I still recall that day when the newfangled, recently opened, and biggest book store in my hometown started shelving Jose Saramago’s books. There was Seeing, The Double, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, and this book, Death at Intervals. Or Death with Interruptions, which I think is the more popular edition. I didn’t realize that my fawning of the covers of these Vintage editions would lead me to my fascination of Saramago’s works and my ultimate adoration and respect for him as one would have for a loving grandfather.
Being a college student during that time, I couldn’t afford to buy all those four books. Not that I could afford them now any moment. Besides, I still have yet to find out whether I’d like Saramago’s works or not. To answer this one, I have to read one.
I picked this one for a test drive, mainly because it’s the most expensive among the four. The price of a book does not always justify the satisfaction that a reader can get from it, so you can judge my judgment later. But really, I think I picked the right book.
The novel starts with a phenomenon that has never happened in this world: no one dies on the first day of the year. This is a reason for celebration, yes? The people’s joy cannot be suppressed, for the great fear of death is taken off their shoulders.
However, the celebration doesn’t last long as the absence of death makes its presence felt. Demographics and economics face larger than life issues. The foundations of religion are greatly challenged. Schools of philosophies are debunked. People who are supposed to be dead, like people who are disemboweled or decapitated, are not able to escape life. Imagine a man eating with his entrails flowing out of his abdomen, imagine a talking head, imagine the outright incredulity and accompanying suffering of it. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
And suddenly, most probably out of a whim, death strikes back. The vacation is over, the results of the experiment are now seen. Let me make it clear that death is a character here. Yes, death with a lowercase: a woman with the traditional skeletal frame covered with black cloak. With the capacity to think, to go to town, to have conversations, to complain. She is armed with a scythe, of course, who is also a character in the novel. I say who, not which, because the scythe is death’s only confidante.
Death decides to try a new experiment. She now takes life from people by sending short notices to the ones who are next on the death list. Yes, this is a literal list, and death even has index cards à la old-fashioned libraries that contain each person’s biographical information. Which makes this book a reading àpropos to All the Names, another Saramago novel that features a city registrar following the life of an ordinary woman.
And I digress. Yes, death starts writing these letters. She gives a personal touch to each one, an attempt to spice up the endless routine of her job. Everyone should be back to normal, right? Things will be placed back to where they were. But are they?
And there is a problem. The delivery system of the feared purple letters suffers a glitch somewhere. One stubborn letter goes back to her over and over again. And death investigates.
The letter is addressed to a mediocre cellist. As much as I would like to go on, I think I should stop here. What started as musings on life and death shifts to a love story. The impossible love story of a man and death, yes, the skeleton the world has associated with the personified Death. Again, I’ll leave the rest to you. I am in no mood to spoil one of the greatest love stories ever told.
Listeners of classical music will be delighted to know that this novel has something in store for them. Before reading this, I have almost zero knowledge on this field. The extensive talk of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6 in some parts of the novel led me to do some research. I have always been fascinated by the cello, so it’s not really a burden to run a search at Google and YouTube. I even think that it’s a must to know how that cello suite sounds, which is we could call the book’s soundtrack.
The cello is a sophisticated and romantic instrument, and its semblance to a human being only draws me nearer to it. Not easy on the budget though. The book’s soundtrack only served to relive my cello fascination back in college. In an attempt to fulfill a musical wish, I bought a violin and took violin lessons.
Why a violin? I assumed that it would be easier to learn the cello if I know some violin, a cousin of the cello which is somehow a more convenient and cheaper alternative. Not that these instruments are cheap. Anyway, while I was in the midst of my violin journey, I realized that I could not make my violin sing because my fingers are longing for a cello. And the cello is a whole new thing, not an extension of the violin.
Now, I still haven’t bought a cello or signed up for cello lessons because I couldn’t find a convincing teacher yet. I am still looking though. If you haven’t realized it yet, all I’m saying is that this novel made me pursue things that I thought I have forgotten, things that my heart still long for. That’s how influential and life-changing this book is for me.