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José Saramago: As Intermitências da Morte (UK: Death at Intervals; US: Death with Interruptions)

In an unnamed country – presumably the one we have seen in Saramago’s previous works – people had, as normal, died at the end of the year. The Queen Mother had managed to hold on to life but was not expected to survive New Year’s Day. However, not only did she survive New Year’s Day, she survived subsequent days, as did all the others who seemed likely to die. In short, no-one died. No-one could die. The terminally ill, the victims of accidents and others whose time had come held on to life. This caused all sorts of problems. The church was concerned that, without death, there would be no fear of death and no resurrection, and therefore no reason for the church. Funeral directors were, of course, out of business. (They would later insist that all animals, who, unlike humans, continued to die, should be formally buried, so that they could stay in business.) Life insurance companies, while initially glad, found that their clients, knowing that they were not going to die, were reluctant to continue paying their premiums, till the companies decreed that all policies would be paid out on the eightieth birthday. Hospitals were particularly worried, as the dying were not vacating beds, while more were needing beds.

A provisional solution was found by a family that lived near the frontier. Other countries had not been affected, so they took their grandfather and seriously ill child across the frontier, though not without a certain reluctance and some family drama. This worked. When others heard about it, they tried the same approach. The criminal fraternity, known as the maphia, soon set up a scheme which those living further from the frontier could use to take dying family members across the frontier. However, the government’s moral standards and the understandable concern of the three neighbouring countries almost caused a difficult situation, only resolved by the government’s somewhat hypocritical alliance with the maphia. However, the government continued to be worried about the situation, till the Director of Television received a letter from death (with a small d) herself. (Death is a woman.) Saramago then takes this situation to its logical or, possibly, illogical extreme.

As always, Saramago is out to mock the government, both the political arm and the civil servants and their bureaucratic, unimaginative but often pragmatic approach to the problem. The church, as ever, comes in for serious attack, as do business interests. Indeed, the idea of death taking a holiday – not an original one – is used, as in many of his previous works to mock the Establishment and their limited approach to problems, their greed, corruption and hypocrisy. Once again he does it well, though the feeling is that, with this book, he has not pushed himself as far as he did in his earlier works. But it is still highly inventive, very funny and spares few.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Caminho, Lisbon
First English translation 2008 by Harvill Secker
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa