Death has never been absent from literature, and, if anything, there has recently been an outpouring of books dealing with loss. Grief, however, is an experience of the living; giving voice to grief often means viewing death through the filter of memory, where the life lived is more important than those final months. In Now and at the Hour of Our Death, Susana Moreira Marques takes a more journalistic approach to death (as befits someone who is a journalist) having spent time with a palliative care team who worked in rural Portugal during 2011 (Marques is a Portuguese journalist; the book was translated by Julia Sanches). The resultant book is more than reportage, however, despite passages which reproduce verbatim the words of the dying. Over its short length it grapples with a number of approaches, as if admitting than no one response can do the subject justice.
The first section, Travel Notes about Death, reads like a travelogue through the land of death. We briefly meet some of the individuals Marques encounters:
“He’s been bedridden for so many years that death is no longer a novelty. His skin is the thinnest white and, from his bed, he asks that the window always be left open.”
Interspersed with these vignettes are meditations headed Survival Guide, for example:
“Think of death in detail. Don’t think of the whole.”
and definitions of such words as ‘agony’ and ‘palliative’. Marques creates the sense of travelling through this landscape with frequent references to roads:
“The road does not seem the same, and yet every road seems the same.”
Her journey comes to echo that of a religious allegory. The constant presence of death flattens reality into imagery:
“And yet another metaphor: the border.”
This section has a cumulative power that reminded me of David Markson’s later works. What’s lacking, of course, is that deeper sense of the individual experience which Marques provides in the second section, Portraits. Each portrait is painted in two parts: firstly, in Marque’s words, and then secondly, in the person’s own, transcribed from Marques’ interviews. This works better than the usual journalistic technique of subsuming quotations into the article, thereby making the writer’s superiority (and control) clear. This way, Marques provides a context but then allows her subject to speak for him or herself (after all, one of the main messages of the book is, “you only know what it’s like when it happens to you,” as Paula, the first portrait, tells us).
There are only three of these stories, each providing a different perspective. When it comes to the elderly couple, Joao and Maria, their words are presented as a dialogue, appropriately as their greatest fear is separation:
“If there was just one of us left, we’d have nothing to do but stare at the walls.”
The final story is from the point of view of two daughters whose father is dying. If I had a criticism of the book it would be that three does not seem many, despite Marques’ attempt to show a breadth of experience. Of course, too many such stories would lessen the effect and move the reader from poignancy to boredom. Perhaps it would have been better if these, too, were excerpted among the first section – the division in two was one of the few things about the book which felt artificial. (There is a single page final section, which reads like a list of what Marques has learned).
Despite that single misgiving, this is book which stares death in the face and doesn’t flinch. There is no attempt to make it meaningful, or raise it beyond the often painful, and sometimes prolonged, process it is. Marques’ journey is perhaps one we should all be prepared to take.