The double motif, which has fascinated authors as diverse as Poe, Dostoyevski and Nabokov, is revived in this surprisingly listless novel by Portuguese master Saramago. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is a history teacher in an unnamed metropolis (presumably Lisbon). Middle-aged, divorced and in a relationship with a woman, Maria da Paz, he is bored with life. On the suggestion of a colleague, one night Máximo watches a video that changes everything. The video itself is a forgettable comedy, but the actor who plays the minor role of hotel clerk (so minor he isn't listed in the credits) is Afonso's physical double. Soon Afonso is feverishly renting videos, trying to find the actor's name, while hiding his project from his suspicious colleague, his lover and his mother. Finally tracking the man down, he suggests a meeting. The actor, a rather sleazy fellow, resents Afonso's presence, as if his identical appearance were a sort of ontological theft. Soon the two are in a competition that involves sex and power. Narrating in his usual long, rambling sentences, Saramago suspends his characters and their actions in fussy authorial asides. Afonso has several hokey "dialogues" with "common sense"; his situation, which might be the germ for an excellent short story, is stretched out far beyond the length it deserves. This semi-allegory is certainly not one of Saramago's more noteworthy offerings.
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The 1998 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature continues to garner a reputation and readership far beyond his native Portugal. His latest novel is a provocative meditation on identity: specifically, the story of how ordinary history teacher Tertuliano Maxim Afonso awakens one morning to find a video that he's rented but not yet watched playing on his VCR. And one of the characters--the actor playing the role, that is--is the spitting image of Tertuliano, as he appeared about five years ago. Tertuliano is divorced, lonely, depressed--in other words, susceptible to filling in his time and mind with an obsession, which this situation quickly becomes. He decides to track down the actor who is his double, with disturbing, even dire, consequences. Saramago's typical stream-of-consciousness technique, although not easy for complacent readers, is beautifully lyrical here ("the first, subtle wash of early-morning lightness") and, at the same time, burrows deeply within the protagonist's thought process--entirely suitable and even necessary for such a cerebral yet shockingly personal exploration of what truly makes an individual unique and the concept that somewhere in the world it's possible that one's exact physical double exists. Brad Hooper
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