At the Video Store

Daniel Soar

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.

Saramago doesn’t appear to believe in real people, or the appearance of reality in his people. The Cave (2000), the novel before The Double, was a dystopian fable involving an unlocated fascist state known only as ‘the Centre’, in which – ingeniously and fully plausibly, the plot involving a much manipulated potter who makes clay figurines – people who thought they were real turn out gruesomely to be Plato’s shadows. Saramago’s protagonists are mostly undistinguished little men, unnoticed and anonymous cogs in a faceless bureaucratic machine. They are downtrodden and quiet; they encounter difficulties and a world they don’t entirely understand. There’s a political point to this: it’s a position that is broadly anti-totalitarian, and supportive of the worker. There’s also a literary point.

Fiction depends on character, and writers of fiction commonly assert character by investing an invented person with distinguishing traits. In genre fiction, telling characteristics often boil down to physical marks: a fierce mouth, a mole on the cheek, a limp. In fiction that defines itself as literary (as idiosyncratic, as extra-generic), a character becomes characterful by being assertively distinguished. Verisimilitude declares that people aren’t simple, that they are contingent complexes of contradictory characteristics and impulses: cruel mouths and other melodramatic synecdochal leitmotifs are ruled out; if there’s a moral argument, cruelty has to exist in combination with kindness, and one has to do battle with the other to win. Writerly ambition decides that a character must be unique, or particular and incomparable: to admit influence or (worse) stereotype is to deny your power of invention. And storytelling demands that your character must resonate unforgettably. The trouble is that if you want to make your invention indelible, you need to have faith in archetype, to believe that there are certain kinds of character who will linger, who will represent something larger than themselves. The question is: should they be particular as well as general? The answer is that it probably doesn’t matter, so long as you have drama and grandeur and the vagaries of personality. In this scenario, great fictional characters become so many Heathcliffes, Morton Denshers, Emma Woodhouses and Raskolnikovs. Engendering such people – and such drama – should cause many novelists no qualms, but Saramago is scrupulous.

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1992) made semi-real one of the personas of Fernando Pessoa, a writer whose real name means ‘person’ and who wrote under four different aliases, for each of whom he invented a mini-biography and a set of temperamental tendencies. Pessoa disliked the word ‘pseudonym’ and called his alter-egos ‘heterónimos’: if they helped him to write, if they were articulations of some aspect of himself that demanded expression, why should any of them be called false? In Saramago’s novel, Ricardo Reis – the classically minded aesthete monarchist doctor whom Pessoa invented in 1914 and who ‘emigrated to Brazil in 1919’ – returns to Portugal in 1935, the year of Pessoa’s death, with Fascism on the march and Salazar’s rule in progress. Saramago, seemingly attracted by the potential of Pessoa’s several and productive masks, constructs his novel in such a way as to allow a series of encounters and dialogues between the fictional Ricardo Reis and the dead Pessoa, or his ghost; and between a sensuous and (by contrast with Pessoa) very alive Reis and a series of flesh-and-blood women.

The book – freed perhaps by being about someone truly fictional, or about someone who can be proved really to exist fictionally, someone who is another person’s invention, now merely elaborated and extended – is unique in Saramago’s writing: his pre-dictatorship Lisbon is unashamedly real. There are broken enamel pots and pans, and grease congealed on cold plates; there’s the stench of cracked sewers; there are scattered whiffs of gas. The iron shoes of overladen mules give off sparks, the bed Reis sleeps in has a human hollow, and Atlantic windowpanes are ingrained with salt. This is very nearly Zola. Saramago allows himself this liberty – the embodied particularising of the generally true, the tangible realisation through the tiniest details of an entire country at a specific moment in history – partly because the storm gathering across Europe in 1935 justifies it. But he is also enabled by Ricardo Reis himself. Reis is very different from any possible avatar of José Saramago, and this distance – this incommensurability – is perhaps a novelist’s licence to dare (for once) to imagine sympathetically. Reis’s conservatism and nostalgia for the exiled king, Dom Sebastião, is translated in the novel into sensitivity, and an acute awareness of everything that touches him.

