O Homem Duplicado, by José Saramago, was first published in 2002. It was translated into English as The Double by Margaret Jull Costa, and published in 2004.
The first sentence is: “The man who has just come into the shop to rent a video bears on his identity card a most unusual name, a name with a classical flavor that time has staled, neither more or less than Tertuliano Máxima Afonso.”
Tertuliano Máxima Afonso rents a video of a movie named The Race Is to the Swift. A colleague had recommended it with a lukewarm review. It’s not a great movie, Tertuliano had been told, but it’s an amusing way to spent an hour and a half.
Tertuliano leads a dull life. He works as a history teacher. He’s divorced, with no children. He has a girlfriend, but he doesn’t expect the relationship to last much longer. He lives alone and doesn’t go out much. He doesn’t find much interest in anything.
Tertuliano watches The Race Is to the Swift that night. He doesn’t care for it. He goes to bed. He wakes up early in the morning with the feeling that there’s someone else in his apartment. There isn’t. He gives into an urge to watch the video a second time. He then notices that an extra in the movie looks very much like him, except with a mustache, a different hairstyle, and a thinner face. The movie is five years old.
Tertuliano searches through a box of photographs, until he finds an old photo of himself. Five years ago, Tertuliano Máxima Afonso had a mustache, a different hairstyle, and a thinner face. Five years ago, he and the actor looked exactly alike.
If Tertuliano and the actor looked the same five years ago, do they look the same now? If they do still look the same, are their lives somehow connected? Why had his colleague suggested that he watch this particular obscure, mediocre movie? Why had he felt compelled to watch it a second time?
His obsession with finding the answers to these questions will change Tertuliano Máxima Afonso’s life and his understanding of the world.
The Double is written in an odd style. (Which I don’t think is a result of being translated from Portuguese to English.) It’s written in the third-person, with the author frequently stepping into the story to remind us that we’re reading a story about a character named Tertuliano Máxima Afonso. Because it’s a story being narrated by the author, it frequently jumps into other characters’ thoughts and actions. It’s told in long, run-on sentences with commas where periods could be, in a stream of consciousness style. Dialogue occurs in the middle of sentences, in the middle of paragraphs, with no quotation marks. (This is not a criticism. It’s an observation.)
“He knew where the difficulty lay and admitted it to himself out loud as he reached the street where the school stands, If only I could put all this nonsense behind me, forget about this insane business, just dismiss the whole absurd situation, here he paused to consider that the first part of this sentence would have been quite sufficient on its own, and then concluded, But I can’t, which shows all too clearly how obsessed this disoriented man has become.”
The Double is philosophical and introspective. It’s the type of book in which three pages are taken up by someone writing a letter, because the letter writer contemplates all the possible consequences of each phrase. It’s wordy and clever. It’s a novel about human nature and motivations. It’s a novel about identity.
It took me almost half the book to get into the odd style and slow pacing. But, at that halfway mark, I began to enjoy it. Then I began to love it. Then I didn’t want to stop reading this novel, right up to the very last word.
Why I chose this book:
About a month ago, a DVD had arrived in our mailbox, from Netflix. It was a 2013 movie named Enemy, and starred Jake Gyllenhaal. Neither Phillip nor I remembered putting it on our queue. That’s not unusual. We add movies we’ve seen in trailers to our queue on impulse and forget we did until the DVD arrives. Anyway, I didn’t exactly love Enemy, but I didn’t exactly dislike it, either. Mostly, the movie confused me. I felt the clues were there, and that it all must mean something, but I didn’t know what. I actually wanted to understand the movie.
Then I read that Enemy was based on a book named The Double, by José Saramago. I thought that if I read the book, the movie might make more sense. As a bonus, reading the book would fulfill a Reading Challenge category.
The movie, it turns out, is only loosely based on the novel. (There are no giant spiders in the book, for one thing.) The movie seemed to be asking, “Why did this happen?”, while the novel seemed to be asking, “What would you do if this happened?” The novel doesn’t even speculate on how two identical men can exist at the same time.
So, no, reading The Double didn’t help me understand the clues in Enemy. But I enjoyed reading the book.