16 February 2008
Parca’s creaking scissors
In the craft of the sentence, José Saramago is one of the great originals. His prose is a voice that envelops all voices: it is like the universe’s immanent murmur. Those who have not read him before will be startled from the very first page of his new novel, when speech first appears. The anonymous, perhaps only hypothetical speaker begins talking in the middle of a narrative sentence, following a comma, with no quotation marks but only a capital letter to mark the beginning of his speech and nothing to mark its end. A decentring feature of this long-established style is that when people speak in sentences themselves containing commas, you are not at first quite sure when the speech has ended and the narrator’s voice has resumed, Is it here, you think, No, it’s later on, it must be here, I reckon, you see how tricky this can be. Dialogue, too, is conducted in this way, again separated only by commas, with no he-said she-said, the conversation flowing through long, rolling lines. Described thus, the technique might sound messy. But somehow Saramago makes of it a fruitful confusion, a beautiful smudging. By not privileging the narrator’s voice he enacts a kind of democracy.
In Death at Intervals Saramago explores, among other things, the ramifications for this process of a minute decision of orthography. He will write Death, the name of the folkloric hooded skeleton carrying a scythe, in lower-case: that personage is called death. The only other proper names in the whole novel are those of the dead, and they are written similarly: socrates, marcel proust, our lord jesus christ. (The living, by contrast, are all named descriptively: the director-general, the prime minister, the apprentice philosopher.) This primes us for an allusion to a character in Saramago’s earlier novel, the Borgesian love story All the Names. The narrator of the new book refers implicity to that novel’s hero:
a certain registrar who decided to bring together in one archive the names and documents belonging to the living and the dead under his protection, yes, every single one, alleging that only when they were brought together could they represent humanity as it should be understood, an absolute whole, independent of time and place, and that keeping them separate until then had been an attack upon the spirit.
We might think, then, of Death at Intervals as a companion volume to All the Names, or in a way its photographic negative.
The living and the dead are brought together here, too. The novel begins: “The following day, no one died.” In an anonymous, contemporary country, death stops working. Those who ought to die because of extreme sickness or injury remain on this side, in a state known as “suspended life or, as they preferred to call it, arrested death”. Meanwhile, everyone else can hope to live for ever. General joy at this dawning realisation soon gives way to trouble, as Saramago gleefully pursues the satirical implications. He describes a government hounded by industry lobbies: the insurance industry (why would anyone continue to pay life-insurance premiums?); funeral directors; the Catholic church. Nursing homes unhappily foresee a future when the majority of society will have reached arrested death, supported by a dwindling number of young. (The allegory is sometimes only a whisker away from modern reality.) Meanwhile, the families of some people in arrested death smuggle them over the border to get rid of them, because death has only ceased within the imaginary outline of this one nation.
All this is narrated in Saramago’s customary exquisite deadpan, with his surfeit of happy invention and comically precise offhand detail. (Why are there exactly “forty volumes of universal history”?) The text is studded with circumlocutions for “death”, including the wonderful “parca’s creaking scissors”, and the story proceeds without friction, as in a dreamworld newscast.
Then, at the half-way point, something happens, of which we learn after a masterful 11-page sequence of narrative suspense, deliberately withholding a crucial fact of epistolary information that the publisher’s blurb blithely betrays on the back cover. If you buy this book, I beg you not to read the back cover. The novel becomes an extraordinary romance, joking and yet deadly serious in its mythic elan. It contains music, and a dog, and the ever-present narrator, who admits disarmingly to “taking advantage of the reader’s credulity, and leaping over the respect owed to the logic of events”.
No one writes quite like Saramago, so solicitous and yet so magnificently free. He works as though cradling a thing of magic. “One cannot be too careful with words,” the narrator notes, “they change their minds just as people do.”