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Views & Reviews Review of the Week

When death took a holiday

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 11 March 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b941
  1. Richard Smith, director, Ovations Chronic Disease Initiative
  1. richardswsmith{at}

    What would happen if people stopped dying, asks a new novel by Nobel prize winner José Saramago. Richard Smith reviews it

    “If,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “you were to think more deeply about death, then it would be truly strange if, in doing so, you did not encounter new images, new linguistic fields.” José Saramago, the Portuguese author who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1998, prefaces his novel Death at Intervals with this quotation—and presumably saw it as a challenge. He rises to the challenge with aplomb, and Wittgenstein would not be disappointed.

    Saramago’s first way to think about death is to imagine that it stops. The “death strike” begins with the New Year in an unnamed country. It takes a while for people to realise that nobody is dying, and the health minister immediately gets into a mess by telling the people, as is the instinct with politicians, that nobody should be alarmed. A cardinal is, however, …

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