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The novels of Portuguese writer José Saramago often begin with an unfathomable event that takes place without any direct cause or prelude. Those events can be intimate, as in 2003’s The Double, in which a man sets out to find a bit player in a film who’s his exact look-alike. They can also be gigantic, as in 1986’s The Stone Raft, in which the Iberian peninsula breaks off from Europe and drifts out to the Atlantic. In 1995’s Blindness, he depicted an epidemic of white blindness that is fueled by the selfish actions taken to avoid it; the novel helped earn him the Nobel prize and also marked a sudden shift by the 85-year-old author from specifically Portuguese and cultural concerns to panoramic reflections on the whole of humanity. He preserves that perspective in his most recent novel, Death With Interruptions, first published in 2005. The story begins on New Year’s Day in an unnamed country where, contrary to the day’s ordinarily sobering atmosphere, citizens discover that no one has died since midnight. The initial enthusiasm for this turn of events is tempered by the fact that death’s usual business—grisly accidents, illnesses, aging—continues unabated. Still, plenty changes: The would-be debauched now pursue their dreams with wild abandon, shrewd folks cancel their life-insurance policies, retirement home managers begin to fret about their business model, and the people who staff them find that their jobs have become much more draining. Soon, society seems about to collapse simply out of fear of collapse, and the government begins cooperating with a criminal syndicate that will, for a price, transport residents across state boundaries, where people still die as usual. Saramago notes the brutal irony in all this: “If we don’t start dying again, we have no future,” as one character puts it. Though it sounds like a gloomy enterprise, the narrative is shot through with an indefatigable humanism. There are dozens of characters, and Saramago roves from one to the next while rarely returing to a particular one. Yet even characters who appear for only a few pages earn the reader’s sympathy—including Death herself, who emerges in the second half of the novel. Saramago’s interest in everyday life in the midst of this absurdity keeps the story from drowning in fantasy, and it’s more intricately imagined than if a couple of scientists had run it through a particle accelerator. For instance, we learn that a cellist is spared picking up after his dog thanks to the pooch itself, “who is of the opinion that a musician, a cellist, and artists who struggles to be able to give a decent rendition of suite number six opus one thousand and twelve in d major by bach did not come into the world in order to pick up the still-steaming poop of his dog or anyone else’s.” Luckily, in Margaret Jull Costa, Saramago has a translator who can capture his idiomatic language without losing the broader narrative. It’s a big picture—and one worth seeing.