Saramago on Canvas, 2007 from author's bottelh...

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A Novella by José Saramago

A Nobel laureate who delights in the use of long, uninterrupted sentences, Saramago, in the first half of this book, presents a satire on the implications of immortal life, while the second half builds a nearly sympathetic portrait of the main protagonist, death (with a small d).

Imagine you live in a country of roughly 10 million people where, at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, of some unnamed year, people stop dying.  I’m talking about immortality but certainly not the fountain of youth.  People continue to age, be injured, suffer strokes and heart attacks, contract deadly illnesses, yet when they arrive at death’s door, can go no further and languish there in whatever condition they arrive. 

And, let’s take your imagination a little further down this track.  What degree of chaos might result, when several months later, death publicly acknowledges her mistake, people start dying again and she clears the backlog of 62,508 people with a flick of her wrist?  

And when death, follows with yet another unilateral dictate, that she will no longer take people’s lives by stealth and will, in future, give a week’s warning of  impending death, all hell breaks loose (sorry, couldn’t resist that cliché).  What would you do if you received one of death’s violet-coloured letters, written in her own strange penmanship and delivered by regular post, stating you had seven days to wrap things up, to complete your Will, settle grievances, say goodbye to loved ones and make your peace?

But, rest easy readers, death does get her’s when one violet envelope is returned, unopened, not once, but four times?  “How could this be?”, she asks of Scythe who leans forever on the wall of her chilly, subterranean office.   And when she visits this ordinary man, first cellist for one of his city’s orchestras, in his home at night, while he sleeps, why do you think the sight of his sheet music, Beethoven’s ninth symphony, in the key of joy, of unity between men, of friendship and of love, would force death to collapse onto her bony knees, cover her skull-face with her skeletal hands, her shoulders heaving and shaking as if she were actually sobbing uncontrollably? 

And, one last speculation, please.  Why would death assume human form (in the guise of a pretty woman) to personally deliver the errant envelope, after consulting the complete volume of death’s historic ordinances, and discovering in the small print, a footnote, that she is authorized to act as she thinks best “ … to fulfill the desideratum that should at all times guide her actions that is, to put an end to human lives when the time prescribed for them at birth has expired, even if to achieve that effect she has to resort to less orthodox methods in situations where the person puts up an abnormal degree of resistance…”?