José Saramago's penultimate novel The Elephant's Journey, the memoir Small Memories, Death at Intervals and other major works are published by Harvill Secker/Vintage.

The day death forgot how to kill a man

Apart from a few rare instances, as with those unusually perspicacious people whom we mentioned before, who, as they lay dying, spotted her at the foot of the bed in the classic garb of a ghost swathed in a white sheet or, as appears to have happened with proust, in the guise of a fat woman dressed in black, death is usually very discreet and prefers not to be noticed, especially if circumstances oblige her to go out into the street.

There is a widely held belief that since death, as some like to say, is one side of a coin of which god is the reverse, she must, like him, by her very nature, be invisible. Well, it isn't quite like that. We are reliable witnesses to the fact that death is a skeleton wrapped in a sheet, that she lives in a chilly room accompanied by a rusty old scythe that never replies to questions, and is surrounded only by cobwebs and a few dozen filing cabinets with large drawers stuffed with index cards. One can understand, therefore, why death wouldn't want to appear before people in that get-up, firstly, for reasons of personal pride, secondly, so that the poor passers-by wouldn't die of fright when, on turning a corner, they came face to face with those large empty eye-sockets.

In public, of course, death makes herself invisible, but not in private, at the critical moment, as attested by the writer marcel proust and those other unusually perspicacious people. The case of god is different. However hard he tried, he could never manage to make himself visible to human eyes and not because he can't, since for him nothing is impossible, it's simply that he wouldn't know what face to wear when introducing himself to the beings he supposedly created and who probably wouldn't recognize him anyway.

There are those who say we're very fortunate that god chooses not to appear before us, because compared with the shock we would get were such a thing to happen, our fear of death would be mere child's play. Besides, all the many things that have been said about god and about death are nothing but stories, and this is just another one.

Anyway, death decided to go into town. She took off the sheet, which was all she was wearing, carefully folded it up and hung it over the back of the chair where we have seen her sitting. Apart from the chair and the desk, apart, too, from the filing cabinets and the scythe, the room is otherwise bare, save for that narrow door which leads we know not where. Since it appears to be the only way out, it would be logical to think that death will pass through there in order to go into town, however, this proves not to be the case.

Without the sheet, death seemed to lose height, she's probably, at most, in human measurements, a metre sixty-six or sixty-seven, and when naked, without a thread of clothing on, she seems still smaller, almost a tiny adolescent skeleton. No one would say that this is the same death who so violently rejected our hand on her shoulder when, moved by misplaced feelings of pity, we tried to offer solace in her sadness.

There really is nothing in the world as naked as a skeleton. In life, it walks around doubly clothed, first by the flesh concealing it, then by the clothes with which said flesh likes to cover itself, if it hasn't removed them to take a bath or to engage in other more pleasurable activities. Reduced to what she really is, the half-dismantled scaffolding of someone who long ago ceased to exist, all that remains for death now is to disappear. And that is precisely what is happening to her, from her head to her toes. Before our astonished eyes, her bones are losing substance and solidity, her edges are growing blurred, what was solid is becoming gaseous, spreading everywhere like a tenuous mist, it's as if her skeleton were evaporating, now she's just a vague sketch through which one can see the indifferent scythe, and suddenly death is no longer there, she was and now she isn't, or she is, but we can't see her, or not even that, she simply passed straight through the ceiling of the subterranean room, through the enormous mass of earth above, and set off, as she had privately determined to do when the violet-coloured letter was returned to her for the third time.

We know where she's going. She can't kill the cellist, but she wants to see him, to have him there before her gaze, to touch him without his realizing. She's convinced that she will one day find a way of getting rid of him without breaking too many rules, but meanwhile she will find out who he is, this man whom death's warnings could not reach, what powers he has, if any, or if, like an innocent fool, he continues to live, never once thinking that he ought to be dead. Shut up in this cold room with no windows and only a narrow door leading who knows where, we hadn't noticed how quickly time passes. It's three o'clock in the morning, and death must already be in the cellist's house.

So it is. One of the things that death finds most tiring is the effort it takes to stop herself seeing everything everywhere simultaneously. In that respect, too, she is very like god. For although the fact doesn't appear amongst the verifiable data of human sensorial experience, we have been accustomed to believe, ever since we were children, that god and death, those supreme eminences, are everywhere always, that is, omnipresent, a word, like so many others, made up of space and time. It's highly likely, however, that when we think this, and perhaps even more so when we put it into words, considering how easily words leave our mouths, we have no clear idea what we mean.

It's easy enough to say that god is everywhere and that death is everywhere too, but we don't seem to realize that if they really are everywhere, then, inevitably, in all the infinite parts in which they find themselves, they see everything there is to see. Since god is duty-bound to be, at one and the same time, everywhere in the whole universe, because otherwise there would be no point in his having created it, it would be ridiculous to expect him to take a particular interest in little planet earth, which, and this is something that has not perhaps occurred to anyone else, he may know by some other completely different name, but death, the same death which, as we said earlier, is bound exclusively to the human race, doesn't take her eyes off us for a minute, so much so that even those who are not yet due to die feel her gaze pursuing them constantly.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

From Death at Intervals (2008), translated by Margaret Jull Costa.



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