Friday, September 18, 2009

The Double

The Double, by José Saramago
2002, 324 pp.

Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, a mild-mannered, lonely, divorced high school history teacher rents a film at the suggestion of a colleague, in an effort to pass a pleasant evening. He is astonished to see in the film a supporting actor who looks precisely like him (or at least, precisely as he looked at the time the film was made) and he becomes obsessed with finding this double. As hooks go, this is an excellent one, though as literary themes go, Saramago begins on dangerous ground. The theme of the double has been dealt with innumerable times in literature, seldom with much interesting variation (John Banville's review of The Double in the Times helpfully singles out an early instance in Plautus' Amphitryon) and seemed to have been conclusively laid to rest with Dostoevsky's 1846 novella which shares the same name as the book here under review. It is rare for Saramago to proceed down such a well-trodden path, but he pulls it off, barely.

To some degree, my reading of The Double suffers from the mass consumption of Saramago's works that I've indulged in these past six months. Tertuliano is another in a string of Saramagian protagonists: lonely, middle-aged men with unassuming and unimportant but mildly intellectual jobs. His only working class protagonists have been Baltasar and Jesus Christ, and he seems to be aware that this is another work in a similar vein. The familiar Saramago narrative voice is alive and well here, though for the first time aware that it is a narrator in a novel rather than simply a rustic, garrulous, folksy, Portuguese storyteller. The narration frequently refers to redundancies six lines back, or a sentence on a previous page, or to its own knowledge as the narrator. On the very second page it even makes an allusion to the mild-mannered protagonists of several of Saramago's earlier novels.

All of this is fine. The trouble is that there really only seems to be about fifty to one hundred pages of actual material here, and the narrator, who (granted) is always a bit digressive and self-referential, often seems to be stalling. The procedural details of Tertuliano's search for his double are compelling, but they are interspersed with scenes from his teaching job which are frankly irrelevant. It takes Tertuliano 106 pages to find his double's name, then another 108 pages before they meet. That middle section sags quite a bit, brightened up only by Saramago's always delightful facility with romantic dialogue, here between Tertuliano and his girlfriend Maria da Paz.

The last third, though, creates steadily building menace and malevolence, spinning out the existential violence of having a double (or being a double) into realized physical and emotional violence. Saramago then utterly blindsides you around page 300, and the book ends with so many twists and adjustments that the reader is left a bit startled and unsettled. I have not yet decided whether the very final twist actually works or not: Saramago's endings are always ambiguous, often dark, and tend less to resolve the existing story as much as to set up another story which Saramago isn't going to bother telling. Here the final twist raises such a host of new questions and suggests such a change in character that rather than forcing the reader to reevaluate what has come before instead borders on overthrowing the book entirely.

The Double also suffers from a certain deficiency of characterization. Tertuliano is less fully realized than Ricardo Reis or Senhor José or Raimundo Silva, and as the story progresses we realize his double is not much of a character either. Both are given quite a lot to do, especially in that saggy middle section, but little of it adds to our understanding of them as characters. To some extent this helps Saramago in a critical point when he wants to create ambiguity as to which is which and whether even they have gotten themselves mixed up, which must be the only example on record of a novelist using his formidable skill to turn flat characters into an asset rather than a defect. As a first Saramago read for the uninitiated, The Double has enough of a hook and enough of a familiar setting and theme to be easily accessible, but for the long-standing acolyte it is only a minor work in the Saramago canon.

No comments: