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


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.

highway island

I’m in this unaccountable place, an island in the center of the tollway. A free space. A no-toll free space. Cars and trucks bomble past. Bomble, I say, hurtle, they reply, we hurtle by-bye. No, you bomb, you explode, you disappear. You bomble past and between your bombling passing in the gaps of your roar, I see the other side of the road, the banks of the asphalt stream rising toward the huddling city, a periphery to your vision of eternal highway. I am stranded on this deserted island. Slag of the highway. Concrete blocks, dumps of cement trucks done with their work dump here. But I can feel the earth shudder, I can feel it cracking, opening, I can see exiled green coming back. Illegal immigrant from the banks tunneled under, blew over, buried here, unearthing itself. Cower you fools, cower before a blade of grass, the first false leaf of a wild plant making reclamation of this earth.

Bus #9

(This was written before the Indonesian earchquake toll went up to 6,000)

So, 2,700, no 4,000, people died in an earthquake in Indonesia. And besides that there’s a volcano.

Lady on the bus says she was born in 1932. Makes her 73. I wonder if she has been speaking her mind all this time.

I wonder why the tweaker keeps looking back, looking back, craning his neck all the way round to look at me.

Marines killed 24 civilians. Among them women and children because a car bomb–a ”line of sight“ bomb–was detonated and killed one of their number.

Tweaker is getting off at 39th. Goodbye. Lady says she’s been married 51 years to a wonderful man. Good for her. He must be deaf. Another tweaker sits in front of me, nodding his head. Lady says her name is Carol.

A marine, a soldier might expect to be killed, who has at least put himself in the path of danger. Gone to battle, gone to war.

These who were killed in retaliation were people put in the path of danger by an enemy force. A force which claimed to be rescuing them from the evil ruler who put his foot on their necks.

The #9 is rolling side to side. A couple of guys are talking about dope in Ryder trucks and meth labs in semi-sleeper cabs. Prison sentences.

Once upon a time in a land far away young men moved from tree to tree, eyes scanning all the jungle for sight of the enemy who would try to kill them. Sometimes children were sent with bombs. Sometimes children were killed because they might have bombs. Sometimes whole villages of people were killed because someone there might have killed someone.

A volcano in Indonesia draws fire up its throat.

Myth Making & the Great American Cover-up

There is a yearning in America. Actually there are myriad yearnings. But I think they are all based in a yearning to be everybody’s best everything. Best form of government, democracy. Most powerful military. Best economic system, capitalism. Most powerful military. Best religion, christianity. Most powerful military. Most generous people. Most powerful military. Best athletes. Most powerful military. Best rocket scientist, one small step for mankind. . .Most powerful military. Richest nation. Most powerful military. Largest per capita prison populaton (in the first world–which is the only world). Most powerful military.

Losing at anything is a deep blow to Americans. It shakes the faith. Viet Nam shook the faith, but did not destroy the myth and the myth grew new stories to explain the problem. This is what Americans are really good at–myth creation. Is there a pesky reality we don’t want to acknowledge? Can’t bear to look at? Doesn’t fit in with our need to see ourselves as the best people on earth? We can cover that up. We can spin a tale to cover that up. We can make the bad things disappear.

Not always and not forever.

We think we’ve smoothed it out, covered it up and then someone lifts a corner, or the wind blows the wrong way or someone digs too deep and damn if something ugly doesn’t just pop up and hit us in the face.

We’ve been trying to re-imagine Viet Nam ever since the last planeload of Americans escaped the fall of Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City rose up behind them. We imagined that it was all Jane Fonda’s fault. If she hadn’t gone to Hanoi, America would have won. We imagined that it was the fault of all the peaceniks, of all the hippies and yippies. We could not imagine that the Vietnamese people won because they persevered, because they were fighting for freedom too long denied them, because they were fighting against colonialism and oppression. They took up with the communists because the communists were on their side. We couldn’t grasp that because democracy is best. It must be best. It’s our system.

So we had to say that we gave up too soon. We had to say the peaceniks broke the will of the people. We had to say the fault was with the media showing too much death and destruction. We buried the truth and taught our children lies.

This is the American way. It has always been the American way.

How we do revere those lovely pilgrims in their white bonnets and buckled shoes carrying bibles and muskets unfairly persecuted by the mean old English. There was that nasty little scene there with the witch trials. Sorry to keep bringing it up, but it really is important. The pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution so goes the myth. The English, whose general behavior I don’t mean to excuse, were appalled at the intolerance of these protestants. The pilgrims may not have employed the horrific torture tools of the inquisition, but their methods of persecuting those who did not profess their faith in a manner such that satisfied the elders were no less abominable. These were not nice people. They were cultish and they destroyed everything they did not understand.

They certainly did not understand the people who were there on the shores of this continent before them. These they did not consider people. Our pious forefathers and foremothers stole everything from the first people. Stole their food, stole their land, murdered their children, murdered their mothers, murdered their fathers and drove whomever remained away from the land which had been the home of their people for thousands of years. After the pious managed this they made many myths about the first people. Many of these were contradictory, but that didn’t stop the European Christians from spinning them and covering up those ugly moments, those pesky massacres.

Every day, we Americans perpetuate these myths in some form or another. At the heart of the myth is the need to believe that we have a right to be here on this continent pursuing our lives and our happiness, our American dream. We really have no legal right to be here on this stolen land. Every massacre and every broken treaty is a testament to our criminality. It is a monumental irony that we would call the descendants of the first people illegal immigrants, that we would call them criminals. For them there should be no borders.

My Hell

Militant Vegans, PETA Members
Circle I Limbo

Circle II Whirling in a Dark & Stormy Wind

Circle III Mud, Rain, Cold, Hail & Snow

Bill Gates
Circle IV Rolling Weights

Circle V Stuck in Mud, Mangled

River Styx

The Pope
Circle VI Buried for Eternity

River Phlegyas

Circle VII Burning Sands

Circle IIX Immersed in Excrement

George Bush
Circle IX Frozen in Ice

Design your own hell

Travelog Part 12 – back on Amtrak and home at last

The train was late. We were worried that we would miss our connection in Chicago, but the attendant said that we had lots of time and Duane discovered that he was looking at the wrong time on our tickets. While we sat in the station something happened outside. Some altercation between a cabbie and a fare. Four police cars responded. Couldn’t tell what was going on. I don’t think anyone was arrested. We read our books. Finally our train came.

Next day Chicago. We have lots of time to explore Chicago on a Sunday. The weather is beautiful. Tulips are blooming in the planters. We have breakfast at the Elephant & Castle. This time we do find Lake Michigan. Look out over the lake for awhile not too far from the yacht club. The toilets aren’t open so we head back to Daley Park. Chicago has some of the best sculpture installations I have ever witnessed. There is a predestrian bridge in this park that is made of highly polished metal and it looks like a river in the air. On the far side of the park a man is playing saxophone. He has some recorded music that he is working with and it is so beautiful. We go to the park next to the Art Institute. This is a small park, lined with long benches. Very peaceful. We join a couple, the man is stretched out on the bench and still there is room for us and another older woman who comes later. In the distance we hear the sound of drumming. A demonstration, perhaps? I stand up on the bench, but I can’t see anything. The older woman says they are urban kids playing on plastic buckets. She says the cops always come and the kids run and set up somewhere else and this keeps going on. She says people like to listen to the kids and she doesn’t know why the police insist on chasing them away.

We found a store with a grocery section and bought some items for our return trip. Trail mix, apples, breakfast bars.

The train is on time because this is its starting point. We have some frantic moments when the computer at the lockers claims that we left our bags too long and they have been removed to another site. We run to the customer service room. I know where it is because I went there on our first arrival in Chicago looking for someone to call our car rental place when that train was going to be so late we thought we’d lose our car reservation. The woman at the counter tries to calm me. Says the train won’t be leaving for awhile. After an interminably long time someone comes and takes us back to the lockers. We retrieve our bags and run to the train. We are the last in line, almost and there are no seats together. I’m already frazzled and am at the point of martyrdom, declaring that we’ll have to sit apart. The coach is filled with high school students and their teacher rearranges their seating so that we can sit together. I feel embarrassed for being so petulant, but glad to not be separated.

The young folks are really mature. A marked contrast with the kids that we encountered on the first leg of our trip. These teens had been to Chicago for a music event and had their instruments with them. Some actually worked on school work, but most slept or talked. They got off in Minneapolis.

We had forgotten that we could use the debit card to buy dining car meals so we worried that we didn’t have enough cash or food to stretch over the next 2 ½ days. We shared a sandwich from the lounge car. It was a soggy tuna fish thing. The lounge attendant told Duane we could use the debit card in the dining car, we were relieved. That evening we had dinner with two very interesting gentlemen, both retired, both from the sleeper car. The oldest of these two was probably fairly well-off. He was headed to Spokane. The other man was from Buffalo and had been a professor. Now he writes articles and sells them to magazines and journals. Both of these men were politcally liberal, particularly the professor—I think he taught French. We talked about Quebec, which he has visited several times, and about the condition of Buffalo.

He said that there was some effort among a group of businessmen to revitalize part of the city. He did not know how well it would work. Said that not much thought or energy had been put into putting people to work. I have been to Buffalo three times. The first time I didn’t really see much of downtown. It was my first husband’s hometown and we visited his parents in the suburb of Orchard Park. The second time, I remember that the downtown was fairly busy, but by the third visit much of the shopping district was empty. I have heard that homes might sell for $40 to $60k. At one time it was a city with a lot of promise. Right on Lake Erie, with Niagara Falls providing massive amounts of electricity it was poised to rocket into the future. Steel mills were built in Lackawanna. There is a basilica in Lackawanna in the midst of ruined mills that has a painted dome ceiling. Quite beautiful. All sorts of gold leaf accents. When the corporations chased cheap labor southward, Buffalo lost. It has never recovered. Maybe it is the weather. It can be brutal there. One winter, Lake Erie froze over and Paul’s brother-in-law, Greg Allen, took his dogsled all the way across the Lake. There was an article about him in the local paper. It may have been that same winter, the blizzard that occurred in the 70s, Greg had a bar / restaurant in Buffalo. Everything was closed down except Greg’s place because he could run supplies from the warehouses on his dogsled.

But you have to have a compelling reason to live in a place where the weather can be that extreme. Most people don’t and if they can leave they do. Buffalo has been steadily losing population for at least 30 years.

The French professor is going to visit Portland for the first time. He is going to stay at the Day’s Inn near Portland State. I didn’t tell him that I didn’t think it was necessarily a good choice. I think that is one of the County’s motels. One that they use to voucher homeless folks into which means that the owners have given up on attracting travelors and have given up on taking care of the place. We told him about the exhibit at the art museum of Columbia Gorge Native American artifacts.

This time we were awake for North Dakota. Now why did I want to see North Dakota? Actually, the geography wasn’t entirely dull. There were some interesting rock formations. Most of Eastern Montana is more of the same. At least so far as I remember. It began to snow as we approached the Rockies. That was pretty. We were eating dinner with two women. One of them works for an auction company. They auction Native American items. She travels quite a bit. But the travel part of the business is being eroded by the internet part of it. Until they started using the internet, the company would publish and distribute a catalog of available items, then rent a conference room or ballroom in a hotel and hold an auction. People would travel a long way to come to the auction. But fewer and fewer are coming and more and more are doing their bidding online.

The other woman was traveling to somewhere in Idaho, but had to get off in Spokane where she would be picked up by relatives and given a ride. She is recovering from an accident that most have been quite severe as she has to walk with a cane. She had bought a bottle of wine and shared it with the other woman, Duane and I demurred. We helped her get her leftover wine and dinner down to her seat on the lower level of the car. She planned to eat it for breakfast though her first plan had been to have the food heated up later in the evening. The dining staff said that they were not allowed to reheat food.

We were in Spokane the next morning and followed the Columbia River from then until we crossed it going into Oregon. Duane and I sat in the lounge car all the way and watched the river and the bank change from brown hills to gradually greening. Past Pendleton, The Dalles, and by Hood River it is all green. There were splendid views of Mt Hood because the sky was absolutely clear. My eyes began to eat the scenery. I think I must have been homesick by the end of the trip. Passing through Vancouver on its Eastern end, we passed some huge homes overlooking the river. These were monster places with four car garages. The excess of it was stunning. We had been reading a section of a Chicago paper the day before that was about the increase in house size from the 50s to what the average middle class family expects to live in today. The low interest rate helps to fuel this overconsumption. Neither Duane nor I have any desire to live in these places. They are repulsive given what they represent in the amount of resources consumed to create them and noone needs to live like this. This is as large a home as you can have without having to hire a maid and I seriously think you would need to hire a cleaning service at least once a week.

Finally, we roll into Portland. Happy to see the red tile roof of the Italianate Union Station. Happy, at last to be home on the steady earth, no more trains to catch. How to get home. We decide to take the max, what did I say about trains to catch? Max is light rail, not really a train. It’s at least a ten block walk. I feel myself frayed and tired and grouchy. At Lloyd Center, we hop on the number 8, a short ride, and then a two block walk and we are home.

Kittycat is sleeping on our bed. Oh, how wicked she is. Kathleen has left us a note and a beautiful vase of tulips. She has also left a rug and some glass beads hanging in the window of the bathroom. It is all good. Out the window, the red red maples flaunt their colors, but the pink dogwoods, the huge chestnuts, the giant oaks, the great cedar by our bedroom, the green, the green, the green. I am awash in these colors. Iris’s in bloom, Wisteria hanging from porches, trees tunneling Knott street, pansies, fuschias, phlox, moss on the bricks that new bright spring green and the blue light over every living thing. My head is swimming, I am drowning in the beauty of home.