In 1998, Saramago wrote this: ‘In one sense it could even be said that, letter by letter, word by word, page by page, book after book, I have been successively implanting in the man I was the characters I created. I believe that without them I wouldn’t be the person I am today.’ Since he made this statement on winning the Nobel Prize, you could take it as the novelist’s equivalent of an Oscar acceptance speech: he’d like to thank his agent, his mother-in-law, his primary school teacher, and every two-bit barfly or harmonium player or cardsharp he ever had the good fortune to be cast as on the silver screen. But that isn’t Saramago’s way. He might, of course, be trying to say that his characters are personas or masks, or even heteronyms, liberating alternative people: he is, he writes, no one without them. If he were given to histrionics, or susceptible to the dramatics of amateur writerly ambition, he might even have claimed he was Borges’s Shakespeare, in himself a characterless character but one who contains powerful multitudes: Pessoa makes a claim of this kind to Reis. But in Saramago’s most dramatic novel, the word ‘multitudes’ is invested with a sinister ring: they are the mass Salazar has mobilised and claims to speak for.

The trouble with speaking for people is that you run the risk of misrepresenting them; and even a novelist – in his petty world – can be a tyrant. When Saramago writes a character, imagining in the ordinary novelist’s way what he would feel if he were that person in this situation, he always remembers the fact that he is doing the imagining: he never rubs out the pencil marks he used for the initial sketch. His portraits, if they can be called that, are never finished (no highlights, no finery, no spark); they are never meant to be taken for the real thing (that might be tyrannical). The non-fictional Journey to Portugal (1981) is written in the third person, presumably in order to forestall the possibility of the writer making false assumptions about his own country (which he wants to recognise in all its unfamiliar strangeness), and to discourage the reader from making false assumptions about the author; yet ‘the traveller’ can’t help encountering people and situations that could be taken, word for word, from his novels. For Saramago, constructing a character involves putting on a disguise which, like Tertuliano Máximo Afonso’s, makes him unlike someone else – though not, perhaps, unlike himself.

Early in The Double, there’s a narrative excursion on living alone, which – we’re definitively not in Dostoevsky territory – doesn’t necessarily involve oppositional solipsism or combative individuality:

What one mostly sees, indeed it hardly comes as a surprise any more, are people patiently submitting to solitude’s meticulous scrutiny, recent public examples, though not particularly well-known and two of whom even met with a happy ending, being the portrait painter who we only ever knew by his first initial, the GP who returned from exile to die in the arms of the beloved fatherland, the proofreader who drove out a truth in order to plant a lie in its place, the lowly clerk in the Central Registry Office who made off with certain death certificates, all of these, either by chance or coincidence, were members of the male sex, but none of them had the misfortune to be called Tertuliano, and this was doubtless an inestimable advantage to them in their relations with other people.

These ‘not particularly well-known’ examples are, of course, a few of Saramago’s characters (the portrait painter is H. from the Manual of Painting and Calligraphy; the GP is Ricardo Reis; the proofreader is Raimundo Silva from The History of the Siege of Lisbon; the lowly clerk is Senhor José from All the Names), and Saramago is saying that we’re allowed to believe what seemed to be the case, that – at the very least – they have more than a little in common with one another. The only thing that makes this new one different, the passage states, is his name – a name that is mentioned in the book’s very first sentence, and which embarrasses him when he has to reveal it to the video store owner who is about to rent him the film in which his double will first appear. The (old-fashioned) name Tertuliano is, in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation, ‘most unusual’. In Portuguese it’s ‘nada comum’, which means the same thing, but has the advantage of chiming with everything in the book that is ‘common’ (and shared) or ‘common’ (and ordinary). Common sense (the character) is revealed to be crass and dangerous: responsible, despite his protestations, not only for the invention of the wheel but also for the atom bomb.

But can a name make all the difference? Tertuliano Máximo Afonso has in common with the protagonists of many of Saramago’s other novels his self-conscious insignificance, his belittlement. He stays at home alone with a history of Mesopotamian civilisations; he half-heartedly tells his colleagues – knowing it’s an unoriginal thought – that history should be taught backwards, from the present to the past; he eats meat stew from a tin; he visits his mother once a year. He tells his colleague the mathematics teacher, whose name we never learn, that he is ‘apathetic’ or ‘depressed’ (there is some argument between them about which is the better description; curiously, the two switch positions on the question). The two teachers share something: intelligence, a sense of irony. When Tertuliano Máximo Afonso visits the video store for the third time – the first visit had been on his colleague’s recommendation, in the hope that a light-hearted film might briefly relieve his symptoms – the owner, impressed by the speed and accuracy of his customer’s mental arithmetic in totalling up the cost of 36 videos, asks him whether he isn’t by any chance a mathematics teacher.

There’s no particular reason why he shouldn’t be the mathematics teacher, or why the mathematics teacher shouldn’t be the history teacher, or why the nameless colleague shouldn’t have been the one accidentally to encounter his duplicate on a TV screen. The two are initially indistinguishable in outlook and circumstance, except that (by the author’s arbitrary choice) one has a name and one doesn’t. One is reasonably happy to be part of the common crowd; the other is uncommonly disaffected. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso ought by rights to be unique, and he is sensitive on the issue, which is why the existence of his duplicate is such an affront. And when he discovers his duplicate, and becomes involved in his own plot – with all his detective work, and his consequent need to confront the interloper – he becomes in his way distinguished. He stops returning his concerned colleague’s calls; he becomes determined, a hero.

While the accidental hero is pacing around his apartment, with the plot underway, the phone rings. The machine records the message: a woman, desperate and abandoned, is begging a man to please call her back, to please reassure her that it isn’t all over. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, sunk in himself and the problem of his duplication, feverish in his pursuit of his target, smiles briefly to himself, momentarily diverted by an amusing situation from another person’s world. Given what we know of him, his retiring nature and solitary habits, we know that the woman has got the wrong number. But a few pages later we learn that she hasn’t. She is Maria da Paz, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso’s current lady friend; he has been avoiding her and thinking of ending the relationship. This wasn’t what we expected. Not only does he have a girlfriend: he’s even cruel to her. This contradictoriness, the cruelty disguised by the meek exterior, has made him a traditional character. The revelation of his characterfulness – he is now a hard man, and difficult to fathom – has, however, involved a complication.

Everything we’ve been told about him has led us to think of him in one way only. At this point, for the first time, the always provisional, ostentatiously self-questioning narrative voice – constantly insinuating itself, constantly digressing – has fallen silent; leaving the purely mimetic presentation of a girl, phoning a boy, asking him to love her. This is a peculiar situation. If the narrative is so good at asking questions of itself and of what it half-describes, and so good at providing half-answers, why can’t it do the decent postmodern thing and undermine itself too? Why is it silent at the crucial moment when it is contradicted by a much more basic – naive even – method of representing character: a person in a room doesn’t answer a ringing phone, an anxious voice leaves a message?

There’s a reason, but it’s one Saramago won’t tell. Some things can’t be explained: they can only be shown. Maria da Paz’s voice on the answering machine makes her a presence, one which intrudes on Tertuliano Máximo Afonso’s consciousness (barely), as a distraction, something that can’t for the moment be resolved. Replaying the message, he wonders how he’ll manage to break the news to her that perhaps they should just be friends. He doesn’t get that far, occupied as he is with his detective work; and the problem is apparently forgotten until, on a Saturday, with Tertuliano Máximo Afonso unshaven and in pyjamas, surrounded by mountains of videos, Maria da Paz presents herself at the apartment in person. This time, dignified and attractive, compellingly resolute, she can’t be pushed aside; it becomes less and less likely that he’ll ever abandon her. He likes her – how can he not? – and she, by her undeniable presence, introduces herself into his plot, despite the fact that she should by rights have no place in it. She is simply unignorable.

