Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago must have been thinking of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis when he wrote this, his latest novel. In Kafka’s tale Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find he has been transmogrified into an insect, something utterly other than what he once was. In The Double, Saramago’s protagonist, a high school history teacher named Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, is shocked to discover one evening, while watching a video rental film, that a supporting actor is apparently identical to Tertuliano in every respect.
The resemblance between Tertuliano and the actor Antonio Claro goes beyond that of identical twins, and thus is every bit as terrifying as Samsa’s sense of otherness, for it undermines whatever self-worth depended upon Tertuliano’s assumption that he is an utterly unique human being.
Saramago sets his novel in a colorless, unnamed city of five million, which gives the reader a sense that the author wants to generalize broadly from Tertuliano’s plight. Instead of conventional descriptions of locale or setting, Saramago offers minute philosophical descriptions of the transactions of everyday life and lengthy internal dialogues between Tertuliano and his own “Common Sense,” personified as a character who comes and goes at decisive moments in the protagonist’s life. Against the hectoring advice of Common Sense, Tertuliano pursues his double and engineers a face-to-face meeting that triggers volatile, unforeseen consequences.
Saramago has created a kind of Platonic dialogue in the form of a novel, which makes for a challenging but quite engaging reading experience. The novel’s narrative voice is winsome in its omniscience, good-naturedly leading us to ponder Tertuliano’s terrible dilemma from every side. How should one respond to the discovery that one is not unique? In Tertuliano’s case, wounded pride and ensuing depression move him to actions whose dire consequences he completely fails to foresee.
Saramago’s unnamed narrator speaks with the voluble intimacy one finds in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Fielding exults in arch philosophical digressions, turning the business of narrative into gamesmanship and high fun. In a similar mode, Saramago’s narrator confesses at one point, “This rambling reflection on the origins and destinies of words has led us so far from our real subject that we have no option but to start again at the beginning.” The narrator’s foibles may strike some readers as endearing. They may frustrate others, who prefer narrative machinery to be kept invisible behind a plot that flows in a straightforward manner.
In the end, Tertuliano is sadly ill-prepared to deal with the terror of sameness, as opposed to the more familiar terror of alienation or estrangement. Saramago seems to suggest that the most dangerous peril we face in contemporary culture is not a sense of estrangement but a sense of deadening sameness. For this reason The Double would fit quite well on a bookshelf next to The Metamorphosis, because the works portray two ends of the spectrum of identity dilemmas.
The novel’s translation from the Portugese by Margaret Jull Costa breezes right along. This is important because Saramago writes exceedingly long paragraphs, some running to as much as 15 pages in length.
Toward the novel’s conclusion, the narrator reasons, “They say you can hate someone only if you hate yourself, but the worst of all hatreds must be the hatred that cannot bear another person to be the same, worse still if that sameness should become total.” Saramago wants us to distinguish the salutary sameness of a shared identity, necessary for any sense of the common good, from the spiritually deadening conformity of contemporary culture. His fear seems to be that individuality is on the wane and that all of us are developing doubles.