Friday, June 12, 2009

Death at Intervals - Jose Saramago

"The Following Day, No one died".
Death abandons a unnamed country, from the first day of the new year. No one died ever since. The queen Mother, who was returned from the hospital and awaiting her final moments, miraculously survived. After few minutes wait, the King and the other royal family members resumed their routine task.
The word spread, as no death has been reported in the country since the break of new year. The people are excited with the new status of immortality. There had been celebrations, hosting national flags and other acts of joy. News papers covered headlines, editorials, articles and interviews about the new phenomenon.

But, everyone are not happy as it seems to be. The funeral undertaking business, is now in trouble, as their 'raw material' is now not available. The sale of Coffin is dropped to Zero. The church is also perplexed with the new development. When there is no death, there is no promise of paradise after the life on earth, there is no fear and there is no redemption. For the survival of the church, it is essential that the death is restored. Philosophers are in a new dilemma, in analysing and de-constructing the absence of death. Government is also in a fix as they are forced to make a statement and not sure how to react. Insurance companies are also found the situation challenging as their offices were flooded with requests to discontinue the policies, as there is no more death. They have immediately had their high level meeting and come out with a quick plan, which makes every one declared dead in their books, irrespective of the physical and spiritual life, at the age of 80. They can , however, opt for another policy from that day and can continue till the age of 160 ( the multiple of 80 there of). Hospitals are also in trouble, as they are filled with sick people, whose life refuses to leave them, but are unable to perform any humanly functions. They are overflowing and unable to manage the chaos and crowd. Economics have warned the government of the potential calamities to the nations economic condition if this status prevailed. In short, the excitement was short-lived.

One day, an ailing old man unable to stand the torture of being alive, had a bright idea. He requested his daughter and son-in-law to take him across the border, where the death is still active. One night, without being caught by any spying eyes of the neighbourhood, the family manages to cross the border, and needless to say, the old man dies as soon as the border is crossed. Though they returned unnoticed, the news has spread. They were accused of murdering their father, but another group argued that the old man himself wanted to die, and it should then be considered as suicide. While the moral and ethical questions continued, more and more families started smuggling the old across the border. Soon Government was on alert and forces were deployed at the borders to prevent the exodus of people. No later, an underground group, calling themselves maphia ( with 'ph', they insist) organising the clandestine operation of taking people into the neighbouring countries and organising the last rituals for a fee, started sending threatening letters to the soldiers and their commanders on duty. Considering various pros and cons, the Government issues a secret order to the soldiers on border duty to turn a blind eye towards these incidents, allowing the death to continue, trying to get back the equilibrium on population.

On the seventh month of this fiasco, the director of the state television and news agency was greeted by a violet coloured letter in his office ( which was double-locked for sure), when he arrived in office. The letter, written in small letters and with no punctuation and commas and was signed by death (in small letters), announcing that she ( note: she) was experimenting over the months , but will be back in action from tonight. She in her letter claimed, "death took death away to show humans what eternity was like; the experiment failed". Panic stricken Director rushed to the Prime Minister's Office , seeking an appointment. He was advised to stay low on this until the prime time evening news, where a Government Communique advising people to remain calm and assuring necessary steps from the Government on the wake of the new development, would be read. Following which the Director himself, is asked to read out the letter from 'death' to the viewers. As the statistics claim, when the clock struck 12 at midnight, more than 62000 people have died. While the people thought the normalcy has returned at last, there was a new twist to the story. People started getting violet envelope addressed to their name, informing them of their imminent death, giving them their last week to live, causing further chaos to the already troubled country. Following day, the news papers carried headlines and columns and boxed reports in detail, where one of the over smart sub-editor made the necessary corrections to the letter adding appropriate comma etc. in accordance with his learning and profession, even correcting the signature 'death' replacing 'd' with a capital 'D'.
"the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter."

However, he had to retrace his actions and make a public apology after being threatened by 'death' with a potential violet letter on his name.
While 'death' was having fun at the expense of poor countrymen, one of the letter returned as undelivered, with no apparent reason. She tried to send this again, citing some technical error, but was returned undelivered. Curious, she found out that the to-be recipient of this letter was a 49 year old Cellist, living alone with his dog. After following him for a couple of days at his home, the park and the theatre during his rehearsal, she could not figure out the reason for this being rejected and returned. She pulled out the dusty record of this person from the cupboard, and realised that according to that, he was to die at the age of 49 and the previous day he had celebrated (as a matter of saying) his 50th birthday which he is not entitled to live.

Now it is the question of prestige as death is not known for failure. It was unprecedented. She has to hand over the letter to him some how, thus ensuring the law of death is prevailed. Disguised as a beautiful lady, she visits him at his performance and congratulate him post the event, even offering him a ride back to his apartment. She continue her effort to seduce him by calling him over phone, meeting him at the park , reminding him that there is something she wanted to give him, after his performance on Saturday. Though she did not attend the concert on Saturday, she was waiting for him at his apartment with the letter in question.... and the rest is for you to read the book and find out.
There aren't many novels where death is taken a human form. One which I see comparison was the works of Terry Pratchet. Some of the last scenes ( the communication between death and the cellist) reminded me of 'Devil and Miss Prym' of Paulo Coelho.

Many interesting aspect of humanising death. First of all, death for him is a female of 165-168cm height. It is also one with many human characteristics. With jealousy, with greed, with pleasure in its action, and also one which falls in love. It is also go through the similar emotions of human and struggles with the dilemma of duty and feelings of love.

Jose Saramago is at his best in taking up an experimental subject ( the double, blindness etc) and turning it into a philosophical and intellectual masterpiece. The book is very funny and often silly, but an interesting work of fiction.

A social and political satire, with his customary style of writing. Long sentences, strings of conversation between individuals separated only by a comma, and the long paragraphs make it hard for the readers. But a very funny, joyous, intellectual first half and a curious and sweet love story in the latter half. A very interesting read and a fascinating book by the Nobel Laureate.
Death at Intervals

Jose Saramago ( translated by Margeret Jull Costa )

Vintage Books

196 Pages

Rs 381.5
Further Read : The Humanist, Guardian , Times


Miguel said...

For me it was the last great novel he wrote.

I'm sure Death is female just for plot reasons; but it's worth pointing out that morte is a female noun in Portuguese.

Brain Drain said...

Ah, that explains the 'female' side of death. Thanks Miguel..