Friday, January 04, 2008

Jose Saramago: The Double

Michael Freeman reviews José Saramago's The Double.
In his recent novel "The Double," the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago looks at the theme of identity, and just how much our personalities dictate who we are, in the story Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, a history teacher in a secondary school whose life is completely shaken up one evening after he watches a routine comedy.

Tertuliano is feeling depressing and thinking of breaking up with his girlfriend. A colleague at the school recommends that he rent out a movie, and he has just the title for him: a comedy called "The Race Is To The Swift." Tertuliano rents the video and watches it that night, but finds it to be lame and unfunny, a complete waste of his time. He goes to bed, still feeling downbeat.

But in the middle of the night, he wakes up thinking he's heard something in the apartment. He gets up, and finds himself alone; but then he notices that silly video is playing again. Tertuliano sits down to watch, and that's when he notices it: one of the actors in the movie, in a small bit part, looking exactly like him -- almost as if he had a twin out there.

From then on, Tertuliano becomes obsessed with finding the name of that actor.

At this point, "The Double" seems almost comical, as Tertuliano goes to great lengths in his frantic search, renting out every video he can find by the same production company, and watching hours and hours of movies to spot this lone actor. He goes from being depressed and withdrawn to almost manic in his determination to locate his double. Tertuliano also goes to great lengths to avoid letting his collagues or his girlfriend know what he's up to, and his efforts are quite comical.

Then he discovers the name of the actor, who has roles in several of the production company's movies. He even writes a "fan" letter to the lowly bit player, convincing his girlfriend to pretend she's the one sending it to mask his identity. But when Tertuliano finally learns the real name and address of his double, the book starts to take on a much darker, and more ominous, tone. It begins when he calls the actor's apartment and gets the man's wife on the phone. Only, she's immediately convinced that she's talking to her own husband. It seems Tertuliano and this actor share more than just a striking resemblance. Their voices are identical as well.

Saramago moves to the meeting between the two men, and there are a few sharp twists to come before the book's very chilling ending. Along the way, Saramago's tale raises some intriguing questions for the ongoing debate about human cloning. It is a remarkable breakthrough waiting to be discovered, or a ticking time bomb disaster waiting to go off?

Saramago's book provides ammunition for both sides. For one thing, he debunks the myth that we're all unique based on our outward appearances alone. Tertuliano and his twin, who are not related by the same parents, nevertheless have unique and different personalities -- disastrously so, it turns out, as one of them develops an angry, almost resentful view of the notion that he has an exact twin wandering around. Saramago also suggests that few among us could cope psychologically with the notion that someone out there looks and sounds exactly like we do -- and could step into our shoes anytime they wanted to, in essence "playing" us for our friends, co-workers and loved one. It could quite literally become a dark obsession we can't control.

"The Double" is a fascinating book that doesn't aim to politicize the cloning debate, but to offer a careful study of how one individual might react to having a double. Saramago's conclusions are as eerie as they are believable.

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