originally published as As intermitências da morte, 2005
translated by Margaret Jull Costa
"It’s not that I’m laughing at death, because no one can laugh at it. But why take it so seriously?" --
José Saramago, LA Weekly
Like the author, we may not laugh at death, but in this novel there's a lot of black humor that surfaces surrounding death, or rather its absence. Life in one unnamed country changes when, on New Year's Day "no one died."
"Up until the very dot of midnight on the last day of the year there were people who died in full compliance with the rules..."but everything changed since that "zero hour" and "there was no record in the whole country of anyone dying." At first, this phenomenon was seen by some as "humanity's greatest dream since the beginning of time," and after a few days, even the pessimists and skeptics joined others in the streets "to proclaim that life is beautiful." It doesn't take too long, though, for the problems inherent in such a situation to arise, and they do so in a very big way. The Church is less than happy since, as one cardinal notes, "without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection, there is no church," along with myriad other problems; then of course the funerary businesses weigh in, as do the hospitals, homes for the aged and infirm, the life insurance companies, etc., etc. Then, of course, there are the family members taking care of their terminally ill, who will themselves one day become too old to continue to give their loved ones the care they need; even more importantly, the question becomes one of "how the country in years to come" would be able to continue paying the "millions of people" who receive disability pensions, who would "for all eternity" be "joined by millions of others." And that's just the tip of the iceberg as people begin to realize that eternal life, this "global gift," this "greatest marvel ever," is, in fact, the opposite. As things are coming to a head, though, death (with a lower-case d) speaks, and new rules are formulated between herself and "mortals," leading to the second part of this book which personifies death herself and leads her to an encounter with some very unexpected results.
So far none of what I've described here can fall under the aegis of "black humor," really, as people begin to wake up to the nightmare that death's absence has brought to this country, but up until that time, Saramago takes us along for the responses from politicians and the government, the Church, philosophers, the people themselves, the criminal underworld, and especially the media. There is more than a touch of irony here that makes for simultaneous fun and serious reading, and I kind of see it as a way in which he asks his readers to question the answers received from all of these institutions in the event of a crisis. I could be off base here, but certainly it's something I'll take away from this novel.
I've seen some reader reviews of this novel that call it a "philosophical novel," and while the author is definitely asking people to think here, for me it goes well beyond that label. There's a lot going on in here with language and ideas, and while some people have commented on their dislike of Saramago's writing style, I have to disagree. I think his style is actually rather brilliant. In fact, I enjoyed the book immensely, heard myself laughing through parts of it and I can certainly recommend it.