Chapter Excerpt

The following day, no one died. this fact, being
absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in
the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds,
for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of
universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary
case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole
day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty- four hours,
diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one
death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one,
not a single one. Not even from a car accident, so frequent on
festive occasions, when blithe irresponsibility and an excess of
alcohol jockey for position on the roads to decide who will reach
death first. New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual
calamitous trail of fatalities, as if old atropos with her great
bared teeth had decided to put aside her shears for a day. There
was, however, no shortage of blood. Bewildered, confused, distraught,
struggling to control their feelings of nausea, the firemen
extracted from the mangled remains wretched human
bodies that, according to the mathematical logic of the collisions,
should have been well and truly dead, but which, despite
the seriousness of the injuries and lesions suffered, remained
alive and were carried off to hospital, accompanied by the shrill
sound of the ambulance sirens. None of these people would die
along the way and all would disprove the most pessimistic of
medical prognoses, There’s nothing to be done for the poor
man, it’s not even worth operating, a complete waste of time,
said the surgeon to the nurse as she was adjusting his mask. And
the day before, there would probably have been no salvation for
this particular patient, but one thing was clear, today, the victim
refused to die. And what was happening here was happening
throughout the country. Up until the very dot of midnight
on the last day of the year there were people who died in full
compliance with the rules, both those relating to the nub of
the matter, i.e. the termination of life, and those relating to the
many ways in which the aforementioned nub, with varying degrees
of pomp and solemnity, chooses to mark the fatal moment.
One particularly interesting case, interesting because of
the person involved, was that of the very ancient and venerable
queen mother. At one minute to midnight on the thirty- first of
december, no one would have been so ingenuous as to bet a
spent match on the life of the royal lady. With all hope lost, with
the doctors helpless in the face of the implacable medical evidence,
the royal family, hierarchically arranged around the bed,
waited with resignation for the matriarch’s last breath, perhaps
a few words, a final edifying comment regarding the moral ed-
ucation of the beloved princes, her grandsons, perhaps a beautiful,
well- turned phrase addressed to the ever ungrateful memory
of future subjects. And then, as if time had stopped, nothing
happened. The queen mother neither improved nor deteriorated,
she remained there in suspension, her frail body hovering
on the very edge of life, threatening at any moment to tip
over onto the other side, yet bound to this side by a tenuous
thread to which, out of some strange caprice, death, because it
could only have been death, continued to keep hold. We had
passed over to the next day, and on that day, as we said at the
beginning of this tale, no one would die.
     It was already late afternoon when the rumor began to
spread that, since the beginning of the new year, or more precisely
since zero hour on this first day of january, there was no
record in the whole country of anyone dying. You might think,
for example, that the rumor had its origins in the queen mother’s
surprising resistance to giving up the little life that was left to
her, but the truth is that the usual medical bulletin issued to the
media by the palace’s press office not only stated that the general
state of the royal patient had shown visible signs of improvement
during the night, it even suggested, indeed implied,
choosing its words very carefully, that there was a chance that
her royal highness might be restored to full health. In its initial
form, the rumor might also have sprung, naturally enough,
from an undertaker’s, No one seems to want to die on this first
day of the new year, or from a hospital, That fellow in bed
twenty- seven can’t seem to make up his mind one way or the
other, or from a spokesman for the traffic police, It’s really odd,
you know, despite all the accidents on the road, there hasn’t been
a single death we can hold up as a warning to others. The rumor,
whose original source was never discovered, although, of course,
this hardly mattered in the light of what came afterward, soon
reached the newspapers, the radio and the television, and immediately
caused the ears of directors, assistant directors and
editors- in- chief to prick up, for these are people not only
primed to sniff out from afar the major events of world history,
they’re also trained in the ability, when it suits, to make those
events seem even more major than they really are. In a matter
of minutes, dozens of investigative journalists were out on the
street asking questions of any joe schmo who happened by, while
the ranks of telephones in the throbbing editorial offices stirred
and trembled in an identical investigatory frenzy. Calls were
made to hospitals, to the red cross, to the morgue, to funeral directors,
to the police, yes, all of them, with the understandable
exception of the secret branch, but the replies given could be
summed up in the same laconic words, There have been no
deaths. A young female television reporter had more luck when
she interviewed a passer- by, who kept glancing alternately at her
and at the camera, and who described his personal experience,
which was identical to what had happened to the queen mother,
The church clock was striking midnight, he said, when, just before
the last stroke, my grandfather, who seemed on the very
point of expiring, suddenly opened his eyes as if he’d changed
his mind about the step he was about to take, and didn’t die.
