José Saramago, ‘AS INTERMITÊNCIAS DA MORTE”: first impressions of a death- and genre-defying novel

José Saramago’s latest novel, whose multilingual launch – which did not include the yet-to-come English version – I have mentioned earlier in this blog (14 November 2005), is ‘As Intermitências da Morte’ (Lisbon: Caminho, 2005; possible translation, ‘Death’s intervals’). Here are my first impressions. ** 1. This is an altogether ‘lighter’ and more hopeful production than its immediate predecessors. It begins with the strange occurrence of the suspension of death in an unnamed country: ‘No dia seguinte ninguém morreu’ (‘On the next day nobody died’), and though the first half consists of social and political satire which might seem to reflect on the real-life problems of a greying population and top-heavy age pyramid, the second half shifts into a metaphysical mode, with Death herself (yes, herself) appearing as a character, and an ambivalent, yet by no means pessimistic, ending. Death herself confronts a young cellist, in an exploration of music as protest against mortality which might recall the German Romantics (E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘Councillor Krespel’ or ‘Don Juan’) or, in our day, Vikram Seth’s ‘An Equal Music’. I am not aware of any other Saramago novel that so radically shifts register halfway through – indeed, the only novel I can think of to compare in this connection is R.K. Narayan’s ‘The English Teacher’, which suddenly mutates from the social-realist to the mystical. ** 2. The unnamed country of this novel can no longer be identified as Portugal (as was still the case in Saramago’s previous five novels) – it is somewhere in central Europe, has a king and no coastline, and is 100% invented. ** 3. Intertextuality, as always, is strongly present, with multiple allusions to the literary tradition (Montaigne, Malherbe, Camões …). As always too, there is intertextual reference to Saramago’s own earlier work: here it is essentially to ‘Todos os Nomes’/’All The Names’ and that novel’s Kafkaesque bureaucratic world (the function of registry officer and even the phrase ‘todos os nomes’ appear on p. 165). There is also a meta- or intra-textual reference on p. 180 to the novel’s own cover and the death’s-head moth that graces it. The conceit with which the book begins – immortality without rejuvenation – recalls the classical myth of Tithonus, who was granted his wish of eternal life but did not get eternal youth to go with it and went on eternally shrivelling and ageing. ** 4. How successful this novel is, where it should be placed in Saramago’s canon and how well the genre shift within it works, are matters open to debate – a debate which I hope will be lively. The interesting thing is that an ageing Saramago, no doubt struggling with the idea of death himself, has produced a work of art that defies mortality rather than surrendering to it.


NOTE added 28 Jan 2009: The English translation (by Margaret Jull Costa – London: Harvill Secker. 2008) turns out in fact to be entitled DEATH AT INTERVALS.

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