Book review: The Double by José Saramago

Posted May 7, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 5 Comments

Book review:  The Double by José SaramagoThe Double by José Saramago
Published by Mariner Books on October 2005
Genres: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 336
Source: my shelves

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What would you do if you were watching a movie and noticed that one of the small-part characters looks exactly like you?  There s/he is on the screen, same body build, same face, same hair, same voice, same everything.  Think about it:  short of being identical twins that were separated at birth (which isn’t the case), is this even genetically possible?  Can there be another person out there who is identical to you in every way?  How would you react?  What would you do?

That is the premise of The Double, written by Nobel Prize winning author, José Saramago.  Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is a history teacher who is depressed.  He’s divorced, he’s in a relationship with a woman who he’s not sure he really wants to be with, and he cannot find anything in his life to be happy about.  One of Tertuliano’s colleagues recommends a movie that he admits isn’t that great, but that he feels might at least give Tertuliano a few laughs and help him out of his depression.  Tertuliano watches the movie that evening and is pretty unimpressed.  That night, something awakens him out of a sound sleep, and after some confusion, Tertuliano realizes what it was:  there was an actor in that movie that looks exactly like him.  Against his better judgment and common sense, Tertuliano decides to find his double, and what starts out as an interesting challenge ends up becoming a harsh lesson in identity and human nature.

Let me get this out of the way now:  this book was a little difficult to read.  Saramago proved himself to be the master of long sentences with The Double.  Not run-on sentences, necessarily, just long.  Here is an example:

When he had put the phone down, he reread what he had written and noticed the importunate presence of a few subtle shades of meaning to which he had not paid sufficient attention, some were less subtle than others, for example, that awful old chestnut, we’re friends now and we’ll always be friends, that’s the worst thing anyone can say if they’re trying to end a romantic relationship, it’s as if we had closed the door only to find that we were still stuck fast in it, and then, quite apart from that pathetic Lots of love he had added at the end, there was the crass error of saying that they needed to have a long conversation, he should know by now, from personal experience and from the continual lessons learned from A History of Private Lives through the Ages, that long conversations, in situations such as this, are terribly dangerous, how often has someone begun such a conversation feeling positively murderous toward the other person only to end up in their arms.

Phew!  See what I mean?  And that’s not even one of the sentences that run for the entire length of a page.

Because of this stream-of-consciousness writing style, Saramago also doesn’t use quotation marks to denote when people are speaking, and he doesn’t break up conversations aside from inserting commas in between each person’s statements.  This made the book pretty cumbersome, to be honest.  I found this unfortunate because the storyline and subject matter are very interesting and I think this writing style will hinder some from either starting the book or finishing it.

I personally got used to Saramago’s long sentences pretty quickly.  His placement of commas helps to break up the flow in just the right places, so as to keep the sentences from getting totally confusing.  Again, the only confusion came during some of the conversations between the characters.  I’m glad I stuck with it, because the ending of this book was completely unexpected (and slightly frustrating).  I really enjoyed the storyline and I found myself doing a lot of thinking between reading sessions.  I don’t know what I would do in Tertuliano’s situation.  I want to say that I wouldn’t become obsessed with my identical double, but I don’t think anyone can truthfully say that.  I don’t think it would be possible to know that there is someone out there who is exactly like you in every way (and is not your identical twin by birth or related to you in any way), and not want to find the person and see it for yourself, face-to-face.  Saramago brings up some very good points about individuality and how it would affect a person psychologically… or how it would affect the people around you who are close to you (your mother/father, wife/husband, etc).  When Tertuliano finally calls his double on the phone, he ends up speaking with his double’s wife.  Later, when she and her husband are talking about it, she admits how freaked out she is and I don’t blame her:

The other day, I felt almost dizzy when I realized it wasn’t you on the phone […] What I thought, no it wasn’t a thought, it was more of a feeling, like a wave of panic closing over me, making my skin creep, and I felt that if the voice was the same, then everything else would be too […] And how would we [prove it], invite him over here so that you could undress and he could undress, and I, nominated judge by you both, could pronounce sentence, or not pronounce sentence at all, because it turned out that you actually were identical, and if I was to leave the room and come back in afterward, I wouldn’t know who was one and who was the other, and if either of you was to go out, to leave this apartment, which one of you would I be left with afterward, tell me that, with you or with him[…]

I can completely understand her angst.  This whole situation would just be too creepy.

To wrap it all up, I found the book very enjoyable once I got used to Saramago’s choice of writing style.  I was sucked in by the story and found the idea of two random, identical people in the world (and what that would mean in terms of the science and genetics) pretty darned interesting.  Don’t let my declaration about Saramago being the Lord of Long Sentences deter you from reading this book if the subject matter sounds at all interesting to you.  Give it a shot.  I personally stopped noticing that Saramago was more often using commas in place of full stops after a while.  I also found the psychological and moral aspects of the situation very thought-provoking.

If you have already read this, or if you decide to pick it up in the future, be sure to let me know what you thought of it.  I’m interested in hearing your opinions.

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(Click here to learn more about José Saramago.)

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  • Saramago always has the most interesting premises. I’ve only ever read Blindness and while I didn’t hate it, I didn’t enjoy it as much as others have. It was a little too slow going for me.

    • The only other Saramago book I’ve read is Death, With Interruptions and I really enjoyed that one. Look into it sometime.

  • Just read this after writing a review of The Double. It is an interesting book, isn’t it? http://theknockingshop.blogspot.com/2011/09/double.html

    • Yes, it was definitely quite interesting. Your review is really good–you go into far more depth than I did. Thank you for providing the link.