José Saramago

"The Double"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 19, 2004)

"It was really incredible how, in such a short space of time, his life had been transformed, at that moment, he felt as if he were floating in a kind of limbo, in a corridor joining heaven and hell, which made him wonder, with some amazement, where he had come from and where he would go next, because, judging by current ideas on the subject, it cannot be the same thing for a soul to be transported from hell to heaven as to be pushed out of heaven into hell."

In what may be Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's most playful—and, perhaps, popular—novel, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, a secondary school history teacher, views a film given to him by a colleague and discovers in the film an actor who looks exactly like him in every respect. Though the film was made five years before and the actor was wearing a mustache, the two men are identical otherwise. Tertuliano, a somewhat gloomy, divorced man, has always liked the routine of his solitary life, and though he is a daydreamer, he has never before acted on those dreams. When he sees his double, he is stunned. "One of us is a mistake," he declares, and as he begins, typically, to overanalyze the situation and chat with himself about the fact that "never before in the history of humanity have two identical people existed in the same place and time," he finds himself wondering what it would be like to find and meet this double.

Telling Tertuliano's story is a narrator who injects himself into the story. Self-conscious about his writing, he digresses, acts patronizing toward Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, and often makes arch comments about him to the reader. He plays with the reader as he constructs Tertuliano's story, commenting at one point that Tertuliano's thoughts "bore so little relevance" to his discovery of his double that if he were to include them in the novel, "the story we had decided to tell would inevitably have to be replaced by another." He does not want to do this, of course, because "all our hard work" in constructing the first forty pages of the book would then be null and void. The narrator decides to "remain therefore with this bird in the hand (Tertuliano), rather than suffer the disappointment of seeing two fly away. Besides, we haven't got time for anything else."

As this narrator plays with logic and language, creates conversations and debates between Tertuliano and Common Sense, reflects on the origins and destinies of words, jokes with the reader, and generally shows off, he becomes a foil for Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, whose own "emotions have never been strong or enduring." When Tertuliano rents dozens of videos in an effort to identify the look-alike actor he saw in the film, he finds his life transformed, however—"as if he were floating in a kind of limbo, in a corridor joining heaven and hell, which made him wonder, with some amazement, where he had come from and where he would go to next." He views himself "as a chrysalis in a state of profound withdrawal and undergoing a secret process of transformation." Even the math teacher, who recommended the film to him, notices his change.

Tertuliano Maximo Afonso soon enlists his girlfriend, Maria da Paz, to help him find the address of actor Daniel Santa Clara, persuading her to write a letter to the production company without telling her the whole story about his double. Learning that the actor's real name is Antonio Claro, he obtains his address and soon contacts Claro by telephone, arranging to meet him at a remote place, where their identical appearances will not be noticed. Claro tells him that he will be coming armed with a gun that will not be loaded.

Through a series of profound, dramatic ironies which unfold as Tertuliano and Antonio Claro meet, Saramago raises questions about identity and destiny, presenting Tertuliano Maximo Afonso and Antonio Claro (Daniel Santa Clara) as they compare their lives, note their different approaches to life, and then find their natural curiosity becoming transformed into resentment. "There is one too many of us in the world," Tertuliano declares. The climax is shocking—quite different from what the reader expects—and just when you think that the surprises have ended, a final surprise awaits.

Readers new to Saramago should be forewarned that his style can be off-putting. The quotation which opens this review is representative of the entire book—page after page of run-on sentences, few paragraphs indentations, and a lack of quotation marks. The reader must read dialogue carefully, since there is no punctuation to set off which remarks are made by which character. Despite this flouting of convention, however, the novel reads quickly, and Saramago achieves a remarkably conversational tone within this complex style. The novel is often humorous, and the author clearly is enjoying himself as he plays with the subject of identity. Lively and clever, The Double gives us the game of life, played with a whole new set of rules.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 32 reviews
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"The Cave"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson DEC 22, 2002)

The plot of Portuguese novelist José Saramago The Cave is simple. The story is set in the distant future, though the unadorned and oppressive atmosphere that Saramago creates has more the feel of medieval monastic than invented future.

Increasingly, the inhabitants of the novel have come to live in the Center, an immense shopping, residential, entertainment complex, a castle of sorts, devoid of any real contact with nature or the outside world. Residents can visit simulations of, say, the seashore or an alpine region. However, everything is faux, totally manufactured. Shopping is the dominant activity. A giant poster in one section reads: "We would sell you everything you need, but we would prefer you need what we have to sell."

Holding out against such attempts at twisted logic and mock reality is an elderly country craftsperson, a simple man, and a self-employed potter. His name is Ciprano Algot, and he has a relationship with the Center in that he sells his work through the establishment to residents there.

However, basically the story consists of Ciprano's ongoing bouts with the Center as he first loses his initial market for pottery, then unsuccessfully tries a new product, which fails after some bogus market research. He then, finally, becomes a somewhat unwilling resident of the Center himself, moving in with his daughter and son-in-law, a guard.

Powerful, often sad and humorous, too, are Saramago's observations as he uses this conflict, this tension to illustrate perversions of reality, the universal lie, and the general disrespect that has grown up toward fellow creatures. Saramago understands the contradictions evident in contemporary consumer-driven capitalism.

Extended, rambling, long sentences combined with a lack of paragraphing, is Saramago's characteristic writing style. However, despite the requirement of close reading and constant attention, rather than being annoying or distracting, this presentation brings the reader into a more intimate, conversational relationship with the author. Normal expected conventions of writing are soon not missed at all.

The "cave" of the book's title is, indeed, that of Plato, drawn from Book VII of The Republic. The image is used as a powerful and ironic device to maintain constant focus on the issue of truth versus illusion and to give this powerful allegory added punch. Saramago communicates significant insight concerning the damage done humankind by 21st century capitalism. He has the ability to share these insights without pretense, but rather with deep and thoughtful concern. The Cave, as a literary work, is as lacking in illusion as one could imagine. Therein lies its hold and its power.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 49 reviews

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About the Author:

Jose SaramagoJosé Saramago was born in 1922 to a family of farmers in the little village of Azinhaga (Ribatejo) north of Lisbon. For financial reasons he abandoned his high-school studies and trained as a mechanic. After trying different jobs in the civil service, he worked for a publishing company for twelve years and then for newspapers, at one time as assistant editor of Diário de Notícias, a position he was forced to leave after the political events in November 1975. In 1969 he joined the then illegal Communist Party, in which however he has always adopted a critical standpoint. Between 1975 and 1980 Saramago supported himself as a translator but since his literary successes in the 1980s he has devoted himself to his own writing. His international breakthrough came in 1982 with the blasphemous and humorous love story Baltasar and Blimunda, a novel set in 18th century Portugal. Since 1992 he has been living on Lanzarote, the northeasternmost of the Canaries.

Saramago's oeuvre totals 30 works, and comprises not only prose but also poetry, essays and drama. His awards include Prémio Cidade de Lisboa 1980, Prémio PEN Club Português 1983 and 1984, Prémio da Crítica da Associação Portuguesa 1986, Grande Prémio de Romance e Novela 1991, Prémio Vida Literária 1993, Prémio Camões 1995. (See more here.)

Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998.

Jose Saramago died on June 18, 2010 at the age 87. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014