At the Video Store
- The Double by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Harvill, 292 pp, £15.99, August 2004, ISBN 1 84343 099 1
All José Saramago’s novels tell a story. Each is predicated on a suggestive and compelling hypothesis: what would happen if the Iberian peninsula were to become detached from the European mainland (The Stone Raft), what would happen if everyone in a country lost their eyesight (Blindness), what would have happened if the crusaders had refused to help the beleaguered Portuguese in 1147 (The History of the Siege of Lisbon)? From these impossible premises, more or less logical consequences follow, more or less fabulously narrated; with light digressions, tense asides and much moody self-reflexiveness. The premise of The Double, Saramago’s most recently translated novel, is this: a man, a shy and gloomy history teacher, watches a video and catches sight of someone, an uncredited bit-part actor playing a hotel receptionist, who is identical to him in all respects – except that he looks a little younger and wears a moustache. The history teacher, who is called Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, then realises that the film was made five years ago, and that five years ago he too was younger and also wore a moustache. This is disturbing. Who is the double of whom; which is the original?
Tertuliano Máximo Afonso has to find out. He decides to watch all the films made by the same production company in order to identify the actor. By a process of elimination – he examines the cast lists in the credits of the films in which his double appears and those in which he doesn’t – he finally establishes that the actor is called Daniel Santa-Clara. Santa-Clara’s career is flourishing inasmuch as a minor character actor’s career can flourish, and over time he he has landed bigger roles: as a bank clerk, a hospital orderly, a nightclub doorman, a police photographer, a croupier, a dance teacher. In each part he speaks in Tertuliano Máximo Afonso’s voice with Tertuliano Máximo Afonso’s mannerisms and Tertuliano Máximo Afonso’s reasonably good looks. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso becomes determined to find his double and confront him. He elicits the actor’s address from the production company, as well as his real name, which is António Claro; he begins to stalk him, eventually engineering a meeting. It’s an attractive plot, rich in possibilities – psychological, existential, comical, allegorical, referential. But they are almost all provocatively denied. The allusion to Dostoevsky, at least, is an accident: the Portuguese title is O Homem Duplicado, literally ‘The Duplicated Man’ (in Portugal, Dostoevsky’s Dvoinik is published as O Duplo). This isn’t a novel about the divided self; it isn’t, in fact, about the self at all. At many points in the narrative – as soon as you start to reflect on it – the plot develops holes. At these points, however, a very different set of possibilities insinuates itself into the gaps; and the book becomes quite unlike anything else.
Take the following sentence, which appears as the end approaches. ‘When Tertuliano Máximo Afonso woke up the next day, he knew why he had told common sense, as soon as it got into the car, that that would be the last time it would see him wearing the false beard and that, from then on, he would go about bare-faced, for everyone to see.’ This – with its mystery prop, the false beard; with its downright confusing number of tenses and moods, or implied tenses and moods; with its many disorienting temporal signposts (‘the next day’, ‘as soon as’, ‘the last time’, ‘from then on’); with its irresolution on the question of the nature of the decision – ought to be nonsensical. But if you were merely getting on with following the plot, which by the point this sentence arises has thickened considerably, you might not notice anything odd about it. ‘Common sense’ appears in the book as a minor character, and the beard is an essential disguise. If you think about it, though, the sentence is even less simple than it seems.
The traditional detective wears a false beard in order to avoid being recognised, to be anonymous. Until he decides to give it up – for whatever reason, with whatever motive and intent – Tertuliano Máximo Afonso has been wearing his false beard, as is traditional, to aid his clandestine activities. He lurks outside António Claro’s apartment and must avoid the complication of being mistaken for his double by friends or neighbours. A disguise, it is commonly understood, is designed to make a person appear not to be himself, to be someone else. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso’s disguise, on the other hand, makes him appear not to be António Claro, his double: in other words, it makes him appear not to be someone else. Generally, a disguise is meant to mislead. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso’s makes the truth clearer. Which means his decision to give it up is not honest and self-revealing, but subversive, underhand, murky. This should explain the nice use of the word ‘bare-faced’ (‘from then on, he would go about bare-faced, for everyone to see’): not to wear the false beard would be an act of brazen dishonesty. Everyone would see him, but they would be seeing someone else. The words used in Portuguese, however, have a different figurative slant: ‘bare-faced’ here is a translation of ‘de cara descoberta’, literally ‘with uncovered face’, a phrase with a positive twist whose figurative meaning is ‘unmasked’, ‘revealed’, ‘declared’. In the English translation, the words correctly connote a lie. In the original, they falsely connote ‘truth’, slyly suggesting that, when the mask is removed, this is the real person.