Friday, 30 September 2011

The Double

The Double - Jose Saramago

"an algebraic equation with people's faces where there should have been letters."

This is a book soaked in Mathematics. Indeed it reminded me forcefully of an occasion in my schooldays when I was asked to come to the blackboard and write out the proof of a theorem we were supposed to have learnt. The theorem was nice and concise but I hadn't learnt it. I may not even have looked at it and I had far more entertaining things to listen to in the classroom than the teacher. So I had to start from scratch and I filled the blackboard twice, following a number of hunches that brought me nowhere, before finally arriving at the proof. This was, of course, very amusing to the teacher.

Staying with half digested maths, it is my understanding that one of the many ideas in quantum mechanics is that anything that can happen, will happen. In this case the plot of The Double is not that farfetched. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, a history teacher who is suffering from mild depression is advised to watch a certain film by "his colleague, the Mathematics teacher." He watches the video and finds it unremarkable and as cliched as its title "The Race is to the Swift."

However later that night he wakes up from his sleep with the impression that there is someone else in the apartment. He searches but finds no-one but the feeling persists until he remembers an image from the video. He sits down and starts to watch the film again, and after twenty minutes he sees a small scene which he has to replay in order to pause on the face of a minor supporting actor playing a hotel receptionist.  "Tertuliano Máximo Afonso got up from the chair, knelt down in front of the television, his face as close to the screen as he could get it and still be able to see, It's me, he said, and once more he felt the hairs on his body stand on end, what he was seeing wasn't true, it couldn't be..."

Afterwards he can still feel the presence of this ghostly double and on one particular morning runs a damp cloth over all his furniture - "The traces he wanted to expunge were ... those left behind by the presence that had wrenched him from sleep that first night" although, as the narrator says "even if we were prepared to accept the hypothesis that the products of a mind have a certain capacity to take on material form in the external world, what we absolutely cannot accept is that the impalpable and invisible presence of the cinematographic image of the hotel receptionist could have left vestiges of its sweaty fingerprints scattered about the apartment. As far as is known, ectoplasm does not perspire."

And thus our hero is sucked into a playfully Kafkaesque scenario where he feels his very identity under threat. He immediately starts to wonder how he can track down the actor, who's role is not identified specifically and who's name is mixed in with all the other supporting actors. The description of his methodology reminded me of the scene in Beckett's Molloy where he describes Molloy's method for moving his sucking stones around his pockets. Humour arises from the treatment of minutiae with high seriousness.

To continue being chauvinistically Irish centric I also would like to point out that one of the epigrams is from Laurence Sterne's wonderful Tristram Shandy and it's easy to see the connection. Saramago is also a lover of the digression and the book's narrator is constantly speculating on what might happen if things went another way and analysing the meaning behind apparently banal actions; or to pass the time when something particularly banal is happening. "Like nature, they say, a narrative abhors a vacuum, which is why, since Tertuliano Máximo Afonso has, in this interval, done nothing worth telling, we had no option but to improvise some padding to more or less fill up the time required by the situation."

Tertuliano also has, dotted throughout the novel, discussions with Common Sense, whose attempts to put the brakes on the increasingly obsessive behaviour are doomed to failure. Common Sense itself is subject to the whims of the majority of the populace and has a fairly defeatist attitude, and leaves when his strictures are ignored - "No, I'm common sense, there's no place for me in there. See you later, Oh I very much doubt that."

But, with all the playfulness and silliness, this book has serious themes at its heart. Loneliness, identity, communication, romance, the quotidian life, the fantasy life: all these basic elements of what it is to be human are explored. At one stage, after a heart to heart with his on off lover Maria De Paz, Tertuliano "drove home, where, patient and confident of its power, loneliness was waiting for him."

One reason for loneliness is the difficulty of communicating and understanding each other. The narrator declares himself baffled about why "while communication technologies continue to develop in a genuinely geometric progression, from improvement to improvement, the other form of communication, proper, real communication, from me to you, from us to them, should still be this confusion crisscrossed with cul-de-sacs, so deceiving with its illusory esplanades, and as devious in expression as in concealment."

The most convincing reading of the book that struck me was this - films offer us an escape into a fantasy life from which we can gain some succour amid the general abrasions of our actual life. The fantasy selves thus released have an affect on our life, often, in cases where depression is part of the equation, making ordinary life seem unbearable. On the other side of the camera, the actor must assume another personality too. Indeed, the minor supporting actor can have roles far more banal than life. What happens if these phantom versions of oneself  "take on material form in the external world"? 

This however does little justice to the richness of the ideas flowing through the book.  I'm looking forward to reading a couple more Saramagos that I have lined up before years end.


  1. "Like nature, they say, a narrative abhors a vacuum, which is why, since Tertuliano Máximo Afonso has, in this interval, done nothing worth telling, we had no option but to improvise some padding to more or less fill up the time required by the situation."

    This is what I love about Saramago. His matter-of-fact insertion of the storyteller's whims in the story. I'm also partial to the idea of improvisation, writing something because the writer just "thought of it" in the moment, just to fill in the blank pages. This method, writing ahead without any detailed outline or too much planning and revising only later, is something that I think he shared with Javier Marias and Cesar Aira. The final product is doesn't appear to be too "thought out", too mannered. The reader is given the chance, like the writer, to discover the story along the way.

    I also generally love Saramago. I should

  2. Er, not sure what happened. But to complete my clunky, dangling comment -

    I also generally love Saramago. I should read more of him. And I will. Thanks for the review.

  3. Rise, thanks for your comment (s)! I did find that Saramago's 'style' of writing with commas separating dialogue etc gave a real sense of modesty to the book.
    Will now have to look up Cesar Aira, as well as getting my hands on more Marias (I read your quite epic blog on his cosmology but need to read it again (and more Marias) before I could hope to make an intelligent comment). It did, however, push me towards Your Face Tomorrow. It seems to be a book you cannot have not read. (I'm tying myself in nots here)
    Next year I'm planning to take on a few larger novels. This year I'm trying for sheer weight of numbers of books. Marias, Saramago and Pamuk have been the most exciting discoveries, I think. Their back catalogues will keep me going for a few years into the future.

  4. Marias, Saramago, Aira. What I like about them is they are highly 'interpretive'. Their way of handling philosophical ideas inspires reflection and discussion.

    I think I may have to finally pick up Pamuk (specifically Snow) after reading Kafka's The Castle. They were often compared. Perhaps it could help me understand the book better. It didn't pull me in in my initial attempts to read it.