Since THE DOUBLE was my first Jose Saramago book, it was eagerly anticipated. I had heard high praise about THE CAVE. The author's name had been mentioned in some surprising circles. So I'm not sure what I expected here. What I got was a book like no other --- in some ways incredible, in other ways bewildering.
Just the lead character's name, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, strikes a discordant note from the beginning. And Saramago rarely uses less than all three names, and almost never uses the pronoun. He emphasizes the name's rarity first, among many instances, when Tertuliano Maximo Afonso has to identify himself for the clerk at a video rental store. He rents a video from this previously mentioned clerk at the suggestion of a teacher of mathematics at the school where he, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, teaches history. The video is unremarkable but for one aspect: A supporting actor with barely a speaking part is identical in appearance to Tertuliano Maximo Afonso. Identical.
Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, recently depressed and lethargic --- too depressed and lethargic to extricate himself from a lackluster relationship with long-time paramour Maria da Paz --- discovers a renewed purpose to his days. He embarks on a mission to locate this actor with his face. He muses whether identical looks (right down to years-old scars and mole placements) means identical times of death. He muses about other things, too. In fact, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso muses, it seems, all day long.
Engulfed in his quest for at least a glimpse of his double, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso neglects not only Maria da Paz, who is recently asking some hard questions, but his mother as well, who is also asking some hard questions, just not the same ones. Tertuliano Maximo Afonso's obsession leads him to neglect most areas of his life that do not involve the actor. He may, it turns out, have taken his mission too far.
This is a book to pay attention to. While at first Saramago's style may be off-putting to some (a spectacularly run-on sentence may go on for a full page; paragraphs may go on for three, no quotation marks are used, very few speaker tags, and you will never see a dash or an interrogatory), it brazenly dares the reader to look beyond proper grammatical conventions and simply read the message. It defies all the rules. Saramago has a rhythm to his writing that, once you have it, propels you into the story with enthusiastic speed. THE DOUBLE provides excellent fodder for provoking thought. It is perplexing, comical, even absurd. A guaranteed head shaker.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 21, 2011