Book Review: 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.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

The Red Book — Mass Transit Journal

Entry 2

My friend Fred says that a world with fewer men would be more peaceful and he tells me that Harper’s has an article about baboons and what happens when the aggressive baboons are suddenly gone. He says that the aggressive males had all gotten poisoned eating at a human dump. The females in the group began to groom and care for the surviving non-aggressive males who had not been eating at the dump. These became the fathers of a new generation of baboons and each succeeding generation was passive and as the passive males split off and formed new family groups in these the new generations of males were also passive so that a large area of Kenya is now populated with non-aggressive baboons.

Nature or Nurture? The question is not entirely answered. Baboons do pass on culture. But what happens to the aggressive ones if any are born? Do they conform to the group culture? If aggression is genetically encoded then is it the dominant gene and so is eliminated by the deaths of the aggressors before they can pass on their genes? Do none of the females have that aggressive gene? Or are we talking culture and baboons doing what appears expedient for not just survival of self, but survival of species and the attention of the female. Sex. In the natural world it is all about sex.

My friend Anais tells me about the damselfish changing sexes when the need arises. Anais speculates about the Y chromosome, as have many of us. Y is unlike any other chromosome. It is missing something, a leg. It is aberrant among chromosomes. Is it necessarily defective? No, it is mutant, necessarily mutant. If we, if all beings, if all plant, animal, virus, whatever needed only itself to reproduce then we would be a world of clones with no motivation to move. Stationary, planted, still. All movement within. Sexual reproduction creates variation and necessitates movement. Even plants, even asexual plants, must find some method of obtaining fertilization for seed. Usually this is accomplished through the movement of birds or bees, or other insects, sometimes it is just the wind.

Imagine being dependent on the wind for your children.

But I have to come back to the argument posited by Fred. Maybe it would be a more peaceful world with fewer men. It would depend upon the nature of the remaining men and the response of the women to them. If all the men left were peaceful and the women were favored toward them then the result might be a culture which preferred pacific men and thereby a more peaceful world comes into existence.

Anyway, it is not a world in which I will take part–it is a future world.

(What about a world without children altogether? Read P.D. James novel The Children of Men. See review.)

P.D. James, The Children of Men

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The Children of Men, by P.D. James
Published in 1994 in the U.S. by Warner Books, copyright 1992 by P.D. James

P.D. James is an English author and is most well-known for her mystery novels. Several of these have been made into episodes for the BBC television series Mystery.

It has been twenty-five years since any human child has been born. The last generation drifts without purpose, alternately useless and violent. Enfeebled elderly are disposed of because there are not enough young people to take care of them. The countryside is emptying out as villagers move to larger metropolitan areas to maximize the shrinking labor pool. People of child-bearing age dote on their dogs and cats as they would have doted on their children. The main character of the book, Theo, is that saddest of men–an aging man responsible for the death of his only child in a world where there are no longer children. He bears an additional burden. His cousin is Xan the Warden of England, a more or less permanent position of ultimate power, whose directives are increasingly fascist.

James builds her provocative story thread by thread, carefully, skillfully. She draws you along with her deeper and deeper into her world as Theo is drawn into the plot of a group of resisters who call themselves the five fishes.

The Children of Men reveals James to be what her most devoted readers have always suspected; a brilliant thinker, a writer with uncanny reach. Her mystery novels are explorations of particular characters and the character of humanity in general. This novel deserves a place among the classics and it would be a shame if it is relegated to lesser status simply because James writes excellent mystery genre fiction and could thus be passed over by the arbiters of literature.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

The Red Book — Mass Transit Journal

Entry 1

(you see his image everywhere now. Ernesto “Ché” Guevara is hip. his face is on the little red journal i bought at Powell’s. i write in this book as i commute around portland on the trimet system.)

Having purchased this empty book, this potential journal, I find it isn’t blank. There is already a stain on the pages, a dictum inherent in the cover. Judge a book, even an unwritten one, by its cover. Ché demands something. Ché is a guiding spiritual force, a string plucked in a certain way sending out a note, underscoring my thoughts. There is a tune here. I won’t be able to be frivolous. I think Ché demands a certain concentration on the injustices of the world.

Think about this: the degradation of the environment contaminated with dioxins through human action is limiting the number of male births. Sometimes drastically. In Canada near Niagra there is a small reservation completely surrounded by a plastics, chemical industrial plant and the birth rate of male babies in that dioxin intoxicated place is 35%.

Male to female births are normally 106 to 100. A small percentage more males than females to make up for the life lost in hunting, fighting, machismo.

If all the women and all the men stay on this res and none of them are gay and none of them die and all of them want mates and choose to mate only with their contemporaries on the res, then only 35% of the girls will find a mate. If 10% of the boys are gay and none of the girls are then only 31.5% of the girls will find mates.

A certain number of those girls may be undifferentiated males.

Here’s a bit of irony. Niagara Falls used to be the honeymoon mecca of Northeastern United States. Marriages were consummated, babies conceived in hotels with heart-shaped beds. The roar of the falls, the “Maid of the Mist”, cheap power for Buffalo, cheap power for the petro-chemical plants–Niagara is a symbol of what is wrong, of what has gone deadly wrong with our relationship with the environment.

Love Canal is in the town of Niagara Falls, New York. It is where Hooker Chemical buried toxic chemicals beginning in 1942 and the City of Niagara Falls had been using the site since 1920 to dispose of its chemical waste. Ultimately, it is estimated that Hooker dumped 21,800 tons of toxic waste in Love Canal. In 1952, the company backfilled the dump because it had reached capacity.

Not long afterward an elementary school was built on the site and a subdivision for low-income families. The families who bought homes there were not warned that beneath their yards was a petro-chemical waste dump.

I saw the Love Canal neighborhood in the early 1980s after families had been relocated and the houses were boarded up. It was winter, cold, desolate, brown grass, leafless trees and it didn’t take much to imagine Rachel Carson’s, Silent Spring.

Love Canal is still resonating. It was a watershed moment wherein Occidental Chemical (formerly Hooker Chemical) learned that you can’t dump dioxin in potential suburban neighborhoods. If you want to contaminate you have to make sure you do it where people have no power. The poorest of neighborhoods, the least powerful of people.

But back to baby boys. Diminishing numbers of baby boys is a phenomena that occurs where PCB’s and Dioxin contaminate the environment. It occurs in animal species, as well as humans.

What would a predominately female world look like? Women are not necessarily more peaceful than men. We may appear to be so because we tend to bear the brunt of war. All the rape and torture–no glory. Such is true for those parts of the world where battles are fought. The point of rape is ownership and genocide–seed supplanting, creating children of the conqueror. Kill the men and boys, rape the women and in a generation there is no enemy. In theory, anyway.

So if most of the world were composed of women, if women made up 3/4’s of earth’s population, how would that change the world? More killing, less rape?

But women do suffer this other thing–love for their children. Not that men don’t suffer it as well, but somehow it is different in its manifestation. Men protect their children’s psyche or believe they are protecting their children’s psyche by testing them and allowing hem to be tested. Men will also physically protect their children against invasion and harm, but honor is big with men. LIfe is big with women. We’ll deal with the whole honor thing after we’ve saved our children’s lives. And for the most part we are unwilling to send those children to do battle. We want a really good reason.

Oil ain’t it for most of us. Liars ain’t it either.

But women can be very controlling. We can be harsh with each other and greedy and the evils of the world aren’t gender-based. They are greed-based. I’ve got mine, I’m getting more, and you can’t have any–greed-creed.