Authors: Jose Saramago
Copyright © José Saramago and Editorial Caminho S.A., Lisbon 2005
English translation copyright © Margaret Jull Costa 2008
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
This is a translation of
As intermiténcias da morte.
First published in Great Britain in 2008 by Harvill Secker, a division of Random House.
Funded by the Portuguese Institute for Books and Libraries.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
[Intermiténcias da morte. English]
Death with interruptions/José Saramago;
translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.
I. Costa, Margaret Jull. II. Title.
For Pilar, my home
We will know less and less what it means to be human.
—Book of Predictions
If, for example, you were to think more deeply about death, then it would be truly strange if, in so doing, you did not encounter new images, new linguistic fields.
THE FOLLOWING DAY, NO ONE DIED. THIS FACT, BEING
absolutely contrary to life's rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people's minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one. Not even from a car accident, so frequent on festive occasions, when blithe irresponsibility and an excess of alcohol jockey for position on the roads to decide who will reach death first. New year's eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities, as if old atropos with her great bared teeth had decided to put aside her shears for a day. There was, however, no shortage of blood. Bewildered, confused, distraught, struggling to control their feelings of nausea, the firemen extracted from the mangled remains wretched human bodies that, according to the mathematical logic of the collisions, should have been well and truly dead, but which, despite the seriousness of the injuries and lesions suffered, remained alive and were carried off to hospital, accompanied by the shrill sound of the ambulance sirens. None of these people would die along the way and all would disprove the most pessimistic of medical prognoses, There's nothing to be done for the poor man, it's not even worth operating, a complete waste of time, said the surgeon to the nurse as she was adjusting his mask. And the day before, there would probably have been no salvation for this particular patient, but one thing was clear, today, the victim refused to die. And what was happening here was happening throughout the country. Up until the very dot of midnight on the last day of the year there were people who died in full compliance with the rules, both those relating to the nub of the matter, i.e. the termination of life, and those relating to the many ways in which the aforementioned nub, with varying degrees of pomp and solemnity, chooses to mark the fatal moment. One particularly interesting case, interesting because of the person involved, was that of the very ancient and venerable queen mother. At one minute to midnight on the thirty-first of december, no one would have been so ingenuous as to bet a spent match on the life of the royal lady. With all hope lost, with the doctors helpless in the face of the implacable medical evidence, the royal family, hierarchically arranged around the bed, waited with resignation for the matriarch's last breath, perhaps a few words, a final edifying comment regarding the moral education of the beloved princes, her grandsons, perhaps a beautiful, well-turned phrase addressed to the ever ungrateful memory of future subjects. And then, as if time had stopped, nothing happened. The queen mother neither improved nor deteriorated, she remained there in suspension, her frail body hovering on the very edge of life, threatening at any moment to tip over onto the other side, yet bound to this side by a tenuous thread to which, out of some strange caprice, death, because it could only have been death, continued to keep hold. We had passed over to the next day, and on that day, as we said at the beginning of this tale, no one would die.
It was already late afternoon when the rumor began to spread that, since the beginning of the new year, or more precisely since zero hour on this first day of January, there was no record in the whole country of anyone dying. You might think, for example, that the rumor had its origins in the queen mother's surprising resistance to giving up the little life that was left to her, but the truth is that the usual medical bulletin issued to the media by the palace's press office not only stated that the general state of the royal patient had shown visible signs of improvement during the night, it even suggested, indeed implied, choosing its words very carefully, that there was a chance that her royal highness might be restored to full health. In its initial form, the rumor might also have sprung, naturally enough, from an undertaker's, No one seems to want to die on this first day of the new year, or from a hospital, That fellow in bed twenty-seven can't seem to make up his mind one way or the other, or from a spokesman for the traffic police, It's really odd, you know, despite all the accidents on the road, there hasn't been a single death we can hold up as a warning to others. The rumor, whose original source was never discovered, although, of course, this hardly mattered in the light of what came afterward, soon reached the newspapers, the radio and the television, and immediately caused the ears of directors, assistant directors and editors-in-chief to prick up, for these are people not only primed to sniff out from afar the major events of world history, they're also trained in the ability, when it suits, to make those events seem even more major than they really are. In a matter of minutes, dozens of investigative journalists were out on the street asking questions of any joe schmo who happened by, while the ranks of telephones in the throbbing editorial offices stirred and trembled in an identical investigatory frenzy. Calls were made to hospitals, to the red cross, to the morgue, to funeral directors, to the police, yes, all of them, with the understandable exception of the secret branch, but the replies given could be summed up in the same laconic words, There have been no deaths. A young female television reporter had more luck when she interviewed a passer-by, who kept glancing alternately at her and at the camera, and who described his personal experience, which was identical to what had happened to the queen mother, The church clock was striking midnight, he said, when, just before the last stroke, my grandfather, who seemed on the very point of expiring, suddenly opened his eyes as if he'd changed his mind about the step he was about to take, and didn't die. The reporter was so excited by what she'd heard that, ignoring all his pleas and protests, No,
