Death at Intervals (2005 in Portuguese. 2008 in English translation) Jose Saramago


The genre ‘Magical Realism’ has been defined by the ‘Wordsworth Companion to Literature’ as ‘characterised by the juxtaposition of apparently reliable, realistic reportage and extravagant fantasy.’ As well as other political contexts the genre draws heavily on traditions of political satire, fables, tall tales and the full range of comic writing. It usually deals with dialectics on the nature of truth, fate and the power structures of society. All of the joys of the genre of Magical Realism are utililised with relish by the brilliant Portuguese novelists Jose Saramago, in the delightfully provocative novel ‘Death by Intervals.’ The novel explores the startling proposition, ‘What would happen if people in a certain country stopped suddenly dying?

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…

Thus starts a curious and eccentric excursion through a world where ‘death’ (lower case!) has stopped doing her job. The initial euphoria in this unnamed small country is soon countered by more practical self centred, economic and political concerns. This premise allows Saramago to unleash a full range of delicious satire on issues of Governance, the use and misuse of language, systems of power and the sinister idiosyncrasies of the free market structures. Sounds dry? In Saramago’s hand the tone is wry and dry; we enjoy chuckles and head shakes rather than superior sneering, as in the following;

‘Occupied as we were with explaining what happened after the fateful stroke of midnight to the sixty-two thousand five hundred and eighty people left in a state of suspended life, we put off for a more opportune moment, which happens to be this one, our indispensable reflections on the way in which the changed situation affected the eventide homes, the hospitals…’


After romping through the societal consequences of this strange turn of events, he alters the focus of the story towards the consequences for particular citizens. This is where Saramago reveals his compassion for individuals caught in a larger, impersonalised system.To personalise the consequences of the end of mortality, he introduces the character of ‘death’ as a skeletal, hooded personnel officer, who can turn into a beautiful a very alive young woman. This reframing of ‘death’ as a character of considerable appeal and human vulnerabilities, challenges the usual depiction of death as Thanatos, the remorseless arranger of dying, or the grim reaper, whose haunting visage occupies most representations of death. This is one transforming and powerful element, characteristic of the inventive mind of the author.

Saramago’s narrative style is unique and for some first time readers may be a little off putting. He mocks himself richly in the text. He faux accuses a subeditor of altering his style to contain “the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter.” Of course this is Saramago himself writ large. I humbly suggest very slow reading at first, to adjust to his convoluted, digressive sentence structures. Then listen well to the delightful yet penetrating musical language of Margaret Jull Costa’s translation. The richness of this text lends itself to the usefulness of rereading. I can’t help but wonder, as with any translations, if we are missing some of the poetic magic of the original Portuguese. This novel is a delightful combination of intellectual inquiry and whimsical characterisation and plotting, voiced with the wry, urbane humour of Jose Saramago. For those who wish to try something refreshingly bold, experimental and just serious fun, ‘Death at Intervals’ or any other Saramago is for you. Looking forward to your comments!

violet image

‘When he finished playing, her hands were no longer cold and his hands were on fire, which is why their hands were not in the least bit surprised when hand reached out to hand…’

4 thoughts on “Death at Intervals (2005 in Portuguese. 2008 in English translation) Jose Saramago

  1. I have only read one magic realism book that I know of (and embarrassed to say I can’t remember the title!) it was about a tree which came to life in a human like way and embraced a house. Could you recommend some other magic realism authors or magic realism classics so I can further investigate this genre?

    1. Hi Kimberly, thanks so much for the inquiry. If you get interested in this genre you will have an absolute galaxy of great works to admire. The text which I have not read yet but is sitting on my shelf impatiently is ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Marquez. Ones that I have read and loved were ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern, ‘Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison, ‘The Eyre Affair’ by Jasper Fforde, the ‘Harry Potter’ series. Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ is another classic of the genre. If you are not sure, I would start with ‘The Night Circus’ or ‘Shadow of the Wind’ both of which I have read multiple times and would happily read again. Beware though, this is an enchanting genre and you mind find yourself neglecting your blog, and pretty well everything else. Have fun in your explorations and let me know how it goes. :-))

      1. Oh wow…I’ve been reading magic realism and not realising that’s what it was! I loved ‘Beloved’ and many years ago read ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. On another tack, (hope you don’t mind it being in this post) did you get around to Dylan Thomas? I love him so much I went to the one-man show recently at The Playhouse. He has such an extraordinary Richard Burtonesque voice I would really urge you to listen to him reading his work, particularly my favourite the short story ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’. I borrowed a great audio collection called ‘Dylan Thomas: The Caedmon Collection’ (11 CDs) from Maitland Library.

  2. The beauty of the best Magic Realism texts are the natural and convincing style in which realism and elements of fantasy are incorporated. Think about the seamless incorporation of the character of ‘Beloved’ in Morrison’s novel, and the multiple ways her presence can be interpreted. Another intriguing novella is the recently published ‘Springtime’ by the fabulous Michelle de Kretser. Such a fine crafted work. Enjoy!!. ps Am seeing an on-stage version of ‘Under Milk Wood’ in Sydney in a few weeks. Should be great.

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