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Death's Absence, Writ Large And Small

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:

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.

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Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.