The Duality of Human Nature
“In this world, in this life, am I really unique?”, is a question we sometimes find ourselves ruminating on. At least once in our lifetime, whether consciously or unconsciously, we asked ourselves the same question. What if you learn that there is really someone who is our physical carbon copy? What if our “clone” is within striking distance of our own small world? Will this knowledge freak you out? Or will you be curious enough to learn more about them? Nobel Prize in Literature winner Jose Saramago’s The Double explores this subject the fore.
The Double relates a peculiar event in history teacher Tertuliano Maximo Afonso’s life. A divorcee, he was on the cusp of depression when his colleague suggested he watch a banal video. It was unimpressionable until, out of the blue, Tertuliano was aroused from his sleep by the noises emanating from his living room where the same VCR was playing. A minor detail he barely noticed the first time around suddenly caught his attention. One of the characters resemble him, the Tertuliano he was five years ago.
Tertuliano wanted to dismiss the curious thing he saw but the man’s image kept bothering him. His obsession of finding out and meeting this person took the better of him. Antonio Claro’s resemblance to Tertuliano is no mere coincidence, he is Tertuliano’s dead ringer – from his voice to his moles and to other body marks. Is Antonio Tertuliano’s long lost twin or is there some other phenomenon in play?
“We have an odd relationship with words. We learn a few when we are small, throughout our lives we collect others through education, conversation, our contact with books, and yet, in comparison, there are only a tiny number about whose meaning, sense, and denotation we would have absolutely no doubts, if one day, we were to ask ourselves seriously what they meant.” ~ Jose Saramago, The Double
The concept of having an exact double has been explored in different cultures. The highest and perhaps the most popular concept of a double originates from the German, the timeless fantasy of doppelgangers. Jose Saramago indulges his readers with his own deep and intense exploration of this peculiar yet spellbinding subject.
Saramago’s centrifugal plot device is hardly original but nevertheless, the premise is filled with intrigue; it is promising even. He showcased his writing arsenal by playing with this glaring anomaly. Through masterful strokes, he tricked the reader’s minds, making them navigate through an intricate and bewildering maze. He conjured a setting where a seemingly mundane and well-organized life collides with the magical and the fantastical.
The Double is related through streams of thoughts, mostly of Tertuliano’s, that keep the reader riveted. It is an immersion into the psychological and is an examination of the subterranean levels of our humanity and behavior. It is more than just about having a body double. It delves into the depths of our identity. As the story slowly unveils itself, it causes the reader to introspect, to reflect into their most thoughts. Am I really who I am?
“Every second that passes is like a door that opens to allow in what has not yet happened, what we call the future, but, to challenge the contradictory nature of what we have just said, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the future is just an immense void, that the future is just the time on which the eternal present feeds.” ~ Jose Saramago, The Double
Saramago, in his own creative way, played with the idea of duality through Tertuliano and Antonio who are like literal translation of the famous figure of speech, like two peas in a pod. But their similarities diverge where their physical attributes converge. Both have unique set of values that distinguishes them from the other. To adopt a renowned Eastern symbolism, the two characters can be viewed as yin and yang.
In a subtle yet creative manner, Saramago showcased our penchant for duality, the underlying hypocrisy that underlines our human nature. Tertuliano and Antonio are mere conduits, allegories to inner thoughts. They are viewed as an individual driven by different conflicting values. They are metaphors of us, of our varying natures. We tend to obscure these things because it is safer to keep things on our own just like when Tertuliano and Antonio opted to confront each through a secret tryst rather than in public.
For all its promise, The Double disappointingly hits a plateau, especially at the first half of the book where the words turn into an endless rambling of thoughts. It was a slow burner filled with long arduous sentences that tend to end in a lull. A healthy portion of the book is dedicated to comic descriptions of the protagonist’s personality and environment. Not only is it overwhelming but it made the book drag.
“It was said that one of them, either the actor or the history teacher, was superfluous in this world, but you weren’t, you weren’t superfluous, there is no duplicate of you to come and replace you at your mother’s side, you were unique, just as every ordinary person is unique, truly unique.”
As the story reaches a denouement, the dull narrative intensifies into an action-filled stretch where grief, murder, and sex collide. As intrigue becomes the story’s middle name in an abrupt turn, this is perhaps an act of salvation to catch up with the dull beginning. The question of who is the duplicate and who is the original is lost as the laws of nature prevail. “A thing cannot exist in two places at the same time,” which also applies to human beings. The laws of the universe, for its whims, must still be respected.
For all its faults, The Double has its high points, from the interesting premise to the endless streams of thoughts. Saramago, on the whole, lived up to his billing worthy of his billing as a Nobel Prize in Literature winner. However, the execution didn’t completely fall through. Whether intentional or unintentional, there were plot holes that demand answers or a deeper understanding. On a positive note, The Double wins for its exploration of the psychological.
Even though on the whole, The Double was perplexing and befuddled, it still left me with a longing to understand Jose Saramago’s body of work. Magical realism isn’t my strongest suit which perhaps impaired some of my views of the book. It was, nonetheless, an enthralling, if not enchanting, read. I am cognizant that Saramago plays on merging the normal with the peculiar and this is, I guess, a good start to understanding his representative works.
Author: Jose Saramago
Translator: Margaret Jull Costa
Publisher: Harcourt Inc.
Publishing Date: 2004
Number of Pages: 324 pages
Genre: Novel, Magical Realism, Psychological
Tertuliano Maximo Afonso is a history teacher in a secondary school. He is divorced, involved in a rather one-sided relationship with a bank clerk and he is depressed. To lift his depression, a colleague suggests he rent a certain video. Tertuliano watches the film and is unimpressed. During the night, noises in his apartment wake him. He goes into the living room to find that the VCR is replaying the video, and as he watches in astonishment, he sees a man who looks exactly like him – or, more specifically, exactly like the man he was five years before, mustachioed and fuller in the face. He sleeps badly.
Against his own better judgment, Tertuliano decides to pursue his double. As he establishes the man’s identity, what begins as a whimsical story becomes a dark meditation on identity and, perhaps, on the crass assumptions behind cloning – that we are merely outward appearance rather than the sum of our experiences.
About the Author
Jose Saramago was born on November 16, 1922 in Azinhaga, Santarem, Portugal to humble beginnings.
Because of abject poverty, Saramago was sent to a technical school rather than a grammar school. Upon graduating, he worked first as a mechanic for two years before working as a translator which supported his career as a writer. He also worked as a journalist, becoming the assistant editor of Diario de Noticias.
Saramago’s first novel, Terra do Pecado (Land/Country of Sin) published in 1947 met modest success. It wasn’t until the publication of his fourth novel, Memorial do Convento (Baltasar and Blimunda) in 1982 that Saramago tasted critical and international success. It won the Portuguese PEN Club Award. His other works include O Homem Duplicado (The Double, 2002), Ensaio sobre e Cegueira (Blindness, 1995), and O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1984). He also published poetry and short stories.
Saramago’s marriage of the mundane with the fantastical and magical inevitably elicited a win from the highly valued Swedish Academy which named Saramago the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature winner. In its citation, the highly touted award-giving body credited Saramago “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality”.
Jose Saramago passed away on June 18, 2010 in Spain.