The Portuguese novelist and Nobel laureate Jose Saramago is now 85 but, as with Philip Roth, old age seems to have had the effect not of enervating but of further animating him, of rousing him into a late flowering. Death at Intervals, his new novel, is the fourth to appear in English translation in the last decade, and it is as good as anything he has ever written.
Saramago is a highly distinctive fabulist. His preferred way of working is to take some startling premise that turns the world on its head, and then use that as a way of reflecting on human nature, society and morality. At the same time, his heroes are ordinary people who distinguish themselves by some gesture of protest or defiance at the iniquities and awesome arm-twisting power of time, history or convention. Blindness, thought by many to be his greatest novel, is about an unnamed city in which all the residents suddenly and mysteriously go blind. The book tries to imagine all that human beings would do, the chaos and duress they would go through, in adapting to this darkness in which all are similarly stricken. No reader has ever left Blindness without a renewed awareness of the utter fragility of human life and human institutions.
Death at Intervals:Harvill Secker,196 pages, Rs599.
In Death at Intervals, the residents of a country are agitated by the discovery that, starting New Year’s Day, death has disappeared entirely from their land. Accidents kill no one, illness takes no toll, and even those about to breathe their last seem eternally suspended on the verge. At first, there is great excitement and rejoicing because from the beginning of time, human beings have dreamt of immortality, but this mood swiftly collapses when the problems of demography, livelihood, economics and family life become apparent. It soon becomes clear that, as the prime minister of the country remarks, “If we don’t start dying again, we have no future.”
This is a diverting thought experiment, and a consideration of all its implications carries us through the first half of the novel. At this point, we are shown the figure of death (whom Saramago imagines as “a skeleton wrapped in a sheet”, so old and hoary that she “can no longer remember from whom she received the instructions to carry out the job she was charged with”) realizing that she has made a mistake, and revoking her decision. Henceforth, death decides, people will continue to die as they used to; only, to mitigate the abruptness and harshness of their departure somewhat, they will receive a letter a week in advance, informing them their time is up. But, for some reason, one particular man, an ordinary cellist in an orchestra, seems not to obey this summons: The letter sent to him by death keeps returning to her. Death decides to visit him personally to investigate the matter.
Honoured: Saramago won the Nobel in 1998.
Here, in the final chapters of the book, in the fascinating picture of an ordinary man whose mundane life is watched with rapt interest by an entity who can eliminate him with one stroke, Saramago’s novel rushes down from the Olympian perspective of its initial premise and begins to speak in a startlingly intimate, tender and wistful key.
The reader finds himself, surprisingly, sympathizing with death—who has never lived and will never know what it is to live, and who is as burdened as any of us. Saramago’s immensely acute metaphysical intelligence, his sly jokes and his gnarled and knotty sentences all come together to make for a death-haunted book that reveals its author to be fiercely, joyfully alive.
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