Friday, August 19, 2005

Mutt's Book Review #1

All, here is a review I wrote for the Jose Saramago novel, 'The Double'. It's long for a blog post, so only bother with it if you are interested. - JJL/Mutt


The Double by José Saramago; translated from the Portugese by Margaret Jull Costa; Harcourt, Inc., 2004; 324 pgs.

‘One of us is a mistake,’ remarks one duplicated human being to his counterpart in José Saramago’s recent novel The Double. This assertion would startle anyone to whom it was directed, but I would submit, at the outset of this review, that the concept is less shocking to me. For I am a ‘copy’ myself, an identical twin. At some point in the journey – indeed, more than once – all twins share the joke that one of them was intended and the other wasn’t. Even though it is all done in good fun, sometimes there remains behind, once the joking is over, a tiny, nagging feeling of discomfort.

Is it true? Am I a mistake? Should I be here or not?

It is this fundamental unease – questions over identity and provenance – that lies at the heart of Saramago’s riveting novel. A cautionary tale about the dangerous potential consequences of human cloning, related without ever mentioning the word or the science used to achieve it, The Double uses this latest manifestation of humankind’s hunger for dominion as a means of exposing our deepest, undeniable fallacy. For Saramago, man is a profoundly fallible creature; how can learning to reproduce ourselves artificially lead to anything but destructive chaos?
José Saramago, the only Portugese writer to have received the Nobel Prize in Literature (1998), has created an entire oeuvre of work that seems bent on exposing humanity as, in the words of the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, ‘the fool of the farce’. His protagonists are frequently represented as tired, pessimistic types whose attempts to discern the answers to ultimate questions seem like doomed, pointless exercises, yielding little to no fruit. As Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, the history teacher protagonist who may or may not be the title character of this novel, expresses it, ‘Great truths, great lies, I suppose in time everything becomes trivial, the usual dishes in the same old sauce’ (pg. 77).

Indeed, José Saramago has few positive things to say about his fellow man or for the ways in which he has responded historically to the most difficult questions surrounding his existence. An avowed Communist and atheist, Saramago not only rejects Western Christianity and democracy; he seems convinced of the ultimately fatal flaws in the design of the human creature itself – a pessimist in the strictest sense of the word. Yet this does not prevent him from expressing sympathy for some of his characters; there are even moments when some of them – women, more often than not – are presented with a degree of tenderness.

At 82 years old, still endowed with lucidity and creativity, Saramago is not afraid to take on complex moral subjects. It’s nothing new to him to do so. In his controversial 1991 novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Saramago attacked Christianity without hesitation by recreating the story of its founder in bizarre and blasphemous terms. Christians seeking an unapologetic, blunt-object viewpoint of their religion from the other side of the boundary of belief need look no further than this bitter novel. Saramago has also more than once used allegory to cast ‘organized’, authoritarian government structures against the wherewithal and resourcefulness of common people in novels such as Blindness and The Stone Raft. In these novels, fantastically unusual calamities occur to groups of people, and it is in the way these occurrences are handled that Saramago is given a forum for his outlook on human nature.

In The Double Saramago again examines human responses to a kind of phenomenon, but in this case the phenomenon is imposed on two men only, and, it is implied, does not necessarily have natural causes. The story centers on the aforementioned history teacher, who has become weary of what he perceives to be a dull and meaningless existence. ‘Everything tires and bores me,’ he tells a colleague. ‘The wretched routine, the repetitiveness, the sense of marking time’ (pg. 5). His colleague, who may not be the best source of advice, suggests he rent a particular video to watch at home to take his mind off things.

The history teacher takes his friend’s suggestion, returning to his bachelor pad with the video, an inconsequential comedy. He ignores answering machine messages from a young woman named Maria da Paz, with whom he is going through the motions of a relationship; a facet of his life that is clearly only there (for him) to suit his whims and appetites, despite the obvious damage it inflicts on the other party. He prepares himself a miserable single man’s meal and settles on to his couch, which Saramago forebodingly describes as ‘not large enough to contain the physical and moral collapse of his body’ (pg. 19).

Instead of a breezy and amusing entertainment, he finds a mundane and uninspired film – until he spots a bit player, a secondary actor who resembles himself exactly as he looked five years before. The stunned teacher views the scene again, and then confirms his suspicions by tracking down an old photograph. The actor, Daniel Santa Clara (whose real name turns out to be Antonio Claro), is another ‘version’ of himself. Before long, Afonso has determined that he must locate and confront his double, out of extreme curiosity, and both the action and the consequences of the choices made begin in earnest.

