“The Double” is a Masterpiece

                               

                                

“The Double” is a wonderful book, one of the best books that I read in a couple of years. I highly recommend it. I read several of Jose Saramago’s books in the past and enjoyed them. After reading this one, I ordered three more Saramago books.

Jose Saramago (1922-2010), a Portuguese writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. In 2008, the noted critic Harold Bloom called him “the greatest novelist alive in the world today.” He wrote his first novel in 1947 “The Land of Sin” when he was 25. He was not noticed as a brilliant writer until he was 60. Some readers see some of his novels as allegories, others see some of them as satires. The Noble Prize Committee described his books as “modern skepticism about official truths.” He was an atheist and communist. He mocked religion in such books as his 1991 “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” which I enjoyed, although the Catholic Church understandably scorned and ridiculed the book.

He has a unique writing style. His sentences are unusually long, frequently a page long. He often mixes the novel’s characters’ thoughts with those of the book’s narrator, but clearly differentiating the two. He does not use quotation marks. He places conversations between people in a single sentence and distinguishes each person’s remarks by ending it with a comma and beginning the next person’s statement with a capital letter. One should not think that this style makes the book hard to read, this is not so, it adds to the velocity of the conversation and our understanding that this is a single chat.

“The Double” was published in 2002. The San Francisco Chronicle called it the best book of 2004, the year it was translated into English. The New York Times wrote: “It’s tempting to think of [The Double] as his masterpiece.” The novel is great not because of the events in the tale, but because of the way the story is told.

It is about a college history teacher who is bored with life, with the repetitions of his same lectures to different classes year after year, with marking papers, with same sex with a girlfriend, and more. He broods often. He happens to see a movie video in which there is a bit player who looks exactly like him. He becomes obsessed thinking about the actor and visits him. He discovers that his double is identical to him in every way: in looks, voice, fingerprints, moles, even scars. Their lives, however, are different. He is a history teacher in a small secondary school, while his double is a bit player in movies. He is unmarried, divorced, has a lovely girlfriend; the double is married. Near the end of the novel, the two decide to switch roles for a night. Each joining the other’s woman for sex, for the women cannot tell the men apart, with a bad result.

Of course, it is impossible for two people to be so alike. However, the impossibility prompts us to not only enjoy the story but also seek its interpretation. The Boston Globe stated the tale is a “wonderfully twisted meditation on identity and individuality.” I read the tale as depicting a psychological the failure that most people have, of being dissatisfied with themselves, wanting to be someone else, and have other experiences.

A film based on this novel was made, “Enemy,” and I reviewed it. It is totally unlike the novel, but it is still very good.

 

[1] A Harvest book, Harcourt, Inc., translated into English from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, 2004.

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