Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2010

The Double (2002) , by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

The Double, by José Saramago, is very entertaining reading.  It’s the story of a most ordinary man, a teacher of history, who one night, watching a video, sees himself as he was five years ago on the screen.  He becomes consumed by anxiety about this double, and his quest to deal with the problem of who owns his identity is, in the hands of this master storyteller, a remarkable story.

Saramago (1922-2010) was a Portuguese author: he wrote novels, plays and journalism and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.  Wikipedia tells me that he came to the attention of Portuguese censors late in his life, and moved to Spain to avoid interference on religious grounds.  (Apparently he died at Las Palmas, which I visited as a small child en route to Africa.  I have vivid memories of the contrast between its warmth,  colour and vivacity and the drabness of postwar London.)  In Portugal all seemed to be forgiven when Saramago won the Nobel, though the conservative PM who’d supported the religious censorship prudently avoided the mourning when Saramago died.

Bizarrely, Saramago became a communist in 1969 and remained a member of the party until his death.  There are plenty of intellectuals and writers who were attracted to communism in the 1920s and 30s, but most of them recanted in embarrassment when the excesses of Stalinism became known.  One day when I have time I’m going to explore what it was that made this discredited political and economic philosophy attractive to Saramago. He was also an atheist and a pessimist, and this aspect of his personality certainly shows through in The Double, though the effect is comic.

His style is perhaps not for everyone.  His chapters are about the usual length, but he writes very long sentences with bountiful commas and very long paragraphs.  I found the effect amusing, especially when Tertuliano Maximo Afonso engages in tortuous conversations with himself, his alter ego Common Sense or with other people.  There is an immediacy and a reality about it that made me smile.

During the six months he has been seeing Maria da Paz, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso has not often had to phone her at home and still less often has her mother answered first, but the tone of words and voice has always been, on her part, one of suspicion, and on his part, one of ill-disguised impatience, she perhaps because she doesn’t know as much about the affair as she would like, he doubtless annoyed that she should know so much.  The previous dialogues had not differed very much from the example given above, which is merely a pricklier version of how it might have been, but in the end, was not, since Maria da Paz was the one to answer the phone, however, all of these dialogues, this one and the others, would, without exception, have been found in the index of any Manual of Human Relations under Mutual Incomprehension. (p107)

This delicious little snippet fits into a paragraph that is actually seven and a half pages long, but the translation by Margaret Jull Costa is fluent and easy to read.  And the mystery, which at first seems just a fancy or a coincidence, becomes more and more compelling as you read on.

Who is this double?  How can Tertuliano Maximo Afonso find out, and how will it affect his existing relationships (none of which are especially fulfilling) when or if they meet? Which one of them is ‘real’?  Which of them ‘owns’ the identity?  Our contemporary obsession with individuality is given the full treatment in a story that reminded me of The Prince and the PauperThe Wife of Martin Guerre and Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat.

According to Wikipedia, themes of identity and meaning are common in Saramago’s body of work, which I now intend to explore.  Some of his stories sound fascinating, especially The Stone Raft, in which the Iberian Peninsula breaks away from Europe and floats around in the Atlantic.  I also like the sound of Death at Intervals about a country where nobody dies and all the political and religious implications that go with that.

The cover illustration is very apt.  It’s by Tom Gauld, and it reminds me a little of the style of the Australian illustrator Tohby Riddle, who also writes bizarre tales in picture book format for children.

It’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Author: José Saramago
Title: The Double
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 2005
ISBN: 9780099461654
Source: Personal library


  1. I have been making my way through Saramago’s novels, with difficulty at times. The Double was the one I liked least. His style worked much better in Blindness and All the Names

    Saramago is interested in names. He gives very elaborate ones in The Double, but no names at all in Blindness. In All the Names, only one character gets a name, and only one at that.


    • It sounds like you’re a bit of an aficionado! I loved the name of the dog in The Double, so impressive, and I noticed that he always used the full names of his characters, not just a first name as other authors might. I felt that this gave a curious sense of distancing from the characters and a kind of formality such as we have with strangers, that was at odds (I assume intentionally) with the intimacy of the thoughts we were privy to.
      But no names at all in All the Names?! How strange! Now I’m really intrigued…


  2. A fascinating author. I’ve added him to my wish list – Xmas is just round the corner.


    • And I see from a quick trip to your blog, Jim, that there’s an Alberto Manguel I must add to mine! Thanks for dropping by:)


  3. Nice review Lisa. I’ve been meaning to read him since I heard of Blindness several years ago now. Just haven’t managed to get to it yet. I have heard the style might be a bit challenging so am glad to hear that you liked it.