I can't, I have to go to the chemist's, my grandfather's waiting for his prescription, she bundled him into the news car, Come with me, your grandfather doesn't need prescriptions any more, she yelled, and ordered the driver to go straight to the television studio, where, at that precise moment, everything was being set up for a debate between three experts on paranormal phenomena, namely, two highly regarded wizards and a celebrated clairvoyant, hastily summoned to analyze and give their views on what certain wags, the kind who have no respect for anything, were already beginning to refer to as a death strike. The bold reporter was, however, laboring under the gravest of illusions, for she had interpreted the words of her interviewee as meaning that the dying man had, quite literally, changed his mind about the step he was about to take, namely, to die, cash in his chips, kick the bucket, and so had decided to turn back. Now, the words that the happy grandson had pronounced, As if he'd changed his mind, were radically different from a blunt, He changed his mind. An elementary knowledge of syntax and a greater familiarity with the elastic subtleties of tenses would have avoided this blunder, as well as the subsequent dressing-down that the poor girl, scarlet with shame and humiliation, received from her immediate superior. Little could they, either he or she, have imagined that these words, repeated live by the interviewee and heard again in recorded form on that evening's news bulletin, would be interpreted in exactly the same mistaken way by millions of people, and that an immediate and disconcerting consequence of this would be the creation of a group firmly convinced that with the simple application of will-power they, too, could conquer death and that the undeserved disappearance of so many people in the past could be put down solely to a deplorable weakness of will on the part of previous generations. But things would not stop there. People, without having to make any perceptible effort, continued not to die, and so another popular mass movement, endowed with a more ambitious vision of the future, would declare that humanity's greatest dream since the beginning of time, the happy enjoyment of eternal life here on earth, had become a gift within the grasp of everyone, like the sun that rises every day and the air that we breathe. Although the two movements were both competing, so to speak, for the same electorate, there was one point on which they were able to agree, and that was on the nomination as honorary president, given his eminent status as pioneer, of the courageous veteran who, at the final moment, had defied and defeated death. As far as anyone knows, no particular importance would be given to the fact that grandpa remained in a state of profound coma, which everything seems to indicate is irreversible.
Although the word crisis is clearly not the most appropriate one to describe these extraordinary events, for it would be absurd, incongruous and an affront to the most basic logic to speak of a crisis in an existential situation that has been privileged by the absence of death, one can understand why some citizens, zealous of their right to know the truth, are asking themselves, and each other, what the hell is going on with the government, who have so far given not the slightest sign of life. When asked in passing during a brief interval between two meetings, the minister for health had, it is true, explained to journalists that, bearing in mind that they lacked sufficient information to form a judgment, any official statement would, inevitably, be premature, We are collating data being sent to us from all over the country, he added, and it's true to say that no deaths have been reported, but, as you can imagine, we have been as surprised as everyone else by this turn of events and are not as yet ready to formulate an initial theory about the origins of the phenomenon or about its immediate and future implications. He could have left the matter there, which, considering the difficulties of the situation, would have been a cause for gratitude, but the well-known impulse to urge people to keep calm about everything and nothing and to remain quietly in the fold whatever happens, this tropism which, among politicians, especially if they're in government, has become second nature, not to say automatic or mechanical, led him to conclude the conversation in the worst possible way, As minister responsible for health, I can assure everyone listening that there is absolutely no reason for alarm, If I understand you correctly, remarked the journalist in a tone that tried hard not to appear too ironic, the fact that no one is dying is, in your view, not in the least alarming, Exactly, well, those may not have been my precise words, but, yes, that, essentially, is what I said, May I remind you, minister, that people were dying even yesterday and it would never have occurred to anyone to think that alarming, Of course not, it's normal to die, and dying only becomes alarming when deaths multiply, during a war or an epidemic, for example, When things depart from the norm, You could put it like that, yes, But in the current situation, when, apparently, no one is prepared to die, you call on us not to be alarmed, would you not agree with me, minister, that such an appeal is, at the very least, somewhat paradoxical, It was mere force of habit, and I recognize that I shouldn't have applied the word alarm to the current situation, So what word would you use, minister, I only ask because, as the conscientious journalist I hope I am, I always try, where possible, to use the exact term. Slightly irritated by the journalist's insistence, the minister replied abruptly, I would use not one word, but six, And what would those be, minister, Let us not foster false hopes. This would doubtless have provided a good, honest headline for the newspaper the following day, but the editor-in-chief, having consulted his managing editor, thought it inadvisable, from the business point of view as well, to throw this bucket of icy water over the prevailing mood of enthusiasm, Let's go for the usual headline, New Year, New Life, he said.