Death becomes her

<strong>Death at Intervals</strong>

José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa <em>Harvill

José Saramago was given his surname, which means "wild radish" in Portuguese, as a (possibly drunken) prank by the village clerk who registered his birth. From these peasant roots (no pun intended) grew an idiosyncratic imagination that was, in 1998, to win Saramago his country's first Nobel Prize. Throughout his fiction, he has cultivated an entertaining and witty blend of logic and absurdity, and his work is characterised by an obsessive search for the right words and names even as he is amused by their arbitrariness.

His latest novel to be published in English begins with the news that death is on sabbatical. A simple opening statement ("The following day, no one died") gives rise to a dazzling satirical display as Saramago considers the consequences of death's disappearance for undertakers, carpenters, journalists, retirement homes, insurance companies, various branches of philosophy and the church, government and opposition, "maphia", militia and monarchy. Far from averse to lists, he also has an unerring eye for picking out telling details (with "concision, laconicism and economy", the author jokes).

Although his emphatically pragmatic response to an absurd scenario is certainly a laughing one, reviews terming the book's opening half an extended riff do it an injustice. In his depiction of the machinery of bureaucracy, Saramago is heir to the great Czech novelists Kafka and Hasek. Despite spending the first half of his life under Portuguese dictatorship, he has stated in interviews his belief that ours is a particularly "dark age . . . when totalitarianism no longer even needs an ideology". His fondness for lists is highly appropriate in a fictional world peopled predominantly with rules, regulations, acronyms (Cacor - the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome - is a favourite), files and waiting lists, where the precision of job titles ("in her role as secretary, and a confidential secretary to boot") is of the utmost importance.

So, when death returns, to policymakers' relief, in the novel's second half, the courtesy of sending out (violet-enveloped) letters to give people a week's notice of their demise seems almost natural. Death is a woman - only logical in a Romance language - but keeps the dark drape, scythe and facelessness of conventional representations. She is, however, a bureaucratised death, an intern or work-experience student dutifully drafting, addressing and posting 298 letters each day.

On having her name (and job title) capitalised in a newspaper reproduction of one of these letters, she threatens to kill the subeditor responsible: his mistake was to believe that she was in charge of the whole death business, not merely the human subdepartment.

Whilst the satirical tone persists throughout, the focus of the novel's final stages shifts to the simple life of a man (a cellist), his dog and an unlikely muse and mistress. Though bach and schumann do not receive the reverence of capitalisation (neither do god, marcel proust, socrates and microsoft), Saramago does suggest that music and art offer some manner of comfort for our mortality. He has elsewhere commented that an "ethical novel can perhaps influence a reader temporarily, but no more . . . like a New Year's resolution". The closing note of optimism in this work is all the more poignant for being so heavily modulated.

This is a compelling work by a fine writer. The unique Saramagoan style - full stops, new paragraphs and capitals are rarities, quotation marks eschewed - gives the impression of a thought experiment to which the writer is merely a catalyst. That impression is a carefully crafted one: true art conceals its art, wrote Ovid.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it