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Some thoughts on the @VersoBooks Book Club – plus a little giveaway! :D

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If you follow me on Twitter you’ll no doubt have seen me regularly complaining ruefully about the wonderful offers the left-wing publisher Verso Books often runs; they’ve been responsible for any number of volumes arriving on the TBR, and a quick glance over the shelves revealed I have a surprising number of their books lurking on there! I’m refusing to say how many are hanging about digitally…..

Just a few of my Verso books….

So when they announced not only offers to celebrate their 50th birthday but also a new book club, I was really sorely tempted. In the end I caved in – first off, these two books arrived on the shelves at half price and I was *very* excited! Another Saramago plus a book about walking (of which I do a lot…) – treats!

However, the book club was also appealing. At half price for the first few months, I would get a physical book every month (a choice of two) as well as digital copies of all new releases. Plus the Verso diary and a notebook as well. Blimey – what’s not to love! I’m a big fan of Verso, because their focus is pretty wide – though they lean to the left, it isn’t all just dry politics, they cover art, culture, philosophy, gender studies, architecture, history, sociology, ecology, music, economics, race – you name it, they probably have a book which fits into the category in which you’re interested. And there are so many favourite authors – Sartre, Benjamin, Saramago, Berger – well, you can see why I’m often tempted.

So needless to say I succumbed… I signed up for the Verso Book Club, and the first two months have brought forth the physical delights shown above! The digital delights are – well, there’s tons of them (as you can see from the list below)!! I probably have at least a year’s reading already, which is rather wonderful, and there are lots of titles I’ve wanted to read for ages so that’s a bonus! October’s looking good too…

The observant amongst you might have noticed that there are two copies of “Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal” on the stacks above and there’s a good reason for that, which I’ll come to. This was the September Book Club title, and I was very excited about this, as Noam Chomsky is an author I first encountered in my teens and for whom I have a great deal of respect. I’ve begun to dip into this book which looks scarily relevant; the first pages reveal that the Doomsday Clock is now pointing to 100 seconds…

You might recall my coverage of Richard Clay’s excellent radio programme “Two Minutes to Midnight” back in 2018, which looked at our attitude to nuclear annihilation. To realise that we’ve now reached an even closer point is shocking, and you can still catch up with Richard’s programme here – it makes sobering and fascinating listening…

But I digress… Owing to a glitch in their systems, Verso sent out two copies of “Climate Change…” to me this month. I contacted them and offered to return it, but they were happy that I didn’t and so instead I thought I would offer this as a giveaway to anyone who is interested. This will have to be UK only I’m afraid, as overseas postage has shot up horrendously lately. So if you would like the book, please leave a comment and perhaps suggest an independent publisher you recommend that I should support – as I’m most definitely in the state of mind to keep doing that at the moment!

Meantime, if you’re interested in reading thought-provoking books, I definitely recommend you take a look at Verso’s list – there’s an awful lot of good stuff there! As for me – well, I’m thinking I may have to start a dedicated Verso bookshelf… ;D

“Metaphors have always been the best way of explaining things” #saramago #spanishlitmonth

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All the Names by Jose Saramago
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Why is it that reading Jose Saramago emotionally wrecks me?? I first encountered him back in 2018, when I read and raved about his “Death at Intervals“; I absolutely adored it, and the ending so floored me that I had to sit down and do some deep breathing… In fact, I may have gone back and re-read it several times! Since then, I’ve amassed several of his books but haven’t yet picked another up; I think possibly I was a little scared in case it didn’t live up to “Death…” However, I was impelled to pick up a copy of “All the Names” fairly recently when I read about it somewhere online; and I wish I could remember where, but anyway, it really sounded like it might have the same effect on me. And when Stu said that special dispensation could be given to reading Saramago during Spanish Lit Month, despite the fact he wrote in Portugese, this was definitely the book I was going to pick up!

