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Book and Media Reviews
June 18, 2008

Death at Intervals

JAMA. 2008;299(23):2802. doi:10.1001/jama.299.23.2802

What if people suddenly stopped dying?

Would it be the ultimate goal of medical science—the greatest miracle of all time, or at least a cause for widespread jubilation? Maybe not. In the lengthy fable Death at Intervals by José Saramago (the 1998 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature), the termination of death raises plenty of questions and spawns a slew of serious problems.

In an unnamed nation of 10 million people, death disappears on January 1. The newspaper headline proclaims: “New Year, New Life.” While plants and other animals continue the normal cycle of life and death, all human beings in a single country no longer die. The euphoria associated with the thought of everlasting life on earth is soon replaced by apprehension and panic. The reality of arrested death turns out to be less enchanting than the idea of immortality. A large number of individuals already on the brink of death—the very elderly and irreversibly ill—are trapped in a state of suspended life.