Death, at Intervals

Tuesday July 15, 2008

Death at Intervals

Whilst on the subject of literature, I also can’t resist recommending José Saramago’s Death At Intervals, which I finished last week. Saramago can appear, at first glance, to be a difficult writer, in part because of the kind of sustained attention that his books require. But once you have adjusted to his rhythms and the strangeness of his prose, he is always a pleasure to read, and he is a spinner of fables so strange, compelling and entertaining that his books linger in the mind for a long, long time.

Death at Intervals is about a country in which human beings, for a period of several months, simply stop dying, something that, although it initially is a cause for celebration, before long leads to uproar and unrest. Then death re-emerges, but instead of coming to collect people without warning as she always has done (death, in this book, is a she, and she signs her name without a capital letter), she sends out letters a week in advance, so that people can put their affairs in order. As a result, the arrival of the postman in the morning becomes an occasion for dreadful anticipation. But then, one day, a letter gets unexpectedly sent back to her, unopened, and death sets out to find out what has gone wrong.

Saramago beautifully skewers the many ambivalences we have in relation to death – and thus in relation to life as well. Whilst doing so, he does not provide us with any answers nor does he settle for the soft option of drawing a moral from the tale (I am increasingly convinced that the ethical task of literature is to provoke ethical questioning, rather than to provide us with a nugget of moral teaching to take home and display upon our moral mantelpiece). But Saramago is also very, very funny, and the end of the book is so charmingly unexpected that the moment I finished it, I wanted to turn to the person next to me on the bus and tell them to buy themselves a copy.

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