Jose Saramago – Death At Intervals


Death At Intervals (also published as Death With Interruptions) is an extremely surreal book by the Nobel Laureate, Jose Saramago. In a country (not necessarily futuristic), people have stopped dying one new year’s day, in spite of illness, accidents and life in general.

The different strata of society react differently: people are initially joyous as they contemplate immortality; the religious people and the philosophers try debating it out – without death, what is the point of religion – and, the politicians, who try and figure out the socio-economic repercussions.

However, the implications of immortality are far severe than people initially realised, and while they resort to euthanasia, and taking relatives outside the country, in order to die a natural death, a new criminal organisation, the maphia, come into action, who provide the services of ensuring old, ill and suffering family members die.

The maphia would not be what it is had it failed to find a solution to the problem. It really is a shame, if you will allow us a brief aside, that the brilliant intellects leading these criminal organisations should have departed from the strait and narrow path of respect for the law and disobeyed the wise biblical precept that urges us to earn our daily bread by the sweat of our brow, but facts are facts, and while repeating adamastor’s sad words, ah, but my heart is sick to tell the tale, we will set down here the distressing news of the trick deployed by the maphia to get round a difficulty which was, to all appearances, insoluble.

While the first half of this book asks the important philosophical questions about the importance of death, and debates euthanasia, the second half of the book has the anthropomorphic death herself as the narrator. The significance of “death” signing off with a “d” instead of “D” is also discussed, when she (yes, death is anthropomorphised as a female) sends a letter to a newspaper editor, where she says Death is far scarier and omniscient than she, herself.

She changes tactics, from ensuring no one dies to sending a letter to the victim a week prior to his death, so that he has sufficient time to wrap up his affairs. Of course, when it comes to death, a heads up might not be the best way forward….

I can’t say I enjoyed the book despite its interesting premise though. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it – I just found the writing really difficult to read at times (above quote withstanding). The punctuation is random, and even long conversations lacked quotations, so much so that I had to go back and re-read chunks to figure out the flow of the conversation.

Don’t get me wrong – it is a fantastic book with captivating debates on politics, religion and economics, and I think it’s one of those that would definitely be worth a re-read.

Have you read this book by Saramago? Or, any others? How do they compare? I think I’d like to try Blindness next….

13 Responses to “Jose Saramago – Death At Intervals”

  1. I haven’t read this one, but am a big fan of Blindness and The Double. I have just given up trying to read Seeing as I found the writing too hard and meandering. It looks as though he always has fantastic premises for his stories, but some are easier to read than others. I highly recommend Blindness (or The Double if you are squeamish) and am sorry to hear that this one wasn’t that enjoyable for you.

    • Thanks for the recommendations, Jackie. Fully intend to read Blindness soon, for it sounds really interesting. You’re absolutely right about fantastic premises… now, if only the writing was slightly less meandering…..

  2. 3 She

    I read Blindness a couple of months and really enjoyed it. It definitely takes a little while to get used to the writing, but it is most definitely worth reading. I definitely felt something after reading it.

  3. I’ve read (and have recommended) the same two books as Jackie. I did take me a while to get used to the writing style with The Double (my first Saramago), but then the style grew on me and became a huge part of what I loved about it. But I can totally understand why it wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea.

    • Thanks Teresa. It looks like I started with one of the tougher books. Maybe I should’ve started my Saramago journey with Blindness/The Double… but the cover of this is sooo amazing.

  4. I recently read two by Saramago, The Double and Blindness, Of the two I like Blindness the best and intend to try more of his novels. His prose style is definitely offputting at first, so you have to make a decision early on whether to persevere or not.

    • Persevering was definitely the smart choice, and I don’t regret reading this book for a second. It was intelligent and thought-provoking, and if all his books are similar, I’ll be gobbling them up despite the writing style.

      Thanks for the linkies – will check them out soon (I’m still on really slow mobile internet, so I’ve been very bad with google reader – sorry!).

  5. I have read Death at Intervals and The Double and enjoyed them both. I like his writing style (once I got used to reading such incredibly long sentences!) and think his books are thought provoking. I think Death at Intervals was just fine as a book of his to start with, particularly as it seems to have wetted your appetite to red more. I haven’t read Blindness, so perhaps I will give that a go.

  6. It would seem that the premise for Saramago’s novels are always topical, interesting and thought-provoking, yet his writing seems to get in the way. He did win the Pulitzer, though, so maybe there is a code to his work that I haven’t figured out yet…

    I have written a review for Blindness here if you’re interested. I would have to warn you that his writing style would appear to be the same as you described about Death at Intervals, in that there is no punctuation, et cetera. I loved the idea for the story though, and there was definitely some worthy reading involved.

  7. 11 Sarah

    I liked his writing style in Death, but struggled to understand his ideas! And I don’t think it was the style, I just didn’t get it, despite really wanting too. But I have Blindness waiting; better luck next time, perhaps.

  8. 12 Justin Olson

    I have read at least six Saramago novels (at 24). I thought “Death” was one of the easiest to read style and story-wise. But then again, I was in the midst of a Saramago episode. I am currently reading “The Double.” I’ve found he’s harder to engage in without kind of priming yourself into that mode of writing, but once there, I can go with it. I have to say that “The Cave” and “All The Names” are great. But also is “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.” I think “Blindness” is good, but not anywhere near my favorite, the three I named shortly before it are better in my opinion.

  9. 13 wendy

    I am nearly done with Death at Intervals, my first Jose book. The lack of punctuation is annoying! It took me a while to understand why there were capital letters strewn amongst the sentances then I realised it was each time another person spoke. There is one part I’ve just read of about 20 lines and all in one sentance.

    This aside, I am really enjoying the read and subject matter, so it has been worth the time taken to re read parts to get my head around just the writing.

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