The Double

The Double

4.1 14
by José Saramago, Margaret Jull Costa

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Tertuliano Máximo 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


Tertuliano Máximo 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 assumption behind cloning-that we are merely our outward appearance rather than the sum of our experiences.

Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle

"Saramago's observations come in small bursts that lift themselves up in startling truth and beauty."
Los Angeles Times - Merle Rubin

"THE DOUBLE begins by intriguing us, proceeds to entertain, charm and engage, and ultimately manages to disturb."
New York Times - Richard Eder

"[Saramago's] take on the theme is clever, alarming and blackly funny"
The New Yorker - John Updike

"[Saramago is] a writer, like Faulkner, so confident of his resources and ultimate destination that he can bring any improbability to life"
From the Publisher

"Yet another triumph, albeit a typically melancholy one, for Portugal's, or even the world's, greatest living novelist." -The Washington Post Book World
"[Saramago] has the power to throw a dazzling flash of lightning on his subjects, an eerily and impossibly prolonged moment of clarity that illuminates details beyond the power of sunshine to reveal." -Chicago Tribune

The New Leader

"THE DOUBLE is another haunting book... from a writer who seems to produce masterpiece after masterpiece"
Trenton Times

"What satisfying pleasure it is to be told this cautionary tale by a teller at the peak of his wisdom and sly wit."
Richard Eder
It's tempting to think of [The Double] as his masterpiece. Certainly it is one of two or three, the allegory here not so tumultuously grand as in others, but more perfectly maneuvered.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The double motif, which has fascinated authors as diverse as Poe, Dostoyevski and Nabokov, is revived in this surprisingly listless novel by Portuguese master Saramago. Tertuliano Maximo Afonso is a history teacher in an unnamed metropolis (presumably Lisbon). Middle-aged, divorced and in a relationship with a woman, Maria da Paz, he is bored with life. On the suggestion of a colleague, one night Maximo watches a video that changes everything. The video itself is a forgettable comedy, but the actor who plays the minor role of hotel clerk (so minor he isn't listed in the credits) is Afonso's physical double. Soon Afonso is feverishly renting videos, trying to find the actor's name, while hiding his project from his suspicious colleague, his lover and his mother. Finally tracking the man down, he suggests a meeting. The actor, a rather sleazy fellow, resents Afonso's presence, as if his identical appearance were a sort of ontological theft. Soon the two are in a competition that involves sex and power. Narrating in his usual long, rambling sentences, Saramago suspends his characters and their actions in fussy authorial asides. Afonso has several hokey "dialogues" with "common sense"; his situation, which might be the germ for an excellent short story, is stretched out far beyond the length it deserves. This semi-allegory is certainly not one of Saramago's more noteworthy offerings. Agent, Ray-Gede Mertin. (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Upon viewing a video recommended by his colleague, depressed history teacher Tertuliano Maximo Afonso finds to his amazement that one of the bit players looks exactly like him. Painstakingly researching the actor's filmography and viewing his other films only serve to deepen his disturbance. Obsessed with finding some closure, the teacher seeks out the actor for a face-to-face meeting. Unfortunately, the meeting shakes the actor's foundations even deeper than Afonso's, and as recompense, the actor reasons that an evening spent with the teacher's girlfriend as Afonso is a fair trade. Readers of Saramago should know that this thriller-like plot is only a frame for the author's ideas on identity, but exactly what Saramago intends his twin characters to represent is hard to divine. There's also a surprising amount of dithering dialog, as if the author wanted to capture every mundanity that these enigmatic characters might say. Too ponderous for the average reader and lacking the intrigue that the premise implies, this will appeal mainly to fans of the Nobel-winning author. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/04.] Marc Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The theme of shared identity, treated by such masters as Poe, Stevenson, and Dostoevsky, animates the 1998 Nobel winner's latest. Protagonist Tertuliano Maximo Afonso is a divorced high-school history teacher whose life is irretrievably altered when he watches a videotaped romantic comedy recommended to him by a colleague. An unidentified supporting actor in the film is the image of Tertuliano himself, five years earlier. Obsessed by the coincidence, Afonso scans more and more films, identifies his "double" as journeyman actor Daniel Santa Clara, and learns the performer's real name: Antonio Claro. Through the breathless hurtling lengthy paragraphs that are Saramago's trademark, we watch the timid academic unravel as he contacts Claro (through a letter Tertuliano signs with the name of his sometime sweetheart Maria de Paz), meets the actor at the latter's home (in a very amusing scene, during which the two physically identical men even examine each other naked), and-in a melodramatic climax reminiscent of "Santa Clara's" movies-undergoes a climactic exchange of identities, which Saramago caps with a bold surprise ending. The Double hums with imaginative energy, and intrigues both by its central mystery and by its author's playful habit of assisting the reader ("Tertuliano's . . . next actions . . . demand the information that today is a Friday," etc.). But its points about the fragility and instability of individual identity are easily made, and there's a redundancy to many of its scenes that puts it at a level just below that of such Saramago masterpieces as Blindness (1998), All the Names (2000) and, most recently, The Cave (2002). Nevertheless, it's clearly the work of a great writer,whose entire oeuvre eloquently dramatizes the paradox (memorably stated by Maria de Paz) that "Chaos is only order waiting to be deciphered."
The New Yorker
[Saramago is] a writer, like Faulkner, so confident of his resources and ultimate destination that he can bring any improbability to life

—John Updike

Los Angeles Times
THE DOUBLE begins by intriguing us, proceeds to entertain, charm and engage, and ultimately manages to disturb.

—Merle Rubin

New York Times
[Saramago's] take on the theme is clever, alarming and blackly funny

—Richard Eder

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

THE MAN WHO HAS JUST COME INTO THE SHOP TO RENT A video bears on his identity card a most unusual name, a name with a classical flavor that time has staled, neither more nor less than Tertuliano Máximo Afonso. The Máximo and the Afonso, which are in more common usage, he can just about tolerate, depending, of course, on the mood he's in, but the Tertuliano weighs on him like a gravestone and has done ever since he first realized that the wretched name lent itself to being spoken in an ironic, potentially offensive tone. He is a history teacher at a secondary school, and a colleague had suggested the video to him with the warning, It's not exactly a masterpiece of cinema, but it might keep you amused for an hour and a half. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is greatly in need of stimuli to distract him, he lives alone and gets bored, or, to speak with the clinical exactitude that the present day requires, he has succumbed to the temporary weakness of spirit ordinarily known as depression. To get a clear idea of his situation, suffice it to say that he was married but can no longer remember what led him into matrimony, that he is divorced and cannot now bring himself to ponder the reasons for the separation. On the other hand, while the ill-fated union produced no children who are now demanding to be handed, gratis, the world on a silver platter, he has, for some time, viewed sweet History, the serious, educational subject which he had felt called upon to teach and which could have been a soothing refuge for him, as a chore without meaning and a beginning without an end. For those of a nostalgic temperament, who tend to be fragile and somewhat inflexible, living alone is the harshest of punishments, but, it must be said, such a situation, however painful, only rarely develops into a cataclysmic drama of the kind to make the skin prick and the hair stand on end. What one mostly sees, indeed it hardly comes as a surprise anymore, are people patiently submitting to solitude's meticulous scrutiny, recent public examples, though not particularly well known and two of whom even met with a happy ending, being the portrait painter whom we only ever knew by his first initial, the GP who returned from exile to die in the arms of the beloved fatherland, the proofreader who drove out a truth in order to plant a lie in its place, the lowly clerk in the Central Registry Office who made off with certain death certificates, all of these, either by chance or coincidence, were members of the male sex, but none of them had the misfortune to be called Tertuliano, and this was doubtless an inestimable advantage to them in their relations with other people. The shop assistant, who had already taken down from the shelf the video requested, entered in the log book the title of the film and the day's date, then indicated to the customer the place where he should sign. Written after a moment's hesitation, the signature revealed only the last two names, Máximo Afonso, without the Tertuliano, but like someone determined to clarify in advance something that might become a cause of controversy, the customer murmured as he signed his name, It's quicker like that. This precautionary explanation proved of little use, for the assistant, as he transferred the information from the customer's ID onto an index card, pronounced the unfortunate, antiquated name out loud, in a tone that even an innocent child would have recognized as deliberate. No one, we believe, however free of obstacles his or her life may have been, would dare to claim that they had never suffered some similar humiliation. Although, sooner or later, we will all, inevitably, be confronted by one of those hearty types to whom human frailty, especially in its most refined and delicate forms, is the cause of mocking laughter, the truth is that the inarticulate sounds which, quite against our wishes, occasionally emerge from our own mouth, are merely the irrepressible moans from some ancient pain or sorrow, like a scar suddenly making its forgotten presence felt again. As he puts the video away in his battered, teacher's briefcase, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, with admirable brio, struggles not to reveal the displeasure provoked by the shop assistant's gratuitous sneer, but he cannot help thinking, all the while scolding himself for the vile injustice of the thought, that the fault lay with his colleague and with the mania certain people have for handing out unasked-for advice. Such is our need to shower blame on some distant entity when it is we who lack the courage to face up to what is there before us. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso does not know, cannot imagine or even guess that the assistant already regrets his gross impertinence, indeed, another ear, more finely tuned than his and capable of dissecting the subtle vocal gradations in the assistant's At your service, sir, offered in response to the brusque Good afternoon thrown back at him, would have told him that a great desire for peace had installed itself behind the counter. After all, it is a benevolent commercial principle, laid down in antiquity and tried and tested over the centuries, that the customer is always right, even in the unlikely, but quite possible, eventuality that the customer's name should be Tertuliano.

