Jose Saramago
The Double

By Jarad Zimbler

Anytime a novelist prefaces his book with a quotation from The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy alarm bells should ring and the reader should know he's in for a difficult ride. Of course, the difficulty of Jose Daramago's The Double may have as much to do with Margaret Jull Costa's translation from the Portuguese as with the constant, circuitous and often extremely funny digressions from the narrative, à la Sterne. Caveats aside, though, this is an enjoyable novel, written by an octogenarian Nobel prize winner who seems very much in control of his mental faculties.

The book centres on the discovery of a secondary school history teacher, who's already somewhat overshadowed by low-level depression, that an identical copy of himself lives in his own city – a city, we are told, of five million inhabitants. The teacher, unfortunately named Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, makes the discovery while watching an otherwise unremarkable video in the comfort of his own apartment. The dramatic impact of the discovery propels Afonso away from the mental and physical security of his settled existence. Forced from the safety of his routine, Afonso begins the search for his mirror-image, all the time motivated by a deeply unsettling doubt about whether he or his double is the original.

The story itself has sufficient twists to engage any Agatha Christie murder-mystery junky, but there is a great deal more to Saramago's novel than the pull and thrill of suspense. The very idea of the double – of replication, copying, mirroring – lies at the heart of conceptions of art and literature and of the relationship between the real and the imagined, and it is this powerful idea that allows saramago to explore, in a sometimes playful and sometimes serious manner, the act of novel-writing itself. The Double also engages with notions of identity and self-fascination – by re-imagining the archetypal myth of echo and narcissus – while simultaneously analysing the modern insistence on the importance of unique individuality.

Saramago makes use of the image of a river and its various tributaries on several occasions. The structure of The Double may be viewed in similar terms, as the reader is endlessly diverted down side-streams before being returned to the novel's original course. These diversions are almost always entertaining and often extremely clever. In fact, in spite of an occasional difficulty or obscurity, Saramago's latest work of fiction is a wonderfully rich, intelligent and original novel, with a great deal of humour and a good dose of insight. But a final word of warning is perhaps necessary. For those who despise Sterne, this book is most likely not for you. Equally, for those who cannot bear postmodernist textual games, think twice before spending money on Saramago's latest work. For everyone else, prepare yourselves for a thoughtful and thought-provoking read.
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