The philosopher Bernard Williams once wrote a paper, “The Makropulos Case,” in which he argued that eternal life would be so tedious that no one could bear it. According to Williams, the constancy that defines an eternal self would entail an infinite desert of repetitive experiences, lest the self be so altered as to be emptied of any definition. That is why, in the play by Karel Capek from which Williams takes his title, the three-hundred-and-forty-two-year-old Elina Makropulos, having imbibed the elixir of eternal life since the age of forty-two, chooses to discontinue the regimen, and dies. Life needs death to constitute its meaning; death is the black period that orders the syntax of life.

In “Death with Interruptions” (translated, from the Portuguese, by Margaret Jull Costa; Harcourt; $24), José Saramago, a writer whose long, uninterrupted sentences are relative strangers to the period, has produced a novel that functions as a thought experiment in the Capek/Williams field. (His novel makes no explicit allusion to either.) At midnight on one New Year’s Eve, in a nameless, landlocked country of about ten million inhabitants, Death declares a truce with humanity, a self-interruption, so as to give people an idea of what it would be like to live forever.

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