Saramago was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and “All the Names” was his thirteenth novel, first published in 1997. It’s set in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths of an unspecified city; the Registry is a heirarchical, old fashioned establishment with, it’s impossible not to say, very Kafkaesque (or possibly Gormenghastian) features. Holding the archive of records for the city stretching back endlessly into the past, it’s run on a rigidly ordered structure, with status cascading down from the all powerful Registrar through the different strata of clerks. This kind of bureacracy will be quite familiar to anyone who’s worked in offices or government departments, I’m sure…

There are people like Senhor José everywhere, who fill their time, or what they believe to be their spare time, by collecting stamps, coins, medals, vases, postcards, matchboxes, books, clocks, sport shirts, autographs, stones, clay figurines, empty beverage cans, little angels, cacti, opera programmes, lighters, pens, owls, music boxes, bottles, bonsai trees, paintings, mugs, pipes, glass obelisks, ceramic ducks, old toys, carnival masks, and they probably do so out of something that we might call metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe…

Our protagonist is one Senhor José, a lowly general clerk on the bottom rung of the ladder; aged around 50 and timid, he’s also the only remaining clerk to live in a hovel attached to the Registry, the last one of a whole set where clerks used to live. His life is existence in the most basic sense, governed by the rules and regulations of the registry to whom he gives his all; and his only hobby is secretly collecting data on famous people. As Senhor José’s home is attached to the Registry and has the only other entrance to it, he’s able to sneak in after hours to collect the data cards on the celebrities. But one night, by pure chance, he picks up an extra record card with the bundle of celebrities, that of an unknown woman. This simple action sends his life off track, as he decides to investigate and track down the woman from the meagre information the Registry holds; and the investigation will cause our poor timid clerk to go off in some very odd directions!

That simple description belies the complexity and sheer genius of “All the Names”, which is just as frankly brilliant as “Death at Intervals”. Saramago’s unique, ostensibly meandering, sinuous sentence structure is well to the fore, and he does, of course, do without most conventional punctuation. I don’t find this makes him at all difficult to read; on the contrary, I think the way he writes has much to do with the impact of his stories, as the cumulative effect of the narrative building up means that his endings are quietly devastating. I also find it a joy to read.

… a cloud that passes without leaving behind it any trace…

Then there’s his description, and the way he builds up the world in which his story takes place. Here, much is obviously set in the vast labyrinthine structure of the Registry, which is wonderfully conjured and almost a character in its own right. The records are divided into two parts, and of course the section for the dead *will* keep increasing; hence the back wall is constantly having to be demolished (so that the area can be extended) and then rebuilt. This has resulted in a maze-like setting of old papers which is so warren-like that no archivist sets out to explore it without an Ariadne’s thread in the form of a ball of string attached to the ankle so they can find their way back… The regulations are strict, often petty, and work is done with pen and ink, despite progress.

Intriguingly, as we follow Senhor José on his investigations, we see more of the city. He tries to build up a picture of the women, visiting her godmother, breaking into her old school (and having to explore more dusty archives!) and eventually discovering that the Registry has a twin in the city – the Cemetery, which is subject to similar hierarchies to the Registry, and also struggles with a similar problem of expansion, so that its walls have simply been removed and it spreads where it needs to. Here, Senhor José will encounter the physical records of the dead as well as encountering a very singular shepherd in the morning mist and what are probably metaphorical sheep!

It has long been known that death, either through innate incompetence or duplicity acquired through experience, does not choose its victims according to length of life, a fact which, moreover, let it be said in passing, and if one is to believe the words of the innumerable philosophical and religious authorities who have pronounced on the subject, has, indirectly and by different and sometimes contradictory routes, had a paradoxical effect on human beings, and has produced in them an intellectual sublimation of their very natural fear of dying.

I don’t want to say too much more about what happens in the book, because I’ve found that much the joy of reading Saramago comes from having no idea where he will take you, or how he’ll end his story – both of the books I’ve read have had unexpected conclusions which took my breath away. And yet, once you’ve got there, the ending is the right one, and the only possible one.

... the one certainty we have, that we were, are and will be dust, and that we will be lost in another night as dark as that first night.

“All the Names” is, of course, very allegorical; and like “Death…” is more that just an entertaining tale. The whole concept of naming things is very human, and in fact is often equated with an act of creation. It’s also a way of humanising and therefore personalising people, things, places; and remembering names of those missing or lost under totalitarian regimes is a powerful way of keeping them alive in our memories. This, of course, gives the Registry considerable power; and presiding over the various clerks is the unusual and compelling figure of the current Registrar. He’s an intriging figure in his own right; about as far away and out of reach of Senhor José as you would think is possible, nevertheless at points in the book he breaks protocol and addresses our hero directly. It seems he may have an unexpected effect on events. It’s worth noting, too, that name-wise, Senhor José is the only character in the book to have one. Everyone else either has a title, such as the Registrar, or a description, like the lady in the ground-floor apartment, which certainly serves to give our José prominence!

Jose Saramago c. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Once more, I was completely seduced by Saramago’s writing, and I think I’ll have a book hangover for ages now. “All the Names” is such a multilayered book, one with so many hidden depths and which I think is really not about what it initially seems to be. Why *should* a meek clerk develop such an obsession with a woman he’s never seen? One character calls it love, and certainly that emotion seemed me to be at the heart of “Death at Intervals”, much as it is here. I love Saramago’s way of building in deeper issues in a quirky way; for example, in the sections where Senhor José has philosophical conversations with his ceiling! It’s one of those books which you could spend so much time on, trying to pick up every little nuance and reference (now there’s a retirement project for me); but briefly it seemed to me to be an entertaining yet profound exploration of the boundaries between the living and the dead (which become blurred not only in the Registry but also in the Cemetery…) “All the Names” was the perfect read for Spanish Lit Month, and I’m so glad Stu decided to allow Portugese books, because I loved this and it will join “Death at Intervals” on my desert island books list! 😀

Back to books! Plus a little bookish eye-candy…😉

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Well, you could be forgiven for thinking that I was about to rename the blog Kaggsy’s Iconoclastic Ramblings or Kaggsy’s Documentary Ramblings, given that I’ve been off on a bit of a tangent recently! I thoroughly enjoyed my time in “Viral” land, as well as running the interview with Richard Clay, and as this is my space in the InterWeb, I reserve the right to do whatever I want with it! But the focus on the Ramblings will always be on the written word and so it’s probably about time we had some more gratuitous pictures of books!

And I had thought that I was being good, until I looked back over my spreadsheet of arrivals and realised that actually quite a number had managed to sneak their way into the house. In mitigation, a *lot* of these are review copies (which I’m very happy about) – but nevertheless they are here, taking up space! =:o So I’ve divvied them up into categories, and here goes…

The Waterstones Wobble

Sounds like a dance, doesn’t it? I shared on Instagram, but not here I think, the fact that I got slightly carried away in Waterstones recently and bought some full-priced books in a bricks and mortar bookstore and it felt amazing! And these are they:

The lovely little Macfarlane book is one I’ve already read and reviewed on the blog and it was worth every penny. The Dawkins is because I wanted a Dawkins and I couldn’t decide which one and ended up buying this one and I want to read everything he’s written NOW except there are so many books competing for space. Arrrggghhh! As for the Brodsky, it caught my eye; I have a collection of his essays and also a poetry one, but this is an essay on Venice and I thought it would make an excellent companion piece to some other Venice books I have (and one which I’ve already covered). I’ve dipped and I want to read it straight away too.

Charity Shop Finds

The logical thing to do, really, would be to stop going into the charity shops, wouldn’t it? And I try to avoid most of them nowadays, but there are a couple I pop into regularly – the Samaritans Book Cave and the Oxfam, both of which are dedicated book areas. I’m trying to be really selective, particularly as the Oxfam’s prices are sneaking up again. But these ones slipped through the net and I think each purchase is justified.

The Saramagos were, of course, essential. I loved my first encounter with him so much that I want to collect and read everything, and I’ve amassed quite a little pile thanks to the charity shops and Simon (who kindly passed on a Saramago he’d read!)

As for the Larkin and Eliot poetry collections – yes, I have all of their poems in other big volumes but these were small and nice and cheap and I’m finding myself more likely to pick up slim volumes than chunky collected ones. We shall see – I need to read more of the poetry books I have already.

eliot larkin

Pretty, ain’t they? Next up was this:

Fleur Jaeggy is a name that’s cropped up on all manner of blogs I read and respect, and this one sounds great; I was always going to pick up anything by her that I came across in the charity shops really…

Finally Simone Weil – an oddity in that it’s a hardback Virago from back in the day, and I did hum and hah a bit about buying it because I have more books than I can ever read in my lifetime if I’m honest. However, in the end I decided to get it – because it *is* an unusual Virago and Patti Smith rates Weil and so I’m prepared to give the book a go!

Bits and Bobs

Just a couple of books here which have crept into the Ramblings from various sources.

