Throughout his fiction, José Saramago cultivates an entertaining and witty blend of logic and absurdity, and his work is characterised by an obsessive search for the right words and names even as he is amused by their arbitrariness. Death at Intervals, his latest novel to be published in English, begins with the news that death is on sabbatical. A simple opening statement (“The following day, no one died”) gives rise to a dazzling satirical display, as Saramago considers the consequences of death’s disappearance for undertakers, carpenters, journalists, retirement homes, insurance companies, various branches of philosophy and the church, government and opposition, “maphia,” militia and monarchy.
In his depiction of the machinery of bureaucracy, Saramago is heir to the great Czech novelists Kafka and Hašek. Despite spending the first half of his life under Portuguese dictatorship, he has stated in interviews his belief that ours is a particularly “dark age… when totalitarianism no longer even needs an ideology.” His fondness for lists apparent in this book is highly appropriate in a fictional world peopled predominantly with rules, regulations, acronyms (cacor—the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome—is a favourite), files and waiting lists, where the precision of job titles (“in her role as secretary, and a confidential secretary to boot”) is of the utmost importance. This is a compelling work by a fine writer. The unique Saramagan style—full stops, new paragraphs and capitals rarities, quotation marks eschewed—gives the impression of a thought experiment to which the writer is merely a catalyst. That impression is a carefully crafted one: true art conceals its art, wrote Ovid.
I’ve just finished JG Ballard’s autobiography, Miracles of Life, and think it’s one of the finest things I’ve read in the last year. More than almost any other living British author, Ballard seems to me to have an unflinching honesty at the heart of his writing—an acknowledgment, which is as much intuitive and emotional as it is intellectual, that almost everything we take for granted and treat as permanent is in fact a kind of illusion: a stage-set of conventions and customs that can be swept away at any moment, just as suddenly and brutally as a human life can be ended. I value his short stories as a literary touchstone more than those of almost any author, and I’m certain I will be turning to this autobiography again to savour its lucid…