Thursday, February 14, 2008

José Saramago: The Double

Rick Moody reviews José Saramago's The Double.
The Double, Saramago's newly translated novel, is a case in point. Published in his native Portugal four years after the author received the Nobel, the novel is easy to summarize: A secondary school history teacher with the musty old name of Tertuliano Máximo Afonso finds upon renting a forgettable videotape that he has an exact double, one Daniel Santa-Clara, whose job it apparently is to perform bit parts in a myriad of forgettable B-films. Beyond their professional differences, Tertuliano and Daniel (whose real name is António Claro) are otherwise completely identical, down to their date of birth, their moles, and even their scars. The course of the novel concerns Tertuliano's attempts to locate and meet Daniel/António, the bad blood that emerges from their meeting, and the fiendish plots they then initiate against each other. I won't ruin the end, which is quite moving and features at least one considerably surprising plot twist.

As it is with Saramago's best novels (in the United States, they are probably reckoned to be Blindness, a true masterpiece in my view, and The Cave), The Double seems to have a parabolic, or allegorical, layer, whereby it's possible to view the fabulism of the central conceit as standing in for something particular. Unlike in dream logic, in which the play of interpretation is imperative to arriving at understanding, in Saramago's parabolic world blindness tends to mean one or two things exactly, and the plight of the blind has a clearly representational, if not mimetic, flavor: The modern world, Blindness argues, exists as it does in this story. Saramago's work is not surreal, therefore, in the sense that we might understand it from Breton, or, to take a more recent case, Rikki Ducornet. Saramago is more like the poetry of Bunyan, or perhaps like Swift.
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