Double take

Pondering the question of individuality

Dec 29, 2004 at 12:00 am

José Saramago, Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese novelist, has many astounding gifts — none more disarming than his uncanny ability to sharply widen our field of paranoia. Like Kafka, Saramago can take an absurd premise and imagine it so thoroughly, in a world so indistinguishable from our own, that it becomes as familiar as our own nightmares.

His newest novel, The Double, tells the story of Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, a divorced, depressed high-school history teacher living an undistinguished life in an anonymous city. To distract himself, he rents and watches a forgettable B-movie and goes to sleep. But something nags him in the night. He wakes and replays the movie, and discovers a bit-actor who is exactly identical to Tertuliano himself. Against his own disbelief and the constant haranguing of his better judgment, he sets out on a compulsive and secretive project to find this actor.

Driven by a discomforting amalgam of depression, selfishness and curiosity, we are privy to every tortuous twist of logic as Tertuliano works to justify the investigation that will so clearly lead to his own destruction. After all, the humiliations and disappointments of our small lives have at least this comfort: They are ours alone. We have the consolation of the vague belief that we are genetically unique, in a way that presumably makes us beautiful, like snowflakes. But if that is stolen, if we learn we may be just one of any number of failed iterations, what then?

When Tertuliano and his double finally meet, the novelty of coincidence quickly wears off. They recognize the threat they pose to each other’s existence, and learn to resent and despise each other. The two then engage in a tangled psychosexual power struggle as each insidiously infiltrates the other’s life.

But this book is more psychological portrait than thriller, and the substance of the novel is devoted to Tertuliano’s alternately manic and depressed mind. He deals with his discovery slowly while negotiating the details of his everyday life: his meager enthusiasm for his girlfriend, his dwindling interest in teaching, his doubt. Massive stretches are devoted to his investigation and his slow yielding to the selfish tug of his curiosity. He rents every movie made by the production company, watches them one by one, makes lists of the names in the credits, methodically cross-references those lists, finds his man, observes from a distance, builds up his nerve. He works in secret, and it drives him deeper and deeper into his claustrophobic and private world.

There are other great books written in this gear-spinning fashion, most notably Hamlet, to which The Double’s structure bears more than a passing resemblance: a ghostly apparition in the night, the long quest to confirm that ghost’s identity, the secretive, obsessive investigation, the layers of doubt as the melancholy man inches toward the inevitable confrontation. Similarly, the fascination of the story lies in the struggles of the ambivalent mind, and the shocking violence of the denouement.

Saramago’s idiosyncratic writing style takes some getting used to. His paragraphs can go on for pages, entire conversations get packaged into long sentences, and he’s fast and loose with punctuation. His thoughts don’t flow in the organized, linear fashion the rules of grammar and rhetoric require — one thing reminds him of another, the second idea breeds a third, and all three set off competing associations and tangents, most of which spin into existence for a moment, then collide and disappear.

But once you’ve got the rhythm, Saramago’s prose infects your mind like good poetry — you’ll find yourself thinking in his distinctive style, your mind buzzing with his frenetic associations. To move through this book, you must give up your own way of thinking, and become Saramago for a while. This may be true of all good fiction, but in the case of this particular book’s theme, this basic act of identification is powerful.

Ultimately, what makes Saramago’s novels so affecting is their surprising psychological familiarity. Like his earlier novel Blindness, in which an epidemic of infectious blindness sweeps through a city, The Double presents a story of regular people confronted with overwhelming events that they’re totally unprepared to handle. Characters are thrown out of their comfort, into situations where they must compete for scarce resources against people just like themselves, and the shallow selfishness of game theory takes over. The characters end up fearing their neighbors, scrounging for any advantage, and giving in to the base and senseless impulses our luxury and lassitude allow us to deny. Like Tertuliano himself, you enter a book like this looking for a little distraction, and may wind up finding too much familiarity for comfort.

Scott Topper is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].