Portuguese journalist Susana Moreira Marques is writing against the literary notion of death as something dramatic and revelatory, when really too often it’s tedious, mundane—the slow slipping away of life that occurs in old age, first the body falters then the mind forgets and at last, eventually, some years later if we’re lucky, our final day comes and no final epiphany comes with it. Tomorrow the world will go on without us. And by then there will be no “us.”
In this short collection of reportage and interviews, Moreira Marques offers brief witness to the end of these lives hard lived. Over the course of a year, she traveled with health care providers around Trás-os-Montes in northeast Portugal, a region where, for the most part, the young have moved away and only the old remain. In the first section, “Travel Notes About Death,” the road she walks takes on metaphoric importance as it does in so much travel literature. “The road, the road, the road,” Moreira Marques writes, “A bird of prey snatches her kill off the tarmac then flies away … The road, the road, the road.” Her journey is recorded in snippets and fragments of thought. There is no overarching narrative, no culminating event, just words, whispers, and death.
Occasionally we learn a touch of medical terminology along the way. A conspiracy of silence, for instance, has numerous meanings:
CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE: 1. Technical term used to describe a situation in which family members will conceal the patient’s illness from the patient. The doctor is either persuaded to do so as well or will suggest maintaining the illusion. 2. Term also used in situations where the patient will pretend not to know what he or she knows about his or her illness and, thinking that their family members know nothing, will ask the doctor to conceal this information from the rest of the family. 3. In which the patient pretends no to know the gravity of the situation and pretends he or she doesn’t know that the family knows.
This dance of denial sounds farcical, screwball. But what else is there to do when confronted with nothingness except to opt for silence and the delusion of smiles? It’s another paltry attempt to manage the arduousness of dying, “a task,” Moreira Marques notes, “that seems to require tremendous effort.”
Early on, she establishes a cruelty, that death is not an exciting journey into the unknown because death is the end of everything, including the unknown. This is not stated as a horrid truth but simply as a reminder of what is and will not be: “there may not be an unknown, only an end.” If there is divinity to be found here, it does not reside in some majestic afterlife or in some ultimate comprehending of oneself. There is no aperture of clouds. For Moreira Marques, what divinity there is can be found only in the quiet beauty that would otherwise go unnoticed, in that artist’s refuge, the details. “Stop,” Moreira Marques writes, as part of a series of notes called ‘Survival guide.’ “Listen to the beating of your heart. Look out at the wild cherry trees laden with fruit.”