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.