Sitting now on the bus that will drop him near the building where he has lived for the last six or so years, that is, ever since his divorce, Máximo Afonso, and we use the shortened version of his name here, having been, in our view, authorized to do so by its sole lord and master, but mainly because the word Tertuliano, having appeared so recently, only six lines previously, could do a grave disservice to the fluency of the narrative, anyway, as we were saying, Máximo Afonso found himself wondering, suddenly intrigued, suddenly perplexed, what strange motives, what particular reasons had led his colleague from the Mathematics Department, we forgot to mention that his colleague teaches mathematics, to urge him so insistently to see the film he has just rented, when, up until then, the so-called seventh art had never been a topic of conversation between them. One could understand such a recommendation had it been an indisputably fine film, in which case the pleasure, satisfaction, and enthusiasm of discovering a work of high aesthetic quality might have obliged his colleague, over lunch in the canteen or during a break between classes, to tug anxiously at his sleeve and say, I don't believe we've ever talked about cinema before, but I have to tell you, my friend, that you absolutely must see The Race Is to the Swift, which is the title of the video Tertuliano Máximo Afonso has in his briefcase, something we also neglected to mention. Then the history teacher would ask, Where's it being shown, to which the mathematics teacher would respond, explaining, Oh, it's not being shown anywhere at the moment, it was on four or five years ago, I can't understand how I missed it when it first came out, and then, without a pause, concerned as to the possible futility of the advice he was so fervently offering, But maybe you've already seen it, No, I haven't, I hardly ever go to the cinema, I just make do with what they show on TV, and I don't see very much of that, Well, you should make a point of seeing it then, you'll find it in any video store, you can always rent it if you don't want to buy it. That is how the dialogue might have gone if the film had been worthy of praise, but things happened rather more prosaically, I don't want to stick my nose in where it isn't wanted, the mathematics teacher had said as he peeled an orange, but for a while now you've struck me as being rather down, and Tertuliano Máximo Afonso agreed, You're right, I have been feeling a bit low, Health problems, No, I'm not ill as far as I know, it's just that everything tires me and bores me, the wretched routine, the repetitiveness, the sense of marking time, Go out and have some fun, man, a bit of fun is always the best remedy, If you'll forgive me saying so, having fun is a remedy only for those who don't need one, A good answer, no doubt about it, but meanwhile, you've got to do something to shake off this feeling of apathy, Depression, Depression, apathy, it doesn't really matter, what we call the factors is arbitrary, But the intensity isn't, What do you do when you're not at school, Oh, I read, listen to music, occasionally visit a museum, And what about the cinema, No, I don't go to the cinema much, I make do with what they show on TV, You could buy a few videos, start a collection, a video library if you like, You're right, I could, except that I haven't even got enough space for my books, Well, rent some videos then, that's the best solution, Well, I do own a few videos, science documentaries, nature programs, archaeology, anthropology, the arts in general, and I'm interested in astronomy too, that sort of thing, That's all very well, but you need to distract yourself with stories that don't take up too much space in your head, I mean, given, for example, that you're interested in astronomy, you might well enjoy science fiction, adventures in outer space, star wars, special effects, As I see it, those so-called special effects are the real enemy of the imagination, that mysterious, enigmatic skill it took us human beings so much hard work to invent, Now you're exaggerating, No, I'm not, the people who are exaggerating are the ones who want me to believe that in less than a second, with a click of the fingers, a spaceship can travel a hundred thousand million kilometers, You have to agree, though, that to create the effects you so despise also takes imagination, Yes, but it's their imagination, not mine, You can always use theirs as a jumping-off point, Oh, I see, two hundred thousand million kilometers instead of one hundred thousand million, Don't forget that what we call reality today was mere imagination yesterday, just look at Jules Verne, Yes, but the reality is that a trip to Mars, for example, and Mars, in astronomical terms, is just around the corner, would take at least nine months, then you'd have to hang around there for another six months until the planet was in the right position to make the return journey, before traveling for another nine months back to Earth, that's two whole years of utter tedium, a film about a trip to Mars that respected the facts would be the dullest thing ever seen, Yes, I can see why you're bored, Why, Because you're not content with anything, I'd be content with very little if I had it, You must have something to hang on to, your career, your work, it doesn't seem to me that you have much reason for complaint, But it's my career and my work that are hanging on to me, not the other way around, Well, that's a malaise, always assuming it is a malaise, that I suffer from too, I mean, I myself would much rather be known as a mathematical genius than as the long-suffering, mediocre secondary school teacher I have no option but to continue to be, Maybe it's just that I don't really like myself, Now if you came to me with an equation containing two unknown factors, I could give you the benefit of my professional advice, but when it comes to an incompatibility of that sort, all my knowledge would only complicate things still further, that's why I suggested you pass the time watching a few films, as if you were taking a couple of tranquilizers, rather than devoting yourself to mathematics, which would really do your head in, Any suggestions, About what, About what would be an interesting, worthwhile film, There's no shortage of those, just go into a shop, have a look around, and choose one, Yes, but you could at least make a suggestion. The mathematics teacher thought and thought, then said, The Race Is to the Swift, What's that, A film, that's what you asked me for, It sounds more like a proverb, Well, it is a proverb, The whole thing or just the title, Wait and see, What sort is it, What, the proverb, No, the film, A comedy, You're sure it's not one of those old-fashioned, crime-of-passion melodramas, or one of those modern ones, all gunshots and explosions, It's a light, very amusing comedy, All right, I'll make a note of it, what did you say it was called, The Race Is to the Swift, Right, I've got it, It's not exactly a masterpiece of cinema, but it might keep you amused for an hour and a half.

Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is at home, he has a hesitant look on his face, not that this means very much, it isn't the first time it's happened, as he watches his will swing between spending time preparing something to eat, which generally means nothing more strenuous than opening a can and heating up the contents, or, alternatively, going out to eat in a nearby restaurant where he is known for his lack of interest in the menu, not because he is a proud, dissatisfied customer, he is merely indifferent, inattentive, reluctant to take the trouble to choose a dish from among those set out in the brief and all-too-familiar list. He is confirmed in his belief that it would be easier to eat in by the fact that he has homework to mark, his students' latest efforts, which he must read carefully and correct whenever they offend too extravagantly against the truths they have been taught or are overly free in their interpretations. The History that it is Tertuliano Máximo Afonso's mission to teach is like a bonsai tree the roots of which have to be trimmed now and then to stop it growing, a childish miniature of the gigantic tree of places and time and of all that happens there, we look, we notice the disparity in size and go no further, ignoring other equally obvious differences, the fact, for example, that no bird, no winged creature, not even the tiny hummingbird, could make its nest in the branches of a bonsai, and that if a lizard could find shelter in thetiny shadow the bonsai casts, always supposing its leaves were sufficiently luxuriant, there is every likelihood that the tip of the creature's tail would continue to protrude. The History that Tertuliano Máximo Afonso teaches, as he himself recognizes and will happily admit if asked, has a vast number of tails protruding, some still twitching, others nothing but wrinkled skin with a little row of loose vertebrae inside. Remembering the conversation with his colleague, he thought, Mathematics comes from another cerebral planet, in mathematics, those lizard tails would be mere abstractions. He took the homework out of his briefcase and placed it on the desk, he also took out the video of The Race Is to the Swift, these were the two tasks to which he could devote the evening, marking homework or watching a film, although he suspected that there wouldn't be time for both, especially since he neither liked nor was in the habit of working late into the night. Marking his students' homework was hardly a matter of life and death, and watching the film even less so. It would be best to settle down with the book he was reading, he thought. After a visit to the bathroom, he went into the bedroom to change his clothes, he donned different shoes and trousers, pulled a sweater on over his shirt, but left his tie, because he didn't like to leave his throat exposed, then went into the kitchen. He took three different cans out of the cupboard and, not knowing how else to choose, decided to leave the matter to chance, and resorted to a nonsensical, almost forgotten rhyme from childhood, which, in those days, had usually got him the result he least wanted, and it went like this, Eenie, meenie, minie, mo, catch a tiger by his toe, if he hollers let him go, eenie, meenie, minie, mo. The winner was a meat stew, which wasn't what he most fancied, but he felt it best not to go against fate. He ate in the kitchen, washing the food down with a glass of red wine, and when he finished, he repeated the rhyme, almost without thinking, with three crumbs of bread, the one on the left was the book, the one in the middle was the homework, the one on the right was the film. The Race Is to the Swift won, obviously what will be will be, don't quibble with fate over pears, it will eat all the ripe ones and give you the green ones. That's what people usually say, and because it is what people usually say, we accept it without further discussion when our duty as free people is to argue energetically with a despotic fate that has determined, with who knows what malicious intentions, that the green pear should be the film and not the homework or the book. As a teacher, and a teacher of history, this Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, for one has only to consider the scene we have just witnessed in the kitchen, entrusting his immediate future and possibly what will follow to three crumbs of bread and some senseless childhood drivel, this teacher, we were saying, is setting a bad example for the adolescents whom fate, whether the same or an entirely different one, has placed in his hands. Unfortunately, we do not have room in this story to anticipate the doubtless pernicious effects of the influence of such a teacher on the young souls of his pupils, so we will leave them here, hoping only that one day they may encounter on life's road a contrary influence that will free them, possibly in extremis, from the irrationalist perdition that currently hangs over them like a threat.

