Now and at the Hour of Our Death follows journalist Susana Moreira Marques as she attempts to report on a project of palliative home care in Trás-os-Montes, in the Planalto Mirandês. Susana writes about death in a way no journalist ever has and in a range of generic registers: travel notes, standard narrative, stream of consciousness, interviews, as well as what seem to be personal confessions. Rather than erase herself from the text, as most journalists would, she guides us through her impressions and transformation during her experience “at the end of the world” (or of Portugal) and of life.
At no point does Susana attempt to provide an objective account of her experience, nor does she presume to be able to extricate herself from the piece she is writing. This demonstrates a willingness to be part of the story that involves us, as readers, more deeply in it. Which is precisely the book’s strength: Now and at the Hour of Our Death, from the very beginning, from its very title, claims not to be about her or you or I or them, but about us. It is about now and about the hour of our death.
As Susana winds her way along the country roads of Trás-os-Montes, from household to household and family to family, we travel with her and come to understand, as she does (when she embraces Sara at the door of her house after a conversation full of tears and wine), both a fundamental and terrifying truth (one we go through life forgetting so that we can go through life): we think death happens to other people, that grieving and loss happen to other people, but we are other people.
Broken into three sections – ‘Travel Notes about Death’, ‘Portraits’ and ‘When You Return from the Journey no Sane Person Wants to Go On, You Will…’ – the first section of the book lays down a sort of philosophical and emotional groundwork that echoes subtly throughout the rest of the book.
‘Notes’ is made up of a series of vignettes. Susana herself admitted she didn’t quite know what to call them either, but the term vignette both captures the sense of a brief, evocative impression, as well as that of a portrait photograph whose edges fade into the background, which seems fitting since those people (or perhaps characters?) who populate Now and at the Hour of Our Death are inseparable from their setting. In short sections she calls her Survival Guide, Susana claims “Make people characters. Don’t stop crying over characters,” blurring, or questioning, the line between reality and fiction, between life and fiction. These vignettes don’t only serve to raise questions, but also to universalize the highly personal experiences in the second section, ‘Portraits’, where Susana gives an account of each person’s imminent death (or the deaths of their loved ones). When we witness Sara losing her father (or Paula dealing with her own illness, her own mortality), struggling over having lived far from him, we see it in our own lives, feel it in our own skin, because we are all either sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers or fathers and (both life and) death happens to us all.
Now and at the Hour of Our Death might seem like a requiem composed solely for those cancer patients in Trás-os-Montes – like the daguerreotypes Susana mentions towards the end of the book taken by photographers after a person’s death, their eyes still open. It is not only for Sara or Elisa or Paula or João and Maria that Susana writes this book, but for Trás-os-Montes itself, where a certain kind of love and living exists. It is a paean to a place, to “a land [that] seems to run on like time itself,” to a way of life indivisible from those who live in it. Life is spilling out of this end of the world, fading or trickling away, and with the death of these Joãos and Paulas, of Sara and Elisa’s father, of Maria’s husband, the shadows, slowly the houses, deserted, fall, and there will no longer be a village.
Now and at the Hour of Our Death is a beautiful work that sets out to be about death but ends up being about a whole way of life.