    • Well, Sue, Wikipedia does warn that some are trickier than others. But I found the humour in this was enough to carry me through, and towards the end, it becomes almost a page-turner…


  4. Sounds exactly like my kind of book. I have been hearing wonderful things about this author for years and still haven’t read anything of his. One day soon I hope I will get to one.


    • I’ve got a pile of authors like that on my TBR, Becky, ones I’ve been meaning to get to…
      And the trouble is, once you get round to reading one of them, and you discover that it is every bit as good as everyone says, then comes the compulsion to go and read more of that author and the rest of the pile has to wait longer and longer!


  5. I really want to read something by Saramago. I don’t find it that bizarre though, him becoming a communist. Communism was quite the thing in some intellectual circles in the 70’s.


  6. Hi Iris, it’s not so much that he became a Communist that I find bizarre…I mean, here in Melbourne there were Maoists and whatnot in the 1970s mainly associated with the anti-Vietnam war movement, but IMO to stick with it seems a bit odd.
    But I have to confess that I don’t know much about it, I have Marx sitting there on the TBR too and I’ve never got round to reading it!


  7. Great review Lisa,

    I’ve enjoyed all the Saramago’s I’ve read. ‘The Stone Raft’ is a great book. I also enjoyed ‘The Gospel According to Jesus Christ’. I felt ‘The History of the Siege of Lisbon’ a little less successful, but in saying that I seemed to underline a lot of it so perhaps I was a bit harsh on it!

    Am looking forward to getting to ‘Baltasar & Bluminda’ as it is highly regarded – that’s next for me.


  8. Oh gosh, John, it sounds as if I might have to work my way through Saramago’s entire body of work!


  9. As someone who also writes about “ordinary” people, I was interested in this writer. But I wonder what mental hoops he jumped through not to recant on Stalin?


    • Hi Shelley
      I heard Doris Lessing talking the other day about having been a ‘useful fool’, a term now being used to describe those people of influence who visited the USSR and/or Communist China, were shown only the good bits and came away with a favourable impression…


      • Stalinism and Maoism aren’t the same thing as Communism. They were just terrible attempts. In a similar way that the UK and USA aren’t 100% democracies. In fact the Soviet Union was almost a veiled capitalism towards the end…

        Saramago joining Portugal’s communist party doesn’t mean he’s condoning the USSR or Communist China, or Stalin for that matter. It’s like me saying… “Oh Hitler was a capitalist”, and then decrying any one who leans ‘right’ on the political spectrum.

        The current political & economic systems are also pretty shit if you actually look into them.

        Also I wouldn’t get information off Wikipedia; Saramago went to Spain more as a protest that his book was prohibited by the Portuguese authorities in being their entry into a European literary competition.


        • Hello Marco, sorry about the delay in approving your comment, I’m interstate at the moment and the internet reception here is lousy.
          Anyway, your thoughts about communism interest me, but it is (as I said above) not something I know too much about (other than the obvious differences between the USSR version and the Chinese). And now of course both the Chinese and the Vietnamese have a form of market economy and the US is going to start talking to Cuba! Who’d have thought it?!
          I hear what you say about Wikipedia. Never wholly reliable, which is why I always preface information sourced from them with ‘Wikipedia tells me’ – which is an indication that I’m open to be corrected.


  10. […] Saramago is getting the love. John Self reviews Blindness while Lisa Hill reviews The Double. I have not read anything by Saramago. What’s worse than shame on […]


  11. Saramago is one of my favorite writers. Very nice review. Please read Baltasar and Blimunda. And yes, the Stone Raft is very interesting. I just love his mind! Oh, The History of the Siege of Lisbon is wonderful also.


  12. I’m intrigued too, Kinna. I think I want to start at the beginning and work my way through his body of work – and I haven’t felt like that about many other modern writers, that’s for sure.


  13. […] listed in 1001 Books, but there are three that are, including The Double, which I’ve reviewed here).  There are a surprising number of novels with Biblical settings, and I’ve read six of […]


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