Now and at the Hour of our Death by Susana Moreira Marques

7th Sep 2015

Now and at the hour of our death
Part oral history, part travelogue; in her lyrical debut Susana Moreira Marques speaks to families in a far corner of Northern Portugal facing death, whilst also addressing her own mortality.

When the marketing of this book called it fresh and original, I was secretly unconvinced I would agree. Haven’t humans been writing about death for thousands of years? What new ways can there be to approach it? Well, I can’t claim to have read everything ever written about death, but this book certainly felt fresh and original to me.

Susana Moreira Marques is a prizewinning journalist who for five months travelled with a palliative care team to a remote northern corner of Portugal to visit the homes of the dying, to speak with them and their families. The result is part memoir, part interview, part meditation on life, all written in a sparse poetic language that gets to the heart of the matter.

“AGONY: 1. Last struggle against death. 2. [Figurative] Anguish, affliction. 3. An imminent conclusion (preceded by a great disturbance). ‘Agony’, the dictionary does not note, is a technical term.”

I fear death. I find it overwhelming sometimes: the idea that a person – let’s be honest, that I – can just stop, just cease to exist. No more thoughts, no more feelings, no more me. Usually books about death do not raise this fear to the surface, they maybe make me feel sad, but Moreira Marques made me feel the terror.

...the amount to which Moreira Marques manages to get these strangers to open up to her is remarkableShe also made me feel hope, and appreciation for the beauty of the world, for the beauty of her words, even as she is describing people struggling to understand and cope. She is brutally honest, so it must be her own personal sense of love for the world, for life, that prevents this book being morbid or unbearably sad (though it certainly has sadness), and instead makes it an experience full of wonder, a journey of discovery.

“I watched the sunrise throw the land into light, a daily, perhaps even trivial, sight, but one that just then seemed to me unique. This is what we humans are like.”

The book opens with “travel notes about death” before profiling three families Moreira Marques met several times. The travel notes are sometimes abstract, sometimes they are thoughts interrupting other thoughts. They seem to be the author working through her own understanding of the end of life, musing on such subjects as what makes a “good death”, or how to survive the constant presence of death.

The profiles all end in transcripts of interviews – the actual words of the dying or those nearest them. This is where translator Julia Sanches’ work really shines through, because each voice is distinct, the language subtly reflecting the age and education of the speaker. There isn’t the same sense of poetry, but the amount to which Moreira Marques manages to get these strangers to open up to her is remarkable.

In the end, I felt the author was trying to come to peace with death, to see the grace and beauty that are possible when facing it if you are lucky enough to have love and happy memories. I can’t say my own fear has been alleviated but perhaps by facing it more squarely I will get there.