Here we have yet another book I came to via the wonderful The To Read List Podcast: Death At Intervals (or, in the U.S., Death With Interruptions). Aside from their recommendation, it was the premise that had me hooked. In an unnamed country, on January 1 of a brand new year, death just… stops. “New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities,” the narrator explains on page one. Death is on strike. Come on, Keeper Upperers! Tell me that doesn’t pique your curiosity!
People who are unwell or injured neither improve or deteriorate – they simply don’t die. Initially, the population is dancing in the streets. I mean, it sounds like great news, right? No death! Woohoo! But of course, before long, some unanticipated consequences take the shine off the apple. Undertakers and funeral directors face bankruptcy. Religion has to take a new approach. A black market emerges, a “maphia” (spelled that way to avoid confusion with the traditional mafia) who will smuggle the elderly across the border where they can “expire” naturally. All of the outcomes are logical, once Saramago lays them out for you, but they’re definitely not the first ones that spring to mind when you hear “eternal life”.
Although Death At Intervals isn’t a comedy per se, I found it hilarious how quickly the “disappearance of death” became a bureaucratic and administrative nightmare. Saramago dedicates a lot of time to pondering: what’s to become of all the life insurance policies? Would legislating the need for pet funerals save the floundering funeral industry? He also interrogates what this situation would mean on the household level. After all, if hospitals are overwhelmed with terminally ill people who won’t die, the logical next step is that they’d be sent home to their families. What’s to become of them? Can we just stick Grandpa in the attic until death starts up again? (That’s where the aforementioned “maphia” come in, angels of death as it were, offering a solution to families who can’t bear the financial and emotional burden of caring for the nearly-dead indefinitely).
Saramago also delves briefly(ish) into the philosophy of linguistics. See, the “disappearance of death” really throws all the philosophers into a post-modern tizzy.
“It seems you don’t understand that words are the labels we stick on things, not the things themselves, you’ll never know what things are really like, nor even what their real names are, because the names you gave them are just that, the names you gave them…”Death At Intervals (Page 64)
In the second half of Death At Intervals, we transition from treating death (or the absence of it) as a phenomenon, and she (yes, she) becomes an actual, anthropomorphised character. She decides to get back to work (“The seven months that death’s unilateral truce had lasted produced a waiting list of more than sixty thousand people on the point of death,”, page 98) and she also decides to try something new: sending letters to the soon-to-be deceased, warning them of what’s to come. She also announces this new development in a letter written to the media, and then chastises them when they correct her spelling and punctuation.
The final twist comes in the form of one of her you’re-going-to-die-soon letters that is mysteriously returned. An otherwise-unremarkable cellist, against all odds, appears to have defied his mortal fate. This drives “death” up the wall, and she devotes all of her energies to unraveling the mystery of why this man simply won’t die.
Saramago wrote Death At Intervals in his native Portuguese (original title: As Intermitências da Morte) and it was first published in 2005. This edition was translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa (#NameTheTranslator!) and published three years later. Although it’s a short book, just a couple hundred pages, it reads like a far longer one, mostly due to the fact that… well, I hesitate to say this about a Nobel Laureate, but here goes: Saramago writes weird. There are almost no paragraph breaks, not even for dialogue. Oh heavens, the dialogue – not only does he not use inverted commas, he doesn’t even break the sentence! You’ve got to read each page a couple of times to make sure you’re really clear on who’s saying what to whom. Apparently, this is Saramago’s “thing” (eschewing the agreed-upon rules of grammar and punctuation), and that’s almost enough to put me off trying any of his other books.
Still, if you can grit your teeth and put your grammar-pedantry aside, Death At Intervals is a really interesting book. It’s a modern satire dressed up as magical realism. It might force you to confront all kinds of heavy questions you weren’t expecting – could humanity exist without mortality? what about religion or philosophy? not to mention what it says about euthanasia! – but Saramago manages to keep it fun.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Death At Intervals:
- “Having a hard time reading this book. It’s implausible of course but dry and uninteresting” – sheri
- “interesting look on life and death. i enjoy all of Jose Saramago’s take on life.” – Lauren
- “Wonderful author, great story, too bad he has passed away.” – hdf