“Death At Intervals” by Jose Saramago

I love the premise of this book. One day, in a particular country, people stop dying. They still get old, get sick, get mangled in car accidents, etc., but they can’t die.

At first this news is greeted with elation. It’s the end of Death’s age-old tyranny, the greatest fear suddenly removed. But then the complications begin. People still suffer, old people lie in bed on the verge of death but unable to cross over. Retirement homes go into crisis, as people continue to arrive but nobody leaves. Funeral homes and life insurance companies are also distraught, although the insurance people manage to land on their feet as always. Bishops and philosophers meet to discuss the implications of death’s disappearance. The fear of death has long been the basis of morality and religion, after all.

Meanwhile, some people take matters into their own hands. A family decides to put its terminally ill father out of his misery by taking him across the border into the neighbouring country where death is still operating as usual. This becomes a trend and then starts a whole industry, which is soon taken over by the mafia. Then, after a while, death reappears…

It’s an incredibly imaginative story, and well told. The style is very wordy, with some sentences stretching over pages, and multiple sub-clauses. The dialogue is also not separated by paragraphs or inverted commas, so it can be quite hard to follow sometimes. In general the wordiness works, simply because it is so well-written, but at times I wished he would just get on with it. I do have to put in a mention for the translator, Margaret Jull Costa, as well. This must have been a tough book to translate, and the fact that those long sentences are at all intelligible is a tribute to her ability.

This is the second book I’ve read by 1998 Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago, the other one being The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. I enjoyed this one more, perhaps because of the fascinating premise and the deft way in which it was handled, or perhaps simply because his style takes some getting used to. I’d definitely like to read more of his work now.

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