The reporter was so excited by what she’d heard that, ignoring
all his pleas and protests, No, senhora, I can’t, I have to go to the
chemist’s, my grandfather’s waiting for his prescription, she
bundled him into the news car, Come with me, your grandfather
doesn’t need prescriptions any more, she yelled, and ordered the
driver to go straight to the television studio, where, at that precise
moment, everything was being set up for a debate between
three experts on paranormal phenomena, namely, two highly
regarded wizards and a celebrated clairvoyant, hastily summoned
to analyze and give their views on what certain wags, the
kind who have no respect for anything, were already beginning
to refer to as a death strike. The bold reporter was, however, laboring
under the gravest of illusions, for she had interpreted the
words of her interviewee as meaning that the dying man had,
quite literally, changed his mind about the step he was about to
take, namely, to die, cash in his chips, kick the bucket, and so
had decided to turn back. Now, the words that the happy grandson
had pronounced, As if he’d changed his mind, were radically
different from a blunt, He changed his mind. An elementary
knowledge of syntax and a greater familiarity with the elastic
subtleties of tenses would have avoided this blunder, as well as
the subsequent dressing- down that the poor girl, scarlet with
shame and humiliation, received from her immediate superior.
Little could they, either he or she, have imagined that these
words, repeated live by the interviewee and heard again in
recorded form on that evening’s news bulletin, would be interpreted
in exactly the same mistaken way by millions of people,
and that an immediate and disconcerting consequence of this
would be the creation of a group firmly convinced that with the
simple application of will-power they, too, could conquer death
and that the undeserved disappearance of so many people in the
past could be put down solely to a deplorable weakness of will
on the part of previous generations. But things would not stop
there. People, without having to make any perceptible effort,
continued not to die, and so another popular mass movement,
endowed with a more ambitious vision of the future, would declare
that humanity’s greatest dream since the beginning of time,
the happy enjoyment of eternal life here on earth, had become
a gift within the grasp of everyone, like the sun that rises every
day and the air that we breathe. Although the two movements
were both competing, so to speak, for the same electorate, there
was one point on which they were able to agree, and that was
on the nomination as honorary president, given his eminent status
as pioneer, of the courageous veteran who, at the final moment,
had defied and defeated death. As far as anyone knows,
no particular importance would be given to the fact that grandpa
remained in a state of profound coma, which everything seems
to indicate is irreversible.
     Although the word crisis is clearly not the most appropriate
one to describe these extraordinary events, for it would be
absurd, incongruous and an affront to the most basic logic to
speak of a crisis in an existential situation that has been privileged
by the absence of death, one can understand why some
citizens, zealous of their right to know the truth, are asking
themselves, and each other, what the hell is going on with the
government, who have so far given not the slightest sign of life.
When asked in passing during a brief interval between two
meetings, the minister for health had, it is true, explained to
journalists that, bearing in mind that they lacked sufficient information
to form a judgment, any official statement would, inevitably,
be premature, We are collating data being sent to us
from all over the country, he added, and it’s true to say that no
deaths have been reported, but, as you can imagine, we have
been as surprised as everyone else by this turn of events and are
not as yet ready to formulate an initial theory about the origins
of the phenomenon or about its immediate and future implications.
He could have left the matter there, which, considering
the difficulties of the situation, would have been a cause for gratitude,
but the well- known impulse to urge people to keep calm
about everything and nothing and to remain quietly in the fold
whatever happens, this tropism which, among politicians, especially
if they’re in government, has become second nature, not
to say automatic or mechanical, led him to conclude the conversation
in the worst possible way, As minister responsible for
health, I can assure everyone listening that there is absolutely no
reason for alarm, If I understand you correctly, remarked the
journalist in a tone that tried hard not to appear too ironic, the
fact that no one is dying is, in your view, not in the least alarming,
Exactly, well, those may not have been my precise words,
but, yes, that, essentially, is what I said, May I remind you, minister,
that people were dying even yesterday and it would never
have occurred to anyone to think that alarming, Of course not,
it’s normal to die, and dying only becomes alarming when
deaths multiply, during a war or an epidemic, for example,
When things depart from the norm, You could put it like that,
yes, But in the current situation, when, apparently, no one is
prepared to die, you call on us not to be alarmed, would you not
agree with me, minister, that such an appeal is, at the very least,
somewhat paradoxical, It was mere force of habit, and I recognize
that I shouldn’t have applied the word alarm to the current
situation, So what word would you use, minister, I only ask because,
as the conscientious journalist I hope I am, I always try,
where possible, to use the exact term. Slightly irritated by the
journalist’s insistence, the minister replied abruptly, I would use
not one word, but six, And what would those be, minister, Let
us not foster false hopes. This would doubtless have provided a
good, honest headline for the newspaper the following day, but
the editor- in- chief, having consulted his managing editor,
thought it inadvisable, from the business point of view as well,
to throw this bucket of icy water over the prevailing mood of
enthusiasm, Let’s go for the usual headline, New Year, New Life,
he said.
     In the official communiqué, broadcast late that night, the
prime minister confirmed that no deaths had been recorded
anywhere in the country since the beginning of the new year, he
called for moderation and a sense of responsibility in any evaluations
and interpretations of this strange fact...


Excerpted from Death with Interruptions by José Saramago
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