Death at Intervals

If people stopped dying one new year would it be a cause for celebration? That’s the starting point for José Saramago’s novel, Death at Intervals, translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa.

Imagine the burden on resources caused by very sick people at death’s door not passing through it. You could always do away with them by crossing the border, where they will breathe their last, but neighbouring countries may not be best pleased. Would the Church lose its appeal if there was no prospect of going to heaven or hell? What about the poor undertakers? Well, they are resourceful enough to adapt. Funerals can be arranged for dear pets instead since other animals are unaffected by this dramatic change in the laws of nature.

Eventually the problem is resolved but death, manifested in the form of a beautiful woman, begins writing letters to notify victims that their time is almost up. Maintaining a broad scope for much of the novel, Saramago eventually reduces it to a final showdown between death and a concert celloist who she has some epistolary trouble with.

The plot is almost Brautiganesque in its quirkiness. Richard Brautigan remains one of my favourite novelists, but I have a more ambivalent attitude towards Saramago’s novels. Although they are rich in imagination, ideas and content, the dense style, long paragraphs and limited punctuation, make them hard work. So it may be a year or so before I pick up another one. Almost the antithesis of Brautigan in many ways, then. However, there’s enough originality and storytelling genius there to tempt me back.


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