Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Death at Intervals by Jose Saramago

In an unnamed country on the first day of the new year, people stop dying. Amid the general public, there is great celebration: flags are hung out on balconies and people dance in the streets. They have achieved the great goal of humanity - eternal life. Death is on strike. Soon, though, the residents begin to suffer. For several months undertakers face bankruptcy, the church is forced to reinvent its doctrine, and local 'maphia' smuggle those on the brink of death over the border where they can expire naturally.

Death does return eventually, but with a new, courteous approach - delivering violet warning letters to her victims. But what can death do when a letter is unexpectedly returned?
Amazon description

Let us start with Saramago's style of writing. This at once caused me problems and delighted me. Visually the book is hard to read, with long paragraphs, narrow margins and no indication of speech (no quotation marks, no line breaks and seldom "he said").  I found myself breaking away from the story to decipher who was speaking, which is something I dislike. Although the prose could at times be said to be rambling, I loved it. It was like having Saramago in the room talking to me. There is something deferential about this style, but at the same time Saramago is a master storyteller and the prose weaves back to the story without fail. Another feature is the gentle humour the author displays: Death did indeed work her fingers to the bone, because, of course, she is all bone.

The book is split into two uneven parts. The first part, which takes up nearly two thirds of the book, focuses on the impact of first death going on strike and second the arrival of the violet letters. Mostly Saramago talks about the general impact on the country and its people (as outlined in the Amazon description).  In one exception we see the impact on one family who have two members who cannot die. Saramago suggests this exception was a mistake, the result of an overhasty judgement, on the part of the narrator. It is of course no such thing, but a necessary personalizing of the story, a focusing in on the human consequences of what has happened, which contrasts with the cynical realpolitik of the government. There is a degree of satire in this section, as the economic, religious and political leaders react to the absence of death. 

Ironically, having put his tongue out at the establishment, Saramago then says: it's high time we stuck our tongues out at her [death]. For in the second part the focus shifts on to death and the man, whose violet letters keep coming back. Far from sticking his tongue out, the author is full of compassion: Due to some strange optical phenomenon, real or virtual, death seems much smaller now, as if her bones had shrunk, or perhaps she was always like that, and it's our eyes, wide with fear, that make her look like a giant. Poor death. It makes us feel like going over and putting a hand on her hard shoulder and whispering a few words of sympathy in her ear, or, rather, in the place where her ear once was, underneath the parietal.

Death, having dealt impersonally with millions of people's deaths which appeared on the filing cards in her subterranean room, decides that she must observe the man in order to work out why the letters are coming back. She even decides to take on the appearance of a young woman. These changes have a great impact on her: For the first time in her life, death knew what it felt like to have a dog on her lap. And with that the book becomes a love story.

I loved much of this book. However I did find myself losing interest in the first part, not helped by the stylistic problems I described at the beginning of the book. But once death arrived as a real character everything changed for me.

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