Sunday, October 29, 2006

The double

I took me about six months to read The Double by José Saramago. Suffice it to say, it is not an easy read, at least through the first half. By the end it becomes something of a page turner.

Saramago’s style is like no other, or at least no other that I have read. A sentence may go on for a page; paragraphs regularly go on for several. One critic reports a 15 page paragraph. I have never counted, but I’m not at all surprised. Another Saramago convention is the lack of quotation marks or paragraph breaks to denote who is speaking. Thus we get examples like this:

To hear you Lord is to Obey, but I have one more question. Stop asking Me questions. Please, Lord, I must. Very well then, speak. Can I save my sheep. So that's what's bothering you. Yes, that's all, may I. No. Why not. Because you must offer it in sacrifice to Me to seal our covenant. You mean this sheep. Yes. Let me choose another from the flock, I'll be right back. You heard Me, I want this one. But Lord, can't you see, its ear has been clipped. You are mistaken, take a good look, the ear is perfect. It isn't possible. I am the Lord, and with the Lord all things are possible. But this is my sheep. Again you are mistaken, the lamb was Mine and you took it from Me, now you will recompense Me with the sheep. Your will be done, for You rule the universe, and I am Your servant. Then offer this sheep in sacrifice, or there will be no covenant. Take pity on me, Lord, I stand here naked and have neither cleaver nor knife, said Jesus, hoping he might still be able to save the sheep's life, but God said, I would not be God if I were unable to solve this problem, here. No sooner had he finished speaking than a brand-new cleaver lay at Jesus' feet. Now quickly, said God, for I have work to do and cannot stay here chatting all day long. Grasping the cleaver by the handle, Jesus went to the sheep. It raised its head and hardly recognized him, never having seen him naked before, and as everyone knows, these animals do not have a strong sense of smell. Do you weep, God asked. The cleaver went up, took aim, and came down as swiftly as an executioner's ax or the guillotine, which has not yet been invented. The sheep did not even whimper. All one could hear was, Ah, as God gave a deep sigh of satisfaction. Jesus asked Him, May I go now. You may, and don't forget, from now on you are tied to Me in flesh and blood. How should I take my leave of You. It doesn't matter, for Me there is no front or back, but it's customary to back away from me, bowing as you go. Tell me, Lord. What a tiresome fellow you are, what's bothering you now. The shepherd who owns the flock, What shepherd, My master, What about him, Is he an angel or a demon, He's someone I know. But tell me, is he an angel or a demon. I've already told you, for God there is no front or back, good-bye for now. The column of smoke was gone, and the sheep too, all that remained were drops of blood, and they were trying to hide in the soil.

When Jesus returned, Pastor stared at him and asked, Where's the sheep, and he explained, I met God. I didn't ask you if you met God, I asked you if you found the sheep. I offered it in sacrifice. Whatever for. Because God was there and I had no choice. With the tip of his crook, Pastor drew a line on the ground, a furrow deep as a pit, insurmountable as a wall of fire, then told him, You've learned nothing, begone with you.

That’s from The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, not The Double. I chose it because it is interesting and can stand on its own, as well as because it is representative of the Saramago style. The great majority of his long paragraphs, however, are not interesting in themselves. They add up though. Add up to a story.

I’ve read many of Saramago’s novels and have no problem with that style. In fact, I think it works quite well when it is employed to tell an interesting story, which is usually the case. The only novel I didn’t like was The Cave. Blindness is generally considered to be his masterpiece. I recommend starting with that if you’ve never read him. Or The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which is my personal favorite. All of his books are allegorical.

The Gospel... is different from other Saramago novels in that the main characters are well known literary figures. The main characters in all of the other novels (I have read) are obscure people -- clerks, high school teachers, fact checkers and the like. The Double actually breaks new ground. “Common Sense” is actually a character in the novel.

The Double is like Blindness in that it is built on a “what if?” In Blindness, Saramago poses the question “what if everyone in the world went blind?” In The Double, the question is “what if one found that an exact physical duplicate of himself existed?”

The question of the double is not new. Extensive literature on the double, or Doppelgänger, exists, both in folk tales and psychiatric texts.
The syndrome of subjective doubles is a rare delusional misidentification syndrome in which a person suffers from the delusion that he or she has a double or doppelgänger with the same appearance, but usually with different character traits and leading a life of his own. Sometimes the patient has the idea that there are more than one double. The syndrome is usually the result of a neurological disorder, mental disorder or some form of brain damage, particularly to the right cerebral hemisphere.

Nevertheless, Saramago takes the idea and slowly meanders with it to unexpected destinations. How would we react if we learned that an exact double of us existed?

I won’t tell you how Saramago worked it out, but I actually had a similar personal experience that sheds some light on the phenomena. One night, one Christmas Eve actually, there was a murder at the corner store. I had been there earlier that night to buy a lottery ticket. I remember that the guy behind the counter, Julio, asked if I would share the prize with him if I won. No, and that’s for the record. I didn’t want him suing me for breach of promise if I won. There was a homeless man there as well. His hair was long and matted, his beard rough with white hairs poking out at odd intervals. He was wearing a green sweatshirt with a pullover hood hanging down the top of his neck. His sneakers had holes along the sides and I could see wet brown leaves sticking to his ankle, which was purple and swollen. He wore tattered brown corduroy pants that had a busted zipper. His shirttail protruded out of it like a pointy little dick.

I only remember the details so well because Julio was murdered shortly after I left and I had to describe the bum to the police. In addition to the poverty of his attire, he was a raving lunatic. He was telling Julio that Russian tanks were massing on the Polish border and that war was imminent. What do you think of that, Julio asked me after the bum had left. I laughed. I wouldn’t worry about it. The cold war’s been over for years. Yes, I know, but you never can tell. The world’s a crazy place. That guy’s a lunatic, did you see the shirt tail hanging out of his zipper? Yes, that’s always a sign, but still, you can’t trust the Russians, I shall listen to the news just to be sure. Never hurts.

Unfortunately, he never made it to his car. A masked gunman robbed the store shortly after I left and Julio was shot in the face. He died on the way to the hospital. It was big news, being Christmas and all. Julio had a wife and two children. They were devastated.

Anyway, I immediately went to the police and informed them that I had been at the corner store that night and might have some information that would break the case. I suspected that the looney with the broken fly was involved. I was wrong, though. The police had the surveillance tapes and showed me that the bum had not committed the crime. It’s eerie seeing yourself on a crime scene videotape and it was worse seeing Julio in the minutes before his death, which was now pre-ordained.

As of this writing, the murderer is still at large and I still go to the corner market to buy lottery tickets. A man named Kittim works there now. He has eyes like a lizard. Whenever I’m there I see everything from the slanted perspective of the security camera and I am transported back to that night. I am across the counter from Julio. I see the portents wafting about his head. At the time I didn’t divine their meaning but now they are clearly the vapors of death. It’s funny how these things are so obvious in hindsight. But I was right about the Russians. They had invaded western Europe and the country was in a state of emergency, the air filled with conflicting radio waves.

But I still think about the night of the murder, of Julio and the yuppie guy who came in the store after me. I had seen him again at the police station after the crime. We were in the bathroom together after the interrogation, pissing in adjacent stalls. We looked at each other across the divider and it was like I was transported back to that Christmas evening. Julio was processing my lottery numbers. The yuppie guy was looking at me like I was dirt. Who the hell are you? Then I noticed that his zipper was busted and his shirt tail was hanging out. He’s not so high and mighty, I thought. Then I realized that he looked something like me. Not a double, exactly, the portents were different, but close.

So I was interested in seeing how Saramago would handle the story and I thought he handled it very well.