But The Double contains other, more sinister presences too. One is the double himself. When Tertuliano Máximo Afonso first watches the original video, nothing about it strikes him as out of the ordinary; it is mildly entertaining, no more. He marks some homework and goes to bed. But in the middle of the night he wakes up, certain that there is someone in the apartment: ‘as he approached the living-room, he felt the invisible presence growing denser with each step, as if the atmosphere had been set vibrating by reverberations from some hidden incandescence.’ The word ‘hidden’ here is a translation of oculta, which alternatively suggests the uncanny: this thing is more than merely obscure. The source of the disturbance is, of course, the TV, on which his double had earlier appeared unnoticed, and on which, replaying the video, he will now positively identify him.

Later in the book, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is summoned by the headmaster to discuss his proposal for the reversal of the history syllabus, and a similar ‘presence’ makes itself felt: he ‘will be unable to explain now or ever why the air seems to have thickened, as if impregnated with an invisible presence, as intense and powerful as the one that roused him brusquely from his bed after watching that first video’. The narrator will never explain either, leaving the presence to produce its own effect. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso has been wondering why the headmaster’s office always feels familiar, why ‘he knew this furniture, these curtains, this carpet, or thought he did.’ This sensation, and the accompanying presence, remains an unsettling mystery to him – as it will to any reader who has not also read Saramago’s All the Names (1997), in which Senhor José, the lowly clerk in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, breaks into a school at night in order (it’s a long story) to recover the record cards of an unnamed 36-year-old woman, entirely unknown to him, who had been a student there. Exhausted and overcome by his uncharacteristic brazenness in breaking and entering, Senhor José finds refuge in the headmaster’s office to sleep for a few hours; the room – thick curtains, large and old-fashioned desk, modern black leather armchair – is to all intents and purposes the same room that will appear six years later in The Double. The unexplained presence Tertuliano Máximo Afonso senses is another character in another story. This in-joke of sorts could be interpreted as being about nothing more than reading (as saying that reading depends on memory, that when one thing reminds you of another, both make sense), but it’s significant that the two sinister presences – the presentiment of António Claro, the lingering effect of Senhor José – are described in such similar terms. Neither of them is Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, but both are very like him.

Both presences alarm him, threatening to undermine his uniqueness. Both – thanks to their ‘incandescence’, which could almost be shorthand for the effect of a real character – are more skin-crawlingly palpable than he is himself. Perhaps they are solid; perhaps he’s the shadow. But it’s worth thinking about what the two have in common. From Tertuliano Máximo Afonso’s point of view, a parallel has been drawn between a duplicate of his own character and a character from another novel by the same novelist: both ectoplasmic apparitions are shadowy projections, whose movement is conducted by José Saramago, the puppet-master or conman behind the curtain. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso isn’t a traditional character – he isn’t particular, he isn’t unique – but all the same he won’t be bullied. In the final few pages of The Double, after Tertuliano Máximo Afonso has confronted and defeated his duplicate, or perhaps the person of whom he is the duplicate, there is what seems a superfluous and possibly deranged plot twist: the phone rings and someone speaks with Tertuliano Máximo Afonso’s voice and Tertuliano Máximo Afonso’s mannerisms to suggest a meeting. A third duplicate is an affront too far. Whose plot is this anyway? Tertuliano Máximo Afonso – who isn’t so much a character as a person, who is determined to assert his reality, his primacy – changes his clothes, loads a pistol, sticks it into his belt, and walks out. And the novel ends. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso will have his way.

If you fear for the safety of the 82-year-old novelist, be reassured that this isn’t yet the end. The next book to be translated will be Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (2004), a companion novel to Blindness, which apparently deals with a state in which electors submit blank votes, provoking a crisis of more than one kind. If it were possible to treat his novels independently, you would have to say that The Double isn’t Saramago’s best; but that would be true only because its limitations are consequences of its premise. ‘Lucidity’ will be more complex, more meaningful, more worldly, but partly because of the twists and discoveries of The Double – and all the other books, all of which will have informed it and all of which it will inform.