Saramago’s intriguing novel ‘Death at Intervals’

What if death looks like what many cultures pictured it, a skeleton in a cloak with a scythe? What if it’s a female that insists on writing her initial in lower case ‘death’ to distinguish her from ‘Death’ that ends the universe? What if she becomes considerate and starts sending violet colour envelopes to inform people to get prepared a week before their demise? What if she discovers that she’d missed out — by mistake — a person in particular? How would she react? This is what José Saramago — the Portuguese writer and Nobel prize winner — imagines in his 2008 novel “Death at Intervals”.
But before the reader’s surprising encounter with “death”, Saramago starts his novel by inviting them to imagine a more intriguing scenario: what if death decides to take a break for six months and grant people a taste of their ultimate dream: immortality? These events take place in a land-locked country — that is not named — and the consequences are seen from different perspectives: government, funeral and old people’s homes, insurance companies, religious institutions and media.
Although the idea of immortality is tempting but it has its own price: endless suffering of the terminally ill, wounded and dying old people. Humanity faces moral dilemmas that come with the absence of death: How would people react to immortality when time doesn’t stop and eternal youth is not granted? What rights do families have to end the suffering of their loved ones? How would religion deal with a situation that’s against one of its most important pillars: resurrection? This gives rise to the Maphia (spelled this way to distinguish them from the real Mafia), who’d find a way to get rid of the dying with the blessings of the government and their families.
Saramago’s satire style makes it hard to ponder without a big fascinated smile on your face (I actually lined many of the phrases that I either liked or found extremely funny, especially within the conversations between different characters).
What made Saramago’s writing unique is its lack of traditional structure and speech form. There are no quotation marks and the only way to distinguish between different speakers is the use of capitalisation at the start of the sentence. The novel is outstanding and one of the best I’ve read this year (along with Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad).
Similar to his writings, Saramago was extraordinary. He’s most known for his book: Blindness that was published in 1995 and adapted into a Hollywood movie by the same name, starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. And like many famous Nobel Prize receivers, he’d faced difficulties related to his writings. His book: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (published in 1992) was considered controversial and ordered to be removed from Aristeion Prize’s shortlist by the Government of Portugal that found it ‘religiously offending’.
Feeling disheartened, Saramago went into exile on the Spanish Island of Lanzarote till his death in 2010. Being a humanist, Saramago believed that human conditions would be improved by love. He was a critic of the European Union and International Monetary Fund policies. He was also interested in the Middle East politics, visiting Ramallah in 2002 and condemning the Israeli government and the Lebanon war in 2006. He founded the Jose Saramago Foundation in 2007 that aimed to defend and spread the declaration of human rights. Other aims were spreading culture in Portugal and protection of the environment. Saramago was described by The Guardian as the “finest Portuguese writer of his generation”. His books were translated into 25 languages and sold more than 2 million copies in Portugal alone.

Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of:
The World According to Bahja. rashabooks@yahoo.com