point on which they were able to agree, and that was on the nomination as honorary president, given his eminent status as pioneer, of the courageous veteran who, at the final moment, had defied and defeated death. As far as anyone knows, no particular importance would be given to the fact that grandpa remained in a state of profound coma, which everything seems to indicate is irreversible.

From Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, copyright © Jose Saramago and Editorial Caminho S.A., Lisbon 2005, English translation copyright © Margaret Jull Costa 2008. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.