“The following day no one died.”
Thus the opening sentence of this extraordinary and magical book. Death has decided that she needs a holiday. I should not have capitalized her name but that it opened a new sentence. She herself does not want to begin her name with a capital D. Death is the central character of the book. Her decision to take a holiday which she feels is well deserved, creates pandemonium in this country of two million people who are condemned to continue life regardless of the state of their health or their age or of any other possible eventuality.
Suspended life. No one knows what to do. The government, as is habitual in times of emergency, creates a commission: in this case of newspaper editors, ministers, clairvoyants and cardinals. I need hardly tell you that the burial societies and the insurance companies operate in a mode of utter panic. How can they continue to work? The church consults the president: how are we to maintain a church, a following of believers when we have no eternity to offer?
A large part of the novel is speculative, the examples, the solutions, the hysterics are all generalized until, half way towards the end, Saramago finds a fifty year old cellist who resists death’s warning. (perhaps I should have included in my brief summary that when things get too much out of hand, when the people start to drag the fragile and about to die old, across the border so that they can die quickly on foreign soil, death decides on an intermediary solution wherein she sends letters of warning to people giving them a week in which to make adequate preparations for this event.) The letter death had sent him was returned without any message from the post office to explain the situation. Death goes to see him and I will leave you in suspense.
I read a review in which the writer called this book an allegory/parable/literary philosophy/science fiction/novel/painting/musical composition. Well, why not?
Saramago is no longer young. 85 or so. Perhaps he too would like to put a human face on death.
I loved the book, but I have one question concerning the translations. Death in all the romance languages is, indeed, a she. Not in German. DER TOD. I assume it is the same in the northern countries. What then will happen? I must get myself a German copy.