Death at Intervals by Jose Saramago
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Some books have a way of shaking and moving you to the core which sets them apart from others. This is one of those books, and quite how I’m going to be able to write about it meaningfully in this post is a bit beyond me at the moment – but I shall try my best…

Jose Saramago was a Portuguese Nobel laureate, but I have to confess that I’d not come across his work until recently. His name’s turned up on blogs I follow, and so I’ve taken the chance to pick up the occasional book of his when I stumbled on them. However, I read a review of this one recently, and I was so grabbed by the sound of it that I sent off for a copy. It arrived, and after a glance at the first page I had to stop what I was reading and carry on with “Death…”

This slim novel tells the story of a small unnamed country in which death decides to stop paying her regular calls on the populace. Starting one New Year’s Day, nobody dies – not at all, not in any circumstances, even if they were on their deathbeds. Mortality is suspended, and for a while there is rejoicing. However, it soon becomes clear that this situation is not as good as it seems, as there are implications for the funeral industry, the medical industry, care homes and of course the government and the financial systems. Radical solutions are needed (and in fact some citizens do come up with ingenious ways to resolve the issue of a lingering relative) but the long-term prospects for the country are not good.

And here I hit my first issue. I don’t want to reveal much of what happens in the rest of the book because I don’t want to ruin the impact; even what appears in the blurb on the back of my copy tells me too much! Suffice to say that things take a number of dramatic turns for the country and then the story switches from the general to the very specific as we follow the twists and turns of the narrator’s story of the adventures of death. I’m not saying more if I can help it about the plot because I *really* want you all to rush out and read this yourself.

By the way, we feel we must mention that death, by herself and alone, with no external help, has always killed far less than mankind has.

But I can perhaps talk about the themes and also Saramago’s writing, which is experimental and rather wonderful. From what I’ve seen online, the style here is typical of his books, with long sinuous sentences, often a page long. He eschews most traditional forms of punctuation and speech between characters tak s place within one long sentence, the speakers being differentiated usually by a capital letter beginning their part of the conversation. It sounds more complicated than it is to read, and I found myself drawn into the rather poetic rhythms of the prose. It reminded me a little of “Malacqua” although there is even less traditional structure here; but both authors produce some very beautiful prose.

Rudely deprived of their raw material, the owners began by making the classic gesture of putting their hands to their heads and wailing in mournful chorus, Now what’s going to become of us, but then, faced by the prospect of a catastrophic collapse from which no one in the funeral trade would escape, they called a general meeting, at the end of which, after heated discussions, all of them unproductive because all of them, without exception, ran up against the indestructible wall of death’s refusal to collaborate, the same death to which they had become accustomed, from parents down to children, as something which was their natural due, they finally approved a document to be submitted to the government for their consideration, which document adopted the only constructive proposals, well, constructive, but also hilarious, that had been presented at the debate, They’ll laugh at us, warned the chairman, but I recognise that we have no other way out, it’s either this or the ruin of the undertaking business.

“Death…” sounds I suppose potentially a bit grim, because of the subject matter; however, it’s actually remarkably funny in places and I found myself laughing out loud in places at the dry humour. However, this is balanced by the more serious moral and ethical questions the book raises; for example, if you find a loophole which allows you to help your suffering relatives to escape into death, are you actually guilty of murder?

I found “Death…” a completely absorbing and stimulating read, and one underlying element is the use of language, its complexities and failings which are constantly referenced. In a telling paragraph, Saramago rather self-mockingly alludes to the actual style of writing he’s using to narrate his story…

And then, he said, there’s the calligraphy, which is strangely irregular, it’s as if it combined all the known ways, both possible and aberrant, of forming the letters of the latin alphabet, as if each had been written by a different person, but that could be forgiven, one could even consider it a minor defect given 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, which, can you imagine, is even omitted from the actual signature of the letter and replaced by a lower-case d.

Even when describing a particular character’s appearance, he can’t help returning to the use of words with a wry nod to the limitations of writing to communicate:

… pretty in a very particular, indefinable way that couldn’t be put into words, like a line of poetry whose ultimate meaning, if such a thing exists in a line of poetry, continually escapes the translator.

These continual arch in-jokes allow our very knowing narrator to take the meta element even further, leaving the reader wrong-footed and wondering where the story will go next.

… because, sir, in case you don’t know it, 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…

The book has a wonderfully satirical edge, particularly in the first half which is sharply observant of how people and politicians behave in extreme circumstances. The various organisations, from the church through to the maphia (spelled that way to differentiate them from the ‘mafia’) all have their own take on the crisis, dealing with it in their own way and trying to turn it to their advantage. One particularly wonderful section had some marvellously funny dialogue between an apprentice philosopher and a spirit hovering over the aquarium where he’s feeding his goldfish which questions the very nature and concept of depth, contemplating whether death itself is different for every species. Although this again sounds potentially heavy, Saramago has such a light touch that you find yourself thinking deep thoughts without even noticing it; and the humour he builds into the narrative balances any hint of ponderousness.

The second part of the book, the more personal part if you will, was actually remarkably moving, taking in human frailties, love and death, the power of music and the trust between humans and animals. I was on the edge of my reading chair as I got close to the end, and the finale was powerful, perhaps revealing exactly what it is that makes us human. I’ve gone back to re-read the last few pages a couple of times and the emotional heft has not diminished…

So my first reading of a Saramago book, picked up on a whim, turned out to be a powerful experience and this has got to be one of my books of the year (and we’re only in March!) I’ve no idea if this is typical of his work, but if my experience is anything to go by “Death at Intervals” is definitely a good way to get to know this wonderful author. I’m left not only wanting to read more of his works, but also quite sure I will want to revisit this book over the years.