© José Saramago e Editorial Caminho, SA 2002
English translation copyright © Margaret Jull Costa, 2004

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

JOSÉ SARAMAGO (1922–2010) was the author of many novels, among them Blindness, All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

MARGARET JULL COSTA has established herself as the premier translator of Portuguese literature into English today.

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The Double 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ponderous, lacking punctuation, long paragraphs, and yet this kept my interest to the end. I was expecting more from a great author. Still, this was far better than most contemporary fiction.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The lonely depressed divorced history teacher rents a video to find a supporting actor that looks exactly like him. He then starts his search to find the actor. It turns out we have no idea why this history teacher is lonely and depressed because he does have a friend and also he has a pretty young girlfriend who is crazy about him. Why is he so embarrassed that he has a double. There is a line about it in the book, but it doesn't seem reason enough to reach the level of embarrassment he has which causes him to agree to be so weak. Also, why doesn't he immediately call his mother and find out if perhaps he was a twin. Why are the doubles both so threatened by each other and aren't they alittle curious about each other lives, like family backgrounds, experiences etc... Later they play cruel games with each others lives with irreversable consequences for themselves and those closest to them. All that being said, it is difficult to discount this book and say it wasn't good. There is so much thought that eminates from the pages. If one could just go along with the reactions of the main characters as being appropriate, which is difficult, then the book is astonishing. Although repetitive, which was on purpose, it did get much, however, the book was still very well written. The are meaningful subtle clues that told the reader this would mean something later. So ones mind would double while they were reading to try and predict what would happen next. There were many interesting things in the book such as having the other doubles profession be that of a supporting actor, the mother as Cassandra, the way the plot unfolds and more. It is worth the read if you read alot. If you only read one book a year, I would say to pass it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel is one of the greatest novel by saramago if not the greatest. The story is thrilling and once again he explores human psichology through his characters and questions the role of an individual in society.
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Jessiyari More than 1 year ago
Im always recommending this book because i love it so much! However, i do recommend it to people with similar tastes as mine who would appreciate the book. I understand that this is not a book for everyone as the author has a unique writing style, something that to me was refreshing and i loved the ending. This was the first book i read about 3 years ago when i first joined a book club and we all enjoy reading and analyzing it!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Not as great as All the Names or Blindness, but perhaps on par with The Cave. I wasn't very intrigued by the description but due to my love for his other books, I decided to give it a try. The beginning, like the Cave, is rather slow and but the pay off at the end is amazing. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to Saramago lovers and newcomers alike.