Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago has quietly but steadily built up such an impressive body of work that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. The Nobel committee said that Saramego’s novels are ‘parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony.’ Not content with novels about mundane life, Saramago invents fantastical stories that allow him to comment on the prosaic as well as the profound aspects of our existence, and to do it all in a very distinctive but highly readable style.
Other Saramago novels include ‘The Stone Raft,’ which is about Portugal breaking off from Europe and heading west, and ‘Blindness,’ which is about the inhabitants of a city becoming blind.
His plots may be fantastic but they are not escapist. His books deal very intimately with character, powerfully and compassionately portraying simple people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. No exception to this rule is his latest novel ‘The Double’ (Harcourt, 324 pages), about a taciturn man who discovers an exact duplicate of himself.
Tertuilano Maximo Afonso is a history teacher in an unnamed city of five million. The main thing to know about him is that he lives alone and is depressed. School is fine but not something he jumps out of bed to do. He is divorced but in a romantic relationship with a girl he considers dumping. At the beginning of the novel, a well-meaning colleague recommends a light romantic comedy out on video for him to see. In the middle of the night he wakes for no reason, pops in the tape and discovers that one of the actors looks exactly like him.
Saramago’s wonderful style of writing implements long paragraphs and an absence of quotes for his characters’ dialogue, making description and speech run fluidly together. It may be surprising to someone who is reading him for the first time, but it has great benefits. Saramago is a digressive writer and with his style he comments wonderfully on the big and small things that his characters go through.
Afonso, like many of Saramago’s characters, lives a solitary existence. When he discovers his double, he becomes obsessed with finding him, so much so that it knocks him out of his depression. He wonders what having a perfect double means, both practically and philosophically. ‘Am I a mistake?’ he thinks. ‘What does it mean being a mistake?’
Finding a clone completely changes our hero’s life. His relationship with his girlfriend deteriorates. He begins collecting all of the movies his clone has appeared in. What we get in so many of Saramago’s novels, we also get in this one
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