First up, the lovely Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write kindly passed on to me “The Death of the Perfect Sentence“, which she’d read herself. I love the sound of it and it’s from the Estonian, a language I think I haven’t read from before, so that’s a plus too. And secondly, an online purchase (I’ve been trying to resist those…) in the form of an intriguing-sounding book “The Trouble with Tom” which is all about Thomas Paine (which slightly ties in with the French Revolution Reading List thingy I came up with and haven’t forgotten about despite being deeply sunk in 19th century Russian nihilist circles). I read about this one recently and have forgotten instantly whose blog it was on – but thank you, whoever it was!

Review Books

There are certain publishers whose books I love to read and cover, and a little chunk of review copies have arrived recently (well – a big chunk, really…) – as you can see:

The British Library really have spoiled me, with more of their marvellous Crime Classics and another two Sci Fi Classics. I adore both of these ranges, so I can see some happy reading hours coming up over the Easter break!

Oneworld have also been very kind; I was really keen to read “Solovyov and Larionov” after loving Eugene Vodolazkin’s book “The Aviator” last year and can’t wait to get stuck in. Additionally, they offered an intriguing new work called “How We Disappeared” by Jing-Jing Lee; set in Singapore and spanning decades, it sounds fascinating.

Pushkin Press always have an amazing array of books, but it’s a little while since I read one of their Pushkin Vertigo titles. “Casanova and the Faceless Woman” is set just before the first French Revolution – so ideal for me, no? 😀

And last, but definitely not least, the wonderfully titled “The Office of Gardens and Ponds” from MacLehose Press – it looks just gorgeous and sounds wonderful.

Thank you *so* much, lovely publishers. And yes –  I’m definitely going to be abandoning sleep some time soon…

Current Reading

Needless to say, I’m still pacing myself through the marathon that is Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”… As you can see from the festoons of post-it notes, I’m getting on quite well.

TBH it probably wasn’t the most sensible choice of book for what is probably my busiest time of the year (budgeting and financial year-end against a very tight deadline, anyone?) One of those lovely BL books might have been slightly more wise, but I’m loving the Russian chunkster so I shall keep going – though it’s entirely possible I might try to slip in something slim as light relief when the dark action of Dostoevsky gets too much!

So – what from the above takes *your* fancy????? 😁

2018 – so what were my standout reading experiences? :)

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When it comes to doing an annual best of list, I tend to leave it to as close to the wire as possible; I’ve been known to read some corkers that end up at the top of the tree in the dying embers of the year. I also like to stretch the format a little, going for themes or concepts as well as just titles or authors. Anyway, without further ado, here’s what rocked my reading boat in 2018!

Books in translation

I don’t keep detailed statistics about the kinds of book I read, but I *do* now keep a list! And I can see from a quick glance down it that I’ve most definitely read a lot of works in translation. This has always been the case with my reading, and I’ve probably tended to focus on French, Italian and of course Russian originals. However, I’ve branched out a little more this year, with Spanish-language works, a stand-out Polish book (the incredible Flights!) and of course continued very strongly with the Russians…

They pretty much deserve a section on their own, but suffice to say I’ve encountered a number of authors new to me, from a shiny new book in the form of the marvellous The Aviator, to a poetic gem from Lev Ozerov and a very unusual piece of fiction (if it was fiction…) in the form of The Kremlin Ball. The wonderful humorous and yet surprisingly profound Sentimental Tales by Zoshchenko was a joy. Marina Tsvetaeva has been an inspirational force, and in fact Russian poetry has been something of a touchstone all year. I don’t think I will *ever* tire of reading Russian authors.

I spent quite a lot of time musing about poetry in 2018, actually, including the intricacies and issues of translating the stuff… Part of this related to the Baudelaire-Benjamin rabbit hole into which I fell, and I’ve actually been gifted a very fat book of French poetry in verse translation which I’m really looking forward to. The Baudelaire prose translations I’ve been reading are just wonderful and so I’m hoping this approach will work for French poetry generally.

To pick out one particular book in translation would be hard, but I do want to say that Saramago’s Death at Intervals has remained with me since I read it, particularly the delicate portrayal of the relationship between Death and the Cellist. In fact, whilst browsing in Foyles at the start of December, I found myself picking the book up and becoming completely transfixed by the ending again. Obviously I need a re-read – if I can only work out where I’ve put my copy…. :((

And a book of the year must be the poetic wonder that is Portraits without Frames by Lev Ozerov. Books like this remind me of how much I’m in debt to all the wonderful translators in the world!

