In Gulliver’s Travels Swift presented such aberrations of nature as people the size of mice, giants towering like steeples and ancients doomed to immortality. This novel by the Portuguese writer and 1998 Nobel Prize winner José Saramago is based, as were two of its predecessors, on similar subversions of the natural order, with fantasy becoming, as in Swift’s masterpiece, the servant of satire. In Saramago’s The Stone Raft (1986), the whole of the Iberian peninsula breaks off from Europe and drifts into the Atlantic. In Blindness (1995), a plague of ‘white blindness’ afflicts nearly all the inhabitants of an unnamed country. In this latest work, everyone in an again unnamed country loses the ability to die. From these preposterous premises Saramago, like Swift, proceeds with relentless logic – except that at one point in this book he allows the chain of that logic to snap. In a society in which people afflicted with the most appalling diseases are denied the mercy of death, how can those incinerated in fires, dismembered in car crashes or blown to smithereens in explosions remain immortal if their bodies no longer exist? Saramago provides no plausible answer.
At first, hanging out flags and wildly celebrating, almost everyone is overjoyed by such an unexpected triumph over mortality. But then disturbing consequences become increasingly apparent. Hospitals, social services and relatives can no longer cope with the bottleneck created by queues of the living dead awaiting their release; there is