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José Saramago: O homem duplicado (The Double)

Saramago’s way is to make the reader feel uncomfortable and he certainly does that here. What looks like simply a case of two people looking alike soon becomes quite sinister. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso (he hates the name Tertuliano and, indeed comes in for a certain mocking about it during the course of the novel) is a history teacher. He is divorced with no children and lives alone in a flat in what is presumably Lisbon. He has a girlfriend, Maria da Paz, who works in a bank and lives with her mother. His feelings towards her change frequently during the course of the story. Apart from spending some time (but not very much) with Maria da Paz, his main interest seems to be reading books of history. He will spend much of the novel reading a history of Mesopotamian civilisation.

One day, at school, one of his colleagues, with whom he is fairly friendly, the maths teacher, recommends a specific film, The Race Is to the Swift, to him. The maths teacher points out that it is not a particularly good film but he feels Tertuliano, who is not a cinema buff, will enjoy it. Tertuliano rents it from the local video store and, while quite enjoying it, agrees that it is not a great film and wonders why the maths teacher has recommended it. However, when he has finished there is something he recalls which he wishes to check further. On looking again he sees that one of the very minor roles has an actor who resembles himself, apart from a moustache. The resemblance is uncanny. Unfortunately, as he is a minor character, the credits only mention a list of actors in the supporting roles without mentioning what specific roles they played. As a result he returns to the video store and cleverly decides to rent films from the same production company. The video store clerk is glad to help and he soon has six such films, with a list of many more. Eventually, he finds out the name of his double. He starts by a process of elimination but then there is a film where the character has a larger role and is given a credit. The name – Daniel Santa-Clara – is not common, so he tries to find him. There are three Santa-Claras in the Lisbon phone book. He phones them all. One does not reply and two deny that they know him.

Eventually he does locate the real Daniel Santa-Clara – it is a pseudonym – by using a devious means and tracks down the real man. The man turns out to be identical in all respects – same scars, same moles, even same date of birth. Both men are understandably somewhat perturbed by this and, at this point, it is where Saramago starts making it uncomfortable for us (and for the main characters). Inevitably, Saramago has a twist and then another twist. The story is told as though the narrator is directly involved and, indeed, when common sense is needed, it is even anthropomorphised and comes into Tertuliano’s car and flat to talk to him. But, once again, Saramago has given us a fine novel that makes us think, that leaves us feeling slightly uncomfortable but makes us realise how original and imaginative he is as a writer.

Publishing history

First published 2002 by Caminho, Lisbon
First English translation 2004 by Harvill