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 Pauper, The 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
Source: Personal library