What would become of the world if people stopped dying? The central idea in José Saramago’s book ‘Death at Intervals’ (also known as ‘Death With Interruptions’) is fascinating, and I think that various permutations of this theme are among the most pressing questions faced by the human race today: overpopulation, aging populations and scientific research in prolonging life expectancies. From an anthropological point of view, eternal life is at the heart of religions which have shaped our cultures and our global history. This is quite clearly a serious business, and you’d think that if anyone would be able to rise to the challenge and write a stimulating, thought-provoking, and disquieting response to these issues it would be a Nobel laureate known for “parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony”. Alas, from where I was sitting, Saramago fell short of the mark and left my big balloon of piqued interest deflated and wrinkly on the floor.
This is the first – and in fact only – thing that I have read by Saramago, and from what I’m told ‘Death at Intervals’ is written in a very typical style for the author. Long sentences, minimal paragraphing, no punctuation or demarcation for speech… all bold stylistic choices, but not ones I enjoyed or, to be honest, ever really got used to. From the beginning the pace is slow and the descriptions are in-depth, and those things I didn’t mind as much and did get used to. And then, about two-thirds of the way through, BAM. Everything changes. People start to die again, although sporadically, and the plot takes a turn for the romantic, involving a female personification of Death and a human cellist. Girly Death sends letters to soon-to-be fatalities in little violet envelopes, and has heart-to-hearts with her scythe. It honestly feels like two different stories, or – at a push – one story with a hella long introduction. And all of the interesting socio-economic issues that arose in the “introduction”, such as the rise of the “maphia” as a result of the moral and financial dilemmas that the Government couldn’t tackle, well, they all take a back seat as Saramago focuses in on the small-scale repercussions of Death’s meddling with the natural order of things.
In fairness, it’s likely that I came to this book with too many expectations and preconceptions about what it was going to teach me and open my mind to. But I’m afraid José Saramago has, for now, been relegated to the land of Nobel-Prize-For-Literature-winning authors who I just couldn’t get along with (Toni Morrison is the esteemed leader of that kingdom).
I’ve finished this and want something similar:
Check out Kafka’s short stories for existentialism and more existentialism with a flavour of magical realism.
What do you think?
Could you get on with Saramago’s style? Can you recommend any other authors who have also tackled this subject, but have taken a different approach?
Thanks for reading, and until next time! x
Artwork credit: Sculpture by ‘dragonsculptor‘, from DeviantArt