It is at this point in the novel, still early, where the following passage appears:

There are moments in a narrative, and this, as you will see, has been one of them, when any parallel manifestation of ideas and feelings on the part of the narrator with respect to what the characters themselves might be feeling or thinking at that point should be expressly forbidden by the laws of good writing. (pg. 27)

This random observation provides an appropriate opportunity to address the quirks of this challenging writer’s narrative style.

Throughout his career Saramago has shown a deliberate disaffection for the ‘rules’ that govern most ‘good writing’. Thus, the majority of his novels are narrated by a third person, omniscient voice that frequently interjects into the narrative with thoughts, comments and random observations, such as the one cited above. This must be an amusing device for the writer, for it allows him to pontificate and make off-handed remarks. Saramago’s narrators frequently indulge this opportunity, often at the expense of other parties or groups, such as religions or governments. In the example that follows, Saramago pokes fun at his own sex:

Pride, especially among the male half of the world, is like one of those supposed friends who, at the first hint of trouble in our life, make themselves scarce or look the other way, whistling loudly. (pg. 57)

These interjections frequently interrupt the flow of the story, which no doubt many readers would find distracting or even irritating. But they include keen insights on the nature of our humanity, observations that this veteran writer is far more adept at making than most of his peers.

Perhaps even more of a distraction is the author’s fondness for abandoning accepted guidelines related to punctuation and narrative flow. Readers unfamiliar with Saramago’s style will need to steel themselves for initial bouts of confusion when they first encounter Saramago’s dialogue, which forsakes the use of question marks, exclamation points, returns between speakers and, above all, quotation marks. A new speaker is only discernable through the deployment of a capital letter. For example, a conversation between Tertuliano Máximo Afonso and his mother on the subject of his treatment of Maria da Paz appears as follows:

People don’t tend to get married so much these days, you must have gleaned that from your novels, Now I’m not stupid and I know perfectly well the kind of world I’m living in, it’s just that I don’t think you should keep the girl dangling, But I’ve never promised her marriage or even suggested that we live together, As far as she’s concerned a relationship that’s lasted six months is like a promise, you don’t know women. (pg. 134)

Leaving aside for the moment the richness of insights that is strikingly clear in this passage (of which this is merely one of countless examples), any newcomer to this writer’s work can see how this method crafting dialogue could lead to confusion. For some, no doubt, it would be too much of an effort and not worth the reading and re-reading that is sometimes required to follow one of these conversations.

I do not think too much should be made of these quirks. One gets used to them quickly. In addition, there is nothing wrong with demanding an effort of one’s readers. One of the recognizable characteristics of good literature is that a work of fiction or poetry, or even of art in a broader sense, often increases in overall quality in proportion to the level of effort it demands from its consumer. ‘Working’ harder yields greater rewards. This is a sign of the novel’s sophistication, to say nothing of the casual confidence of the writer. Saramago has enough belief in what he has to say that he is willing to risk the dismissal of those who cannot be bothered to ‘hear’ it.

Once the history teacher makes the fateful decision to seek out his duplicate, events in the novel begin to spiral in a grand descent towards cataclysm, accelerating as they accumulate. The remainder of the book chronicles the scheming of Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, initially, to bring about this ill-considered encounter; then the double-crossing practiced by both men, neither of whom are particularly sympathetic, in order to one-up the other; and significantly, ultimately, the consequences of their actions, which affect primarily the women with whom they are associated, but which also have broader implications.

These women – Maria da Paz, Tertuliano’s mother, and the wife of his ‘double’, Helena Claro – all become victimized by the obsessions and the lack of judgment of their men, and are portrayed as intelligent, clear-thinking figures in the novel. Saramago seems to implicate in a general way members of his own sex, who seem to be more or less responsible for the state of the world we’re living in. If women were in charge, one might conclude after reading this novel, we might not be faced with such escalating moral conundrums (and Saramago might be out of work). As Maria da Paz succinctly puts it to her lover, whose stubborn unwillingness to listen to her proves disastrous, ‘be careful, watch yourself, once a person starts falsifying things there’s no telling where it will end’ (pg. 122). It is not a spoiler to state here that where it ends in this novel, both for the characters and for humankind in general, is not and cannot be a pleasant place.

