José Samarago likes to take a simple idea and explore its implications to the very details. In Death at Intervals he takes this concept to its extremes and robs the citizens of an unnamed country of their most fundamental bodily function: dying. In Portuguese, death (a morte) is female and thus appears as a women in the book. What would happen if she took a break? It is, of course, a fantastic idea and the inhabitants of the country are at first equally as puzzled as the reader. However, once you accept the initial premise, events proceed in a very plausible manner.
At first everyone is ecstatic – but problems soon arise. Hospitals become overcrowded with terminally ill patients who refuse to die, funeral homes fall into recession and demand governmental aid, life insurance companies strive to preserve their business. Society is in turmoil and Samarago has a vivid and excellent style in depicting this society, which could very well be ours. Despite this grim outlook, he maintains a light-hearted, at times ironic, tone in describing how bureaucracy and institutions try to arrange themselves with the situation. Politicians ponder whether they should play down the extent of the situation or claim responsibility. The media's only concern is to find catchy headlines and the Church fears for its very foundation. What is the use of religion if there is no death, and thus no afterlife? I found myself silently smiling and sometimes chuckling through large parts of the book in admiration for Samarago's observations and descriptions, which are subtle yet to the point.
The story has no real protagonists (except death herself), but rather meanders through the chaotic situation, zooming in and out, moving from the general to the particular and back. This might sound a bit dry, but Samarago's style is anything but. It's truly unique and a sheer delight to read. As the story constantly changes in pace, so do the sentences – at times laconic observations, at times raging torrents which, diverting and altering in style, rush across a whole page but drag you along nonetheless.
The story touches upon many moral and philosophical questions. Yet, happily, it's not a story about morality but rather a thought-experiment, and as such a very pleasant invitation to think. At its very end, it even turns into a brief but sweet love story, but I don't want to give anything away. All I can say is that you are likely to finish the last page with a smile on your face.
In this series, three reviewers write about their favourite books, recent or not so recent