When a friend sent me a copy of an interview with Jose Saramago, I thought that, despite his Nobel, I’d never heard of him or read anything he’d written. Dreadful ignorance on my part, but I’m prone to that. I learned from said interview that he’s an interesting dude. A hard-line Stalinist who writes meaningful novels somewhat in the realm of magical realism. So off I go to my neighborhood library, grab Blindness off the shelf without checking even the cover synopsis, and realize after two sentences that that this book and I have met before. So I’m not only ignorant but forgetful. Dementia onset. Apply gun barrel to temple. Squeeze trigger.
Blindness, belying my senior moment, made quite an impression on me. A totally original work, its premise is that an entire city is beset by an epidemic whose cause, cure, and method of transmission, are unknown. It’s not long before the place is in chaos, of course. Useless quarantines are imposed.
Attempts to seize and hold power crumble when the leaders go blind themselves. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but it was clear that one of the book’s dominant themes is the bumbling stupidity of government and authority. Perhaps even the futility of organized society, so inept are we humans at foresight and sound assumptions. A message that, I suppose, makes sense for a devoted communist.
The book is a grammatical marvel, first of all. The only nods to conventional form are chaptering, capital letters, periods and commas. Not an indented paragraph, quotation mark, or even a question mark in the whole thing. Yet every conversation, every sequence in the narrative, is limpid as that proverbial mountain brook. The storytelling technique is another marvel. The narrator is as omniscient as you can get, detailing and explaining every thought and emotion of his characters. They sometimes his people get ahead of him while he’s explaining something they said or did, and he takes on the role of a stakeout detective, one who is merely observing and recording the lives of these folks for whose actions he bears no responsibility, with the reader as the client who’s hired him to look into their activities. He’s then forced to catch up lest he miss some important detail. Or he gets ahead of them and has to wait for them to catch up because he’s already told us something that will happen that they don’t know about yet. The combination of devices and lack thereof make for an intriguing, amusing, and organic flow. You’re inside the character while simultaneously detached. The effect, to me, is stunningly effective.
Saramago cares not at all about many of the rules of modern fiction that tell us to avoid becoming too “writerly,” to let the meaning emerge from the action and to avoid direct comment and let the characters’ actions speak for themselves. If Saramago’s plot requires a character to act outside psychological realism, so be it. And the reader, at least this reader, buys it. It pleases the rebel part of me that someone can flout the conventions and still be so effective. Few of us can get away with it.
So what’s this masterpiece about and why did it take me so long to get to this point? I’ll answer the first question and ignore the second. As the title implies, history teacher* Tertuliano Maximo Afonso discovers while watching a video a man in a bit part who looks and sounds exactly like him. (There’s a lot of play about Afonso’s name, which I would have appreciated more if I were better acquainted with Portuguese naming customs.), Maximo (whose name is almost always given in its full three-component glory) is a pretty depressed guy. Divorced and half-committed to his tepid affair with Maria da Paz, he lives a spare and uninteresting life. That all changes, albeit slowly, with the tantalizing realization that he is not the unique individual that he thinks he is–that we all think we are.
There is, of course, the hunt. The meeting (quite late in the book). Psychological drama. There are elements of mystery and of farce. The ending has an O’Henry/Hitchcockian/twilight zoneish twist to it that gives a feeling of a genre somewhere between magical realism and science fiction. Usually I resist such classification, but in this case I think it helps illustrate once again how little Saramago cares for conventional unities. In some ways The Double could be read as a slight book, a frivolous amusement. However, underneath the facade of triviality, is a disturbing and meaningful look at our assumptions about identity, illusion, and reality worthy of Shakespeare. Based on the two books I’ve read, I get a sense of what breadth and scope this writer has, both in terms of form and content. Such writing could bring him major recognition some day–even among us forgetful ones.
*(I suppose it’s beside the point that Maximo apparently collects full salary for a secondary school schedule that appears to involve no more than two classes per day, which don’t start until at least eleven a.m. A far cry from my English teaching day, which featured 150 students per day, an onslaught of meetings, and quite a number of evening sessions of various kinds. I guess I took up my educational career in the wrong country.)