Club Reads

The club reading weeks which I co-host with Simon have been a great success this year, and such fun! We focused on 1977 and 1944 during 2018, a pair of disparate years which nevertheless threw up some fascinating books. I was particularly pleased to revisit Colette, Richard Brautigan, Sylvia Plath and Edmund Crispin, as well as exploring Borges‘ work. The clubs will continue into 2019 so join in – it’s always fascinating seeing and hearing what other people are reading!

The British Library

I think BL Publishing need a special mention for the continuing wonderfulness of their books; I’ve read a number of their Crime Classics this year, which are always a joy, and I’ve also been exploring the new range of Science Fiction Classics which they’ve been putting out. I credit them, together with a chance Virago find in a Leicester Charity Shop, with my discovery of the books of the amazing Ellen Wilkinson – definitely one of my highlights in 2018!

They publish other books than these, of course, and as well as the excellent Shelf Life, I was gifted some fascinating-looking volumes about areas of London for my December birthday – I feel a possible project coming on…. 😉

Non-fiction

I’ve always been fond of reading non-fiction, and this year I’ve read quite a few titles. Inevitably there have been Russians (with How Shostakovich Changed My Mind being a real standout) as well as Beverley Nichols on the 1920s and numerous books about books. However, there’s been quite a focus on women’s stories with Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley both featuring strongly, as well as Flaneuse, a book that intrigued and frustrated in equal measure. The French Revolution made a strong entry, with Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women proving to be stirring stuff. Looking down the list of books I read, there’s a lot of Paris and Russia in there!

Bookish arrivals

There have been *so* many bookish arrivals this year, that at times Mr. Kaggsy was getting quite fretful about the fact that we would soon be unable to move around the house… However, I *have* been clearing out books I think I won’t return to, and intend to continue having a bit of a (careful) purge in 2019. I have been very fortunate on the bookish front, though, and having not been able to afford much in the way of books when I was growing up, I’m always grateful to have them and thankful to the lovely publishers who provide review copies.

There *have*, inevitably, been some particularly special arrivals this year. My three Offspring gifted me the Penguin Moderns Box Set for Mothers’ Day, and although my reading of them has tailed off a little of late, I do intend to continue making my way through them in 2019, as so far they’ve been quite wonderful.

And a year ago (really? where has that year gone!) I was ruing the fact I couldn’t get a copy of Prof. Richard Clay‘s fascinating monograph Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs, and forcing one of my offspring to borrow a copy from their university library to bring home for me to read over the break. Through diligent searching and bookseller alerts, I managed to secure a copy, which I was inordinately excited about. On the subject of the Prof’s documentaries, I’m very much looking forward to seeing his forthcoming one on the subject of memes and going viral – watch this space for special posts! 🙂

New discoveries, rediscoveries and revisits

One of the delights of our Club reading weeks is that I always seem to manage to revisit some favourite authors, as I mentioned above. However, this year I also reconnected with an author I was very fond of back in the day, Julian Barnes. The Noise of Time was a hit last year, and I finally read and adored The Sense of an Ending this year. I now have a lot of catching up to do.

Returning to George Orwell is always a reliable delight, and I made peace with Angela Carter after a rocky start. Robert Louis Stevenson has brought much joy (and most of his work has been new to me), and Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners was my first Seagull book. I keep being drawn back to Jose Saramago, though; Death at Intervals really got under my skin and I *must* find my copy…

Challenges

I’ve been keeping my commitment to challenges light over the last few years, and this is actually working quite well for me. I don’t like my reading to be restricted, preferring to follow my whim, and I think what I’ve read has been fairly eclectic… I dipped into HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration of Spark’s 100th birthday; dropped in on the LT Virago Group’s author of the month when it suited; joined in with the reading clubs (of course!); and for the rest of the time mostly did my own thing. It’s been fun… Will I take part in any next year, or set myself any projects? Well, that remains to be seen…. 😉

So that’s a kind of round up of the year. Looking down the list of books I’ve read, I’m more than ever aware of the grasshopper state of my mind – I don’t seem to read with any rhyme or reason. Nevertheless, I mostly love what I read, which is the main thing – life is too short to spend on a book you’re really not enjoying…

“One cannot be too careful with words, they change their minds just as people do.”

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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.

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