Following this lucid, darkly funny, but ultimately terrifying novel to that place makes for both an engaging and enlightening experience. But it also raises broad concerns about man’s abuse of his scientific aptitude and intellectual impulses. The conclusion of the book – a very brief chapter that is brilliantly executed and particularly impressive in that the reader never sees it coming, but feels that he should have – is a chilling blast of air. It manages, in the space of two pages, to transform what has previously been a miserable situation for a handful of characters in an unnamed city in Portugal into a formidable demon slouching towards the rest of the world. Suddenly we realize it’s our problem. It’s all creepy fun and games, until we reach the final chapter.

Anyone of a suspicious bent … would probably shake his head, put on a pitying air, and say in oracular fashion, If you invite your enemy into your house, don’t complaining to me about it afterward, you were warned and you took no notice. (pg. 231)

The Double is a Nobel laureate’s warning, and it is timely enough.

In recent weeks it has come to light in the international news that scientists in South Korea have successfully cloned a dog, something that had been considered impossible for years because of the species’ complex and unique reproductive processes. What began thirty-plus years ago with tadpoles and progressed to a sheep called Dolly has continued on it perilous course and has now reached man’s best friend. Certainly now it is probable that cloning our own species will become a reality under the ‘noble’ auspices of medical research and the instinct to defend ourselves from disease.

The Double suggests that we do this at our own peril. In taking the mantle of Creator onto our own shoulders, unworthy and unable of bearing such weight, we will further dilute our understanding of the value of life. The novel also demonstrates that works of art created even in the absence of faith, in God or in man, can still serve as a conductor for the electric shock of the unimpeded truth. We need not share in a writer like Saramago’s disdain for some institutions or certain ways of life to appreciate his accomplishment. He has managed to entertain us and remind us of our own capacity to doom ourselves in the process. Whether we listen or not falls on us: the writer’s work is done.


Duke Altum said...

Wow. Yet another OUTSTANDING, erudite (Montaigne -- nice!!!), insightful, fascinating review from Mutt/JJL (talk about "doubles"...). Seriously Mutt, this review is excellent. Not only did it totally pique my interest in the book, but it also provided some interesting insights into Saramago's unique brand of fiction, AND our society's scientific hubris, with its itchy finger on the trigger of the loaded gun of technology... Mutt's loyal fans know that he also wrote a scathing, but somehow still insightful, "mini-review" of Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and posted it in the reviews section for the book on if you dig deep there, you can still find it (and it's worth checking out). I don't know anyone who's read more of the Portugese Nobel laureate that Mutt has, and it shows in his post with his obvious familiarity with Saramago's unorthodox writing style. I myself have read his Blindness (a present from the Runnin' Bookworm, incidentally -- a shout out to you if you're reading this!) and A History of the Siege of Lisbon, both of which were very interesting books with a lot of human insight packed into them.

And this brings me to the real value of Mutt's review... please, TST readers, take note of his powerful last paragraph there. Mutt hits upon, once again, the whole reason for this blog in the first place: despite Saramago's perspective on the world which is obviously vastly different than that of the founders of this blog, his book can still provide for us some wisdom and insight about what it means to be human, which is to say, to be confused and lonely and yearning for something... and not quite knowing the what and the why. We are increasingly looking to answer these nagging questions through artificial and technological means, yet Saramago is enough of an artist to know (and this is ironic, because what he doesn't realize is that in his artistry he reflects the very Creator he denies the existence of -- see Pope John Paul the Great's Letter to Artists) that such means will never do. We'll never get to the heart of what really drives us with our own blunt instruments. We'll only make things worse. Good fiction may not provide the true answers to our conundrums, but it can help to eliminate some of the false ones. Saramago's certainly accomplishes this task in admirable fashion, and as Mutt has so eloquently argued, it ought to be read for this reason, and many others.

Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke, thanks for your kind comments on the review. I am in complete agreement about what you said regarding the value of a book like 'The Double' for readers of this blog, or for any Christian reading literature today. In my view you have to dip into as many other kinds of water as possible, in order to educate yourself and help clarify for you why you stick with your own beliefs and traditions. To me reading people who do not believe what I believe is stimulus, but only if they do it well, just as I think reading books with Christian themes are only valuable when done with clarity and creativity. In any case, it was fun to read the book, it obviously intrigued me, and writing that review is the kind of exercise that I enjoy taking on. Cheers! - Mutt