- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

Nearly halfway through Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s maddening and convoluted novel “The Double,” a character utters a phrase that easily could apply to the narrative itself: “Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered.”

The statement is spoken by Maria da Paz, when she visits the apartment of her lover, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, a fussy schoolteacher who is the book’s protagonist. She notices his desk is strewn with messy papers, he tries to shield her from secrets lodged there, and as he ushers her into the kitchen to make coffee, she retaliates with what seems to be a homespun slice of chaos theory. It is a moment of normalcy in a fictive world that is anything but normal.

This is a book with a secret, and Tertuliano Maximo Afonso’s plan to unravel it can be found, in part, in the papers he tries to hide. The furtive writings involve the remarkable event at the center of the novel.

While watching a video of the movie “Race to the Swift,” which a friend has recommended to him, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso (curiously, the protagonist’s whole name is used each time he is mentioned in the book) has discovered that he has a double, a man who is physically identical to him in every way.

Tortured by the remarkable coincidence and seeking a way to find out how this could be, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso sets in motion a plan.

The papers he has begun to assemble consist of lists of films in which his “twin” might have appeared. These lists are only a part of the effort Tertuliano Maximo Afonso undertakes in order to find, meet and get to know his double. They are elaborate plans which often and inevitably alienate those closest to him.

But this plot, straightforward in its way, is merely scaffolding for a glacial intellectual contest in which there is sparring aplenty but in the slowest — make that monumentally slowest — motion imaginable. For every jete and thrust, readers and characters alike must slog though Tertuliano Maximo Afonso’s ruminations, introspections, ratiocinations, perturbations, self-doubts, more ruminations, an occasional human moment, more ratiocinations and despair. It is exhausting.

Moreover, readers are not subject to the mysteries and suggestiveness of Tertuliano Maximo Afonso’s “doubleness” alone. Even the writing has its gamey (a la Nabokov) repetitions. When readers encounter Maria da Paz offering her philosophy of chaos, it is not the first time the reader has encountered what she says. No, what could seem to be a lover’s spontaneous epiphany first appeared as the book’s epigraph: “Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered — The Book of Contraries.”

And in case there is any doubt that this book was conceived as a taunting cipher from the get-go, consider the epigraph that follows that epigraph: “I believe in my conscience I intercept many a thought which heaven intended for another man” — Laurence Stern. “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.”

Readers familiar with Mr. Saramago’s work will be gratified to find in the book’s best moments, a careful handling of ideas, as he gives full measure to what the thoughts, gestures, affections of his principal characters signify. In this respect, the book is a validating one, dignifying as it does the amount of thought we humans can and often do give to the quotidian enterprises that shape our lives.

And as he did in his earlier books, “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” and “Blindness,” through this tale, Mr. Saramago leads readers to the bare bones and darkest corners where intuition, faith, fear and hope reside.

Similarly, while he created a version of Christ’s Passion for his earlier book, Mr. Saramago, attempts once again, to take a familiar theme and make it his own. It is debatable, however, whether Mr. Saramago will be remembered for his handling of doubles in the same way we remember Dostoevsky simply because there is too much excess here.

Mr. Saramago simply gets tangled too often in his own words — run-on sentences that seem to wander for miles and are concerned with ideas repeated mere pages later. Some are charming digressions. Others seem more like the workings of mind biding time. The plot is not advanced and readers are left baffled, if not simply alienated.

Consider this passage addressing Tertuliano Maximo Afonso’s thoughts about a meal of monkfish that come to him as he is deciding whether to watch another videotape in which his double performs:

“Tertuliano Maximo Afonso has returned from supper, he did not, after all, have fish, the dish on offer was monkfish, and he does not like monkfish, that benthonic marine creature that lives on the sandy or muddy sea bottom, from inshore areas to depths greater than a thousand meters, that can measure up to two meters in length and weigh more than forty kilos, with a vast, flat head equipped with very strong teeth, which, in short, is a most disagreeable animal to look at and one that Tertuliano Maximo Afonso’s palate, nose, and stomach have never been able to tolerate. He is gleaning all this information now from an encyclopedia, finally prompted by curiosity to find out something about this creature that he has detested from the first day he saw it … Tertuliano Maximo Afonso has spent years and years knowing nothing about the monkfish apart from its appearance and the taste and consistency of the pieces put on his plate, and then suddenly at a certain moment on a certain day, as if he had nothing more urgent to do , he opens the encyclopedia and finds out more. We have an odd relationships with words … Thus we affirm and deny, thus we convince and are convinced, thus we argue, deduce, and conclude, wandering fearlessly over the surface of concepts about which we have only the vaguest of ideas, and despite the false air of confidence that we generally affect as we feel our way along the road in the verbal darkness, we manage, more or less, to understand each other and even, sometimes to find each other. If we had time and if impatient curiosity were to trick us, we would always end up finding out exactly what a monkfish was. The next time the waiter at the restaurant suggests this inelegant member of the Lophiidae family, the history teacher will know what to say, What, that hideous benthonic creature that lives in the sand or on the muddy sea bottom, and will add firmly, Certainly not. Responsibility for this tedious piscine and linguistic digression lies entirely with Tertuliano Maximo Afonso for having taken such a long time to put “A Man Like Any Other in the VCR, as if he were hesitating at the foot of a mountain, pondering the effort to reach the summit.

There are a few too many piscine digressions in this long, laborious book and the fault lies not with Tertuliano Maximo Afonso.

THE DOUBLE

By Jose Saramago

Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

Harcourt. $25, 324 pages

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