From the day I discovered BLINDNESS, I have been a great fan of Jose Saramago's work: THE STONE RAFT, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST, and THE CAVE to mention a few. I picked up THE DOUBLE with eager anticipation and was not disappointed. The pacing is slow and deliberate, the sentences long and convoluted in typically Saramagian style, but this is a book that I simply did not want to put down. Every time I planned to use a chapter ending as a break point in my reading, my eyes continued on almost involuntarily to the next page, my mind not yet ready to let go of the story.
THE DOUBLE's story line is simple, the cast of characters relatively limited. Tertuliana Maximo Afonso is the most ordinary of ordinary history teachers, a divorced, middle-aged man living a stagnant existence: friendless, cautious to the point of near paralysis, afraid of commitment to an inexplicably-attached girlfriend, and overly attached to his own mother. Then one evening, following the recommendation of a fellow teacher, he watches a rented video and sees a minor actor who is a virtual duplicate of himself as he looked five years earlier, when the movie was made.
With this cinematic revelation of a double, Tertuliano Maximo's world is turned upside down. He begins a comically academic process of investigation, even co-opting his girlfriend Maria da Paz into participating while refusing to reveal the reason. The more he learns about his double, the more shocked he is by their clone-like sameness, down to the matching scars on their knees. Once he learns the other man's true name and address, Maximo cannot resist making contact. Upon discovering their identicalness extends even to birth dates and fingerprints, they are joined in a battle for primogeniture, for the right to exist and occupy the one single place Nature intended for just one human entity, at the unavoidable expense of the other. The consequences are both amusing and tragic, concluding with a surprise twist.
It is tempting to consider THE DOUBLE as Saramago's riff on cloning, but such an interpretation seems overly literal and a bit too facile. Instead, the book can be seen as a modern tale of personal identity: who we think we are, who we portray ourselves to be, and who we really are (or if we can ever even discover that).
Once, double lives were the exclusive province of movie stars and politicians, those who necessarily adopted public personas often far different from their private lives. Today, we have ordinary people taking on new identities courtesy of reality television programs. Thanks to the Internet, we can try on and cast off personalities as easily as changing shirts: projecting chosen identities in chat rooms and via instant messaging, living them out as avatars in simulated life games like The Sims, or portraying ourselves as we wish to be seen on personal web pages. In an Internet world, we can be several people simultaneously. Those who "see" us may have no idea who we really are. After a while, we may not even be sure ourselves which identity is the real "us."
In THE DOUBLE, Saramago pries open the lid on modern identity to examine the consequences of a world in which we can be so easily heard without being seen, where we can represent ourselves to be virtually anything we choose to be. It is no accident that Tertuliano Maximo's doppelganger has a successful career as a supporting actor in movies, appearing in one as a waiter, in another as a hotel receptionist, in still others as a croupier, a dance teacher, a theater impresario. Nor is it a matter of chance that Tertuliano Maximo is a teacher of ancient history, a reader about Mesopotamia, burdened by a laughably outmoded first name and an equally out-of-date automobile, so technophobic he is clueless about how to use a computer. Tertuliano Maximo Afonso is no longer a serviceable identity - it's time to discard it for a newer and better one.
For those unfamiliar with Jose Saramago's work, do not be put off in the first twenty pages by his writing style. His prose is full of involutions and convolutions, turning in on itself playfully and wandering about self-reflexively, revealing wry commentaries and sardonic humor along the way. Saramago's writing is meant to be savored like a fine wine, swirled about the mind and appreciated the way we appreciate the brushstrokes of a master oil painter. The result is magical, more than worth the effort. This is a masterful work from a master writer and deserving Nobelist.