The Double

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by Jose Saramago

I have to confess that I never heard of Saramago before he died, maybe he won the Nobel Prize one year when I was not scouring the bookshops and didn’t see all the signs.

Before going to South America I did a decent stint at the Instituto Cervantes, but I also signed up to a basic Portuguese class, because obviously not all of South America speaks Spanish.

In the Spanish class people had different reasons for going, some related to Spain, some to Latin American; however in the Portuguese class everybody was there for Brazil. I think we broke our teacher’s heart. I remember one class where she asked us to name some famous Portuguese people. Blank looks. Cristian Ronaldo was about the only one we came up with. She proceeded to name a few people and I assume Saramago was among them. This year I’ve read some Pessoa as well and I know of some other famous Portuguese. Which just goes to show that however widely read you think you are there are always going to be huge gaps. I would say mine are mainly African and Asian. But even within Europe there are gaps. A lot are maybe not my fault, but the fault of translators, of publishers and demand. I did a kind of weird thing for our wedding, where we named the tables after famous authors of places we’d been together. This was easy for some countries, Spain, Ireland, France, and Austria to name a few. But Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Finland…ok maybe I’ve read some Finnish, but very little. If anybody can put me in the direction of Baltic literature in translation I’d appreciate it. Sorry, but I’m too lazy to learn those languages and read in original!

I wrote all the above some time ago, one of the many occasions when I’ve picked up one of Saramago’s books and tried to make a go of it, only to abandon it for something else. But two weeks ago we drove to Portugal (ok, royal we for my husband….I still don’t have a driving licence) and I really felt like I had not excuse. I like to read some local literature when I am travelling. Maybe you feel like you are breathing in some of the atmosphere of the setting.

I read a little, then abandoned for another book, then read a little more, then abandoned. It was one of those weekends. So often when we are going somewhere there is something that we need to do, some activity or there are sights that must be seen and I really enjoy that. But the only reason we were visiting Tavira was because our friends were on holiday and we decided to go for a long weekend. It was amazing to just relax, spend some time with our friends, appreciate the lack of wind and breathe. Oh and bite all my nails off during the last minute of the Ireland France rugby match before the place went wild. Anyway I did make a little progress with Saramago and soon I was hooked. Really those first 40 pages I found so difficult to read. The style, the long sentences, the lack of paragraphs, it put me off at first, but once I had got used to it, it didn’t bother me at all and I barely noticed it.

So the oddly named Tertuliano watches a video one day and notices that one of the bit part actors looks identical to him. A fair portion of the beginning is taken up with his quest to find the name of the actor. At this point I was thinking ‘surely IMDB has been invented? And could save him all the trouble? But apparently not. The book was published in 2002 but seems to take place in the early 90s at the latest. Callphones, typewriters, videos are all still in vogue, though people continue tell Tertuliano that he needs to change up to a computer. Well, one way or another he finds his double (through dubious means I find hard to believe would have worked even in those more ‘innocent’ times, when data privacy was not one of the great worries. But maybe it’s just my work mode, compliance, compliance, compliance, that’s pushing through and worrying about things like this being ridiculous when I am reading a book about doppelgangers. Oh and while I’m rereading this my husband is ‘studying’ by relaxing in the hammock and listening to a webinar about data protection, spooky!) Tertuliano seems like a good teacher, even when he’s not in the mood, and the school seems pretty realistic.

Some random comments as usual: I liked all the descriptions of the fairly silly movies his double appeared (or did not appear) in. On a drive to Estepona we were listening to ‘the Merry Widow’ and I tried to imagine a modern day Portuguese version, as appears in the book….and failed. (Oh and by the way, once I got back to the car the Viennese schmaltz had been replaced by Suede. No problems with that, just sometimes I’m in the mood for a bit of Viennese schmaltz.)

Ah the telephone directory can you find anything there these days? I used to think it was like a bible, showing the addresses and numbers of anybody you would ever want to contact. I wonder what percentage of people you can find there now. Tertuliano does a terminator, contacting all the other people of a certain name. ’Are you the person who called before?’ one of them asks. Remember that.

Oh poor long suffering Maria da Paz. Well, only a girlfriend of 6 months or so, but seemingly born to the steadfast long suffering, tragic role. Yet she grew out of the caricature and every time she spouted her random words of wisdom you could see that Tertuliano was beginning to recognize it too. Among her moments of wisdom are: ‘Chaos is merely order waiting to be decoded’ and ‘In being repeated words lose some of the conviction they would have carried if they had been spoken first. You’d know that if you read more fiction.’ She really is the novel’s moral compass.

Shortly before I read the book I saw the trailer for Richard Ayoades’s ‘The Double’, which is based on a novella by Doestoevsky. I wondered if there was any connection between the two, but it seems as if it is just a coincidence. The Portuguese title of this book was more like ‘the duplicated man’. Anyway I downloaded a pdf of the Dostoevsky book onto my nexus. Is this the beginning of a slippery slope? Will I start buying fewer books and just downloading? My first was a few weeks ago. My husband bought a few Philip Seymour Hoffman movies and after watching Capote I downloaded the ‘In Cold Blood’. It was so easy. ‘The Double’ was my second. I haven’t read either yet, but I think they might come in handy for when we’re driving in the dark and I want to read. Maybe I should have thought of that when it was still winter and we were driving to and from work in darkness. I already have a ‘car’ book that stays in the passenger seat, one I’m not too involved in and sits sadly when I’m actually deep into a compelling book. The purpose of the car book was to be long and slow down my reading so that I could keep up with these posts, but it hasn’t really succeeded. I have about 8 others to write up if I can ever get around to it and I’m newly finished the car book too. And while I want to read the books on my nexus I’m also a bit confused about how I would deal with them here. This was supposed to be about me reading the books I have before buying new ones but I suppose I’m not even doing very well with that.

When I was close to finishing this book I looked for it on wikipedia and saw that there was also a movie version of this one coming out about now, except that it’s called ‘Enemy’. I suppose it would have been confusing to have the same name as the Dostoevsky version. I’ll look out for it anyway.

This afternoon I watched the first episode of Orphan Black, which, (judging from the pilot, I haven’t read too much about it) is about clones, quite a few of them. So far the two the anti-heroine has met have died within moments of meeting her. There is no particular reference to cloning in ‘The Double’ and little reasoning behind the existence of the identical people. I’m not really into ‘pure sci-fi’ but I like these type which are more or less set in a normal landscape, just slightly tweaked. Any fiction about clones/doppelgangers etc. generally covers the same ground, thoughts about the self and being unique and nature versus nurture, but it can be done in so many different ways and if it’s done well it’s brilliant. Another one I liked was ‘Never Let me Go’ by Kazuo Ishirigo (cried at the end of course).

I’m going to wrap this one up now, or I’ll never post it. I liked the book and I will probably read more Saramago, though I’ll take a break before I pick up ‘The Elephant’s Journey’, which is also on my shelf. The reading is a bit heavy going (from having picked TEJ up before I can see that the style is similar. While the central idea of this novel is unlikely to happen in real life the questions it poses about who we are and how other people recognise us are universal. Oh and by the way, since writing and typing up I’ve watched the rest of Orphan Black and am eagerly awaiting season 2. Go watch it!

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