Germaine Reads: Review of The Double

by Pat­tyJo Mac
book: The Dou­ble by José Sara­m­a­go

No writer has impact­ed me to a greater extent in the last four years than Jose Sara­m­a­go. Blind­ness was a gift from a good friend and from the first I was cap­ti­vat­ed, by style, by sub­stance, by sto­ry. The Dou­ble is the lat­est among sev­er­al that I have read since receiv­ing that first bril­liant intro­duc­tion to this nobel lau­re­ate.

Iden­ti­ty is an under­cur­rent in all of his books. A strong under­cur­rent. What do we know of our­selves, who do we become, when sud­den­ly we and every­one else, save one, suc­cumbs to blind­ness? And the min­ions of us record­ed duti­ful­ly on birth and death records and in the ceme­tery reg­istry, on the tomb­stone, if that is the only record of our exis­tence, the sum of our lives, who will go search­ing for us among these bre­viary? What is the iden­ti­ty, the mean­ing of an entire city if its his­to­ry is altered by one event? Sup­pose the ground beneath us begins to move and we who were penin­su­la become island and drift?

And sup­pose you are a his­to­ry teacher, divorced, depressed, child­less, in a rela­tion­ship that you want to end and you dis­cov­er that there is some­one in the world, in your own city who is your exact dou­ble. Not your twin. Your dou­ble. A sci­en­tif­ic impos­si­b­li­ty. A freak of nature. You and this oth­er man. He is an actor who puts on oth­er iden­ti­ties for the cam­era. A minor actor whose career has grad­u­al­ly ascend­ed until he is on the brink of celebri­ty, but not quite there. Can you bear that he exists? Ter­tu­liano Max­i­mo Afon­so can­not bear it. Iden­ti­ty becomes cen­tral in The Dou­ble.

Sara­m­a­go is a mas­ter at cre­at­ing ten­sion, at mak­ing char­ac­ters who, if these were hor­ror sto­ries, are bound to go into the “dark room”. It is an inex­orable jour­ney into the dark room. Ter­tu­liano makes one step after anoth­er, this deci­sion and that one. Most of his deci­sions are guar­an­teed to be dis­as­trous. He dis­cov­ers love and los­es it. He dis­cov­ers a capac­i­ty to destroy and a capac­i­ty to redeem. Ulti­mate­ly, he dis­cov­ers that his desire to be unique is futile, nev­er to be real­ized.

If you have not read Sara­m­a­go, you may well be con­fused by his style. Few writ­ers would dare to use this form. To read Sara­m­a­go is to adjust to a whole new way of regard­ing the print­ed word. It is like lis­ten­ing to a great sto­ry teller. Lis­ten to him.

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