One day, my father came home from work in a deeply unsettled mood. It was cold that day or raining or he was uncharacteristically tired, so instead of riding his bicycle from our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Greenwich Village as he usually did, he had ridden the subway. In the late afternoon, he boarded a subway car, stood by the door and looked across to see a man looking at him. It was as if they were each looking in a mirror, so closely did they resemble one another. The two men couldn’t take their eyes off each other, but, spooked, neither said a word.
It is said that we all have a doppleganger somewhere in the world, someone who looks so much like ourselves even we would be hard pressed to find differences. But the world is a large place, filled with billions of people. What are the chances of finding that double in the same city, riding the same subway, having boarded the same car during the same evening rush hour? What are the chances of coming face-to-face with your own likeness?
That question informs Jose Saramago’s novel The Double, which follows an ordinary man, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, through the experience of meeting his own double, from first glimpse to ultimate denouement. Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, writes novels in which reality is slightly kinked by the application of a theoretical question: what if an entire nation went blind, the idea that animated his novel Blindness? In The Double he asks, what if a man, thirty-eight years old, divorced, depressed, tired of his life as a high school history teacher, were to watch a video of a lousy movie one night and catch sight of a bit player who looks exactly like himself?
Unlike my father, who had left the office of his own architectural firm, came home to a loving family and got on with his life knowing that he had experienced one of the more unusual things even a city such as New York could offer up, Tertuliano becomes obsessed, determined to find out who this man is and to track him down. His world is shattered, because his sense of himself as a singular, discrete individual can no longer be sustained.
That, by and large, is the plot: the men meet, immediately hate one another because each represents a lessening of the other’s sense of himself, one feels the need for revenge and it all ends badly. More than plot, though, Saramago is interested in the existential questions brought up by Tertuliano’s discovery. As a result, the novel is an interesting brew of real and surreal, necessary and baffling: each of the characters, Tertuliano and his double, Antonio Claro; Tertuliano’s girlfriend, Maria da Paz; his mother, Carolina and Antonio’s wife Helena, have real jobs, live in plausible apartments with ordinary neighbors; they have to think about traffic routes and bus schedules. On the other hand, Tertuliano and Antonio share more than looks—they share a birthday, even identical scars below one knee, evidence of childhood accidents. Nor does Saramago adequately explain Tertuliano’s inability or unwillingness to explain his situation to his long-suffering girlfriend. The narrative depends upon these inconsistencies, which is too bad, because such sloppiness is—or at least should be—beneath Saramago’s own prodigious abilities.
Tertuliano and Antonio are, in fact, not just doubles in the commonly accepted way—two people who happened to have gotten a mix of genes that resulted in extreme likeness—but absolutely identical, as they learn at their first meeting, when they strip off their clothing to check. Born on the same day, 31 minutes apart, their experiences mirroring one another’s, at least long enough to add those telltale scars beneath the knee, the men come to the conclusion—avoidable except in this novel—that one of them, Antonio as it turns out—must be the “original” and the other the “copy.” Of course, their lives have not really mirrored one another’s, nor are they all that similar in temperament: one is a relatively bright if passive teacher of history who has a problem with commitment, the other a married, philandering actor, whom the reader comes to dislike almost immediately. Ultimately, both men prove themselves to be cads in the old-fashioned sense, willing to trample the nearest available woman to appease their own battered egos - because the women in this novel, as in most of Saramago’s writing, come off much more positively: smart, emotionally available, loyal, and bound to suffer at the hands of these rash, solipsistic men.
Saramago never really explains why the men have to hate one another—other than the fact that Antonio Claro is generally unlikable—but the narrative is structured in such a way, and the narrator speaks with such a sense of fatedness of the whole affair, that all the events seem pre-ordained. It’s plain to see why, from the writer’s perspective, things have to be so: Saramago could not get at the questions he wants to probe were choice really an option here. The novel, however, tries to have it both ways by including “Common Sense” as a character with whom Tertuliano speaks on occasion, usually before he is about to make a decision that will have unintended consequences. Again, there does not seem to be a necessary propellant for turning a character trait into a character. Perhaps Saramago, sensing that his story would make a great short story—in the tradition of Hawthorne or Kafka—felt he needed to pad the action.
For all its faults, the philosophical questioning at the heart of the story retains its interest because it taps into the nature of the human condition. We each take our own singularity as paramount. In the post-Enlightenment world in which we live, individuality is the foundation of political systems, modes of conduct, forms of communication. Identity theft means nothing if we do not value our own, special identities. There is a basic human fear that Saramago exploits: who are we, what do our lives add up to, if we are not, much to our own dismay, unique? Most of us, like the characters who populate this novel, live unspectacular jobs: we have jobs in banks or schools or travel agencies; we are mothers, sons, husbands, wives. We strive and suffer. Most of us will not be remembered by history. So we elevate our ordinary lives through the notion of radical individuality: my father and the man on the train could be rattled by their encounter, but, secure in their sense of self, they did not, even for a moment, mistake themselves for the other. Tertuliano and Antonio, who do begin to merge as their struggle continues, have no such luxury. Even their fingerprints are identical, even their lovers cannot tell them apart.
Critics and reviewers often comment on Saramago’s style: long paragraphs made up of shaggy, rambling sentences; dialogue that is imbedded into those paragraphs with switches in speakers denoted only by a comma and capital letter. For many, this style is more than confusing, it is distracting, even exhausting, but it is also part of the tenor of the book, as integral as the plot. The predetermined nature of the story is reflected in the writing style, which catches all the narrative elements up in it and drags it along in its own fast-moving current. Events in the lives of these characters begin to speed up, take on a life of their own that carries the actors along. Even conversations serve less as opportunities for considered thought and a chance to weigh options than as proof of the lack of power any of these people has to change the course of events now that they’ve been put into action.
It was all destined to end badly. The mix of shattered egos and the determination to survive at all costs insure that tragedy is the only possible outcome for Tertuliano, Antonio, Maria da Paz and Helena. In the process, though, we learn something about a man’s ability to change, to become what he never thought he could be, to shake off the bonds of his past, to shake off history, and act decisively to save himself, whoever he may—or may not—be.