The Double, by Jose Saramago

by Robert A. Parker

Saramago remains an intriguing and distinctive author. He is distinctive because of his style, even in translation, a style in which his paragraphs are pages long, with much in each paragraph being an exchange of dialogue between two characters. And yet one is seldom confused about who is talking, primarily because even when the dialogue is separated only by commas, the responding dialogue always begins with a capital letter. And even more, because the succeeding dialogue is a true response—as the perspective, the angle of view, changes.

It is a unique style, and one wonders what prompted it originally. Surely it was not that a new paragraph as each person speaks would require more space and therefore more paper to be bought by the publisher. In any event, his style is unlike that of any other author I know. And yet it is a pleasure to read. It is also a challenge, but one reward is the pleasure in knowing one is following the dialogue. Another pleasure is in certain exchanges, such as with the main character’s own conscience. And still another, I must admit, stems from occasional humorous remarks by the author, as well as his directly addressing the reader, suggesting what fools these mortals of his might be.

But what about the story being told in this style in this 2002 work? One senses that for each of his novels, Saramago tries to identify a human situation, and then stretch it to a logical but extreme depth that reveals something of human nature or human society. He looks at a normal situation, and then asks, “what if…?” In this novel, however, I feel that he has stretched his template too far.

The hero, Tertuliano Maximo Alfonso, a bored high school history teacher, rents, for diversion, a recommended movie. Tertuliano then wakes in the middle of the night, discovers his movie being replayed on his VCR, and becomes aware of a scene he had missed, in which a minor actor in a hotel desk scene is his exact duplicate, his double. It is a moment of surrealism to introduce a surrealistic possibility. But what follows is on a naturalistic level, such as Tertuliano’s convoluted search for the actor who plays the hotel clerk, whose real name turns out to be Antonio Claro; his fear to tell anyone, even his mother and his girl friend Maria da Paz, that such a twin exists; and then, after long indecision, his interaction with, first, the actor’s wife and then with the actor himself. And from there, the author stretches subsequent events step by step, almost to the breaking point.

Indeed, the climax became for me the breaking point. Even early on, I sensed the author was playing with his audience, as he doubled up the complexity of Tertuliano’s situation. But the real breaking point was not the teacher debating with himself: how will he handle the situation? Nor his decision not to tell his girl friend or his mother of this duplicate. And not when the two men communicate, first by phone, then by mail. It was the attempted double twist of the ending. Because it revealed the author was not exploring in this novel the ramifications of more significant shifts in what humans take for granted, such as that we shall die or that we shall not lose our sight. It was because he was exploring a personal situation, a subject less profound and less significant than the premises of his earlier novels.

I might also note that while the two characters are exact physical duplicates, they are completely different inside. The actor is more confident, more outgoing, while the teacher is withdrawn and depressed. And this difference is not deftly explored. It would seem to offer a source of irony that is not taken advantage of. Perhaps John Banville in the New York Times is close to the truth, when he says the two doubles are not created in depth, which results in the reader being more interested in the situation than in the characters themselves and what happens to them.

I should acknowledge that the Boston Globe review calls this work “a wonderfully twisted meditation on identity and individuality.” And that description, within limits, is justified. On the other hand, I also felt Saramago did not probe deeply enough into Tertuliano’s psychological reaction to his situation. Our hero seemed more concerned about his relationship to his girlfriend and mother than in how he should confront himself and the world.

I should also note that Richard Eder in the Times says that this is one of Saramago’s two or three best novels. Not because of the situation, however, but because of the way the author handles it. Meaning the give and take, the back and forth among the characters. For me, however, the give and take involves merely the structure, not the heart of the situation, the heart of the novel. Which is: how is Tertuliano affected inside? Perhaps his final decision, the sudden trickery by this man slow on the uptake, indicates a change, but for me it is a change that reflects more the author’s handling of the situation than anything coming from within the teacher himself.

I was speculating, in fact, that, given the modesty of the situation, the author would come up with a surprise ending to lend his novel a greater impact. Perhaps, I thought, the two characters would swap lives, which might also include a bit of irony. Well, you might say I ended up half right, but the outcome is developed more naturalistically. And is also achieved by introducing sudden death, which was a surprise but not a convincing one. But perhaps Saramago was not convinced either, for he adds on an extra twist, and I believe an unnecessary one. Irony was certainly intended there, but it also was unconvincing, indeed, coming out of left field. Unless, but I don’t think so, it was intended to mirror the lives of actors, such as Antonio Claro, who take on many roles.

I shall certainly be interested in reading more of Saramago’s work. Whether or not he is a Communist or an atheist, he knows how to explore, with originality, the idiosyncrasies produced by nature or by the logical distortions of human nature. He is one of his kind. And, come to think of it, perhaps the complexity of his style helps the reader to become more deeply immersed in the bizarre complexity of his situations. (December, 2016)