DEATH AT INTERVALS Jose Saramago
“The following day, no one died”. That is the sentence with which Jose Saramago begins and ends his new novel, Death at Intervals, which in form and content is of a piece with much of his earlier work. That is to say, he poses a philosophical question in terms of an allegorical event; then, step by step, works out its effects on the citizens of an unspecified country. In the process leaving himself with plenty of room to show up the nature of vested interests, be they conservative, religious or bureaucratic.
In this slender novel (felicitously translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa ) Saramago speculates on what would happen if, for a period of time, no-one was to die. In what can be read as a witty turning-on-its-head of the religious Doctrine of Eternal Life, he shows us the consequences of this deathless state on the country’s population – which grows from baffled to desperate – and how the church, government officials, undertakers and even the underworld react to and then try to cash in on the situation.
The trick to making fables even more resonant is, of course, to treat events with utmost seriousness, and Saramago does this here by going into details of how hospitals and old-age homes, among other institutions, deal with the predicament. Patriotic fervour plays a role too, with people ferrying the aged and unfit across the border, where the laws of death remain unaltered.
This is where the novel takes a turn. After seven months, death makes a sudden reappearance – initially personified as a shrouded female skeleton with a rusted scythe in a chilly room full of filing cabinets – and begins to send out letters in violet stationery to those who have a week to live. The reactions, naturally, range from shock to relief to avoidance.
Death’s plans, however, are thwarted by an ordinary cellist, and the rest of the novel deals with her preoccupation with this unwittingly defiant creature. It must be said, though, that this second half, marked by its playing out of ars longa vita brevis, is weaker than the first, but at least it does supply a narrative impulse without which the novel would have floundered.
Saramago’s trademark writing style much in evidence here: the long paragraphs drenched in irony, the run-on dialogue separated only by commas and the third-person narration with its omniscience undercut by self-deprecation.
In this idiosyncratic manner, he creates an enclosed world that floats free of mortal laws and, in doing so, reveals much about the vanities and petty obsessions of the rest of us. Confirming our suspicions that, as the philosopher said, there is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.