Jose Saramago
(Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa)
New York: : Harcourt Inc., 2004 (from the original Portuguese of 2002)
ISBN # 0-15-101040-4
324 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2008

Already in these pages of book reviews I have offered comments on NINE other Saramago novels. Each has been a joy and delight to read. I can’t rank them in any order of preference, but collectively they’ve made Jose Saramago the most favorite, trusted and respected novelist I’ve ever read.

In the 17th and 18th centuries books routinely had extremely long titles, often taking 6-7 lines just to cite the full title. I often feel Saramago’s novels deserve such long titles. Were I using this method I would expect this book’s title to be something like: THE STORY OF THE DOUBLE AND MISCELLANEOUS CONVERSATIONS WITH MY READERS AND WITH COMMON SENSE

The main plot is a spell binding tale of a high school history teacher, Tertuliano Maximo Afonse, who discovers there is a bit-part actor who is his double. This is not just a close look alike, but a virtual DNA double. However, it goes to a deeper and more occult sense of “the double,” since they even share a scar in the exact place on a knee, a childhood injury for each. They share the same birth date and year, and Tertuliano is obsessed as to what will happen to one when the other dies. We follow Tertuliano in his search for discovery of this “double” and his attempts to make sense of what it means to have a double. There was an air of familiarity to the search itself, harking my memory back to Saramago’s novel ALL THE NAMES in which a similar search was conducted.

I don’t plan to say much more about the plot. To do so would risk spoiling the read for others. However, one of my few questions about the novel which Saramago never addresses is why did Tertuliano believe the look-a-like was actually a “double” in a major sense. All the data Tertuliano had was the similar look of the two.

The novel grew in intensity like the musical piece, Bolero, and at times had me so nervous and uncomfortable at the direction of the plot that I simply had to walk away for a few hours and return when I calmed down. Saramago has that power.

The story of the double itself is eerie, suspenseful, other worldly and full of surprises. I will attest that it is gripping, dark, even spine-tingling. . Toward the end I was able to anticipate some of the plot directions, yet they were done with such skill and timing that even though I expected several of the key moves, I was still left gasping when they came.

However, the suspense and tension of the main plot is often broken off by the marvelous discussions the author carries on with us the readers. He does this with gentle and sophisticated humor and wit, with heady philosophical discussions, and with wise and provocative comments on human nature. It is this “extra” material in Saramago’s novels which so set him off from others. We not only have the main plot and the various conversations with the reader, but he introduces a new literary character, “Common Sense,” who talks to the main character, Tertuliano, or directly to us the readers.

Saramago tells us that an important theme of the novel is how relatively shy, non-aggressive people can be moved to vigorous action, completely changing their personalities, driven as it were, by some new path.

In the process of this discussion he give us “evidence” of this ability by citing three other men who have demonstrated this behavior, each being a middle-age man, living alone, shy and retiring. The delight of this discussion is that the men he refers to are not live or historical, but the main characters of three of his earlier novels:


When he describes Tertuliano’s apartment, I was much reminded of the main character’s apartment in The History of the Siege of Lisbon.

I always enjoy Saramago’s discussions with us readers, and this novel is rife with them including his description of the process of decision making for us humans.

Contrary to what most people think, making a decision is one of the easiest decisions in the world, as is more than proved by the fact that we make decision upon decision throughout the day, there, however, we run straight into the heart of the matter, for these decisions always come to us afterward with their particular little problems or, to make ourselves quite clear, with their rough edges needing to be smoothed, the first of these problems being our capacity for sticking to a decision and the second our willingness to follow it through.

Another delightful conversation Saramago enters into the novel has relatively little to do with the plot line itself, but is situated into the work life of the main character, Tertuliano, a high school history teacher. He holds, and professes at every faculty meeting a view on teaching history. It is that history should be taught from the present going backwards, not, as is much more standard, from the past and coming forward. In keeping with his shy and humble manner, Tertuliano always protests that this is not an idea original with himself, but exists in the scholarly literature on the teaching of history.

I’d never before thought of this problematic in these terms, but have always believed the present cannot be understood unless one understands it within its historical context. I think the two views share many things in common as they play out in practice, but the aims are different. His aim is to teach history as a subject in its own right, my interests are to be sure than any understanding of the present is rooted in its historical development since otherwise I think we don’t adequately understand the present.

Another of Saramago’s tactics to get ideas out there for discussion is his treatment of the romantic relationship between Tertuliano and Maria da Paz. The relationship does have some central plot ramifications, but much of it is a thinly veiled excuse for significant discussion of the nature and morality of intimate relationships themselves. Saramago excels and delights in such asides.

I so enjoy the conversations and discussions which Saramago constantly interjects. They are always intelligent, provocative, insightful and presented with dry humor and a wink.

His wit delighted me especially when the novel is at a moment of great suspense and the author comments:

(Edited slightly to not reveal important plot information) “… Antonio Claro has still not produced a satisfactory plan of action deserving of the name. However, the privilege we enjoy of knowing everything that is going to happy up until the very last page of the story, apart from those things that might still need to be invented, allows us to say that tomorrow the actor … will make a phone call to ….”

Many times in the story, the author will speak with us about the use of words, and carry on about word choices or meanings. Sometimes, as in the example below, he will just let the characters explore these issues even though they are totally irrelevant to the plot: Tertuliano is asking his friend to allow Tertuliano to write a letter as though from his friend and sign her name. She is skeptical. This follows:

[Tertuliano says] I’ll invent a signature myself, At least make it look a bit like mine, Well, I never was much good at copying other people’s handwriting, but I’ll do my best, Be careful, watch yourself, once a person starts falsifying things there’s no telling where it will end. Falsify isn’t quite the right word, you probably mean forge, Thank you for the correction, my dear Maximo, but what I was trying to do was find one word that meant both things, As far as I know, there is no one word that combines both forge and falsify, If the action exists, then the word should exist too, All the words we have are in the dictionaries, All the dictionaries put together don’t contain half the terms we would need in order for us to understand each other.”

The “character” (I don’t know what else to call it) which is new to this book and such a delight is Common Sense. CS here is not embodied, but comes to Tertuliano frequently, and sometimes, Saramago himself speaks to us about common sense. When it comes to Tertuliano marvelous exchanges occur since he is not very convinced of the value of Common Sense’s advice, yet sort of hesitant to not at least hear CS out.

The author tells us that Tertuliano has his troubles with Common Sense believing it to be “… naturally conservative, I would go further and say reactionary. People get under it like under an umbrella in the rain.”

Tertuliano also claims: “… Common Sense is much too common to really be sense, its just a chapter from a statistics book, the one everyone always trots out.”

In one exchange between the two Tertuliano has just come from a meeting that he went to, an action that may have been ill advised. When he gets to his car Common Sense is waiting for him.

[Common Sense begins] “Well, I have to confess I didn’t expect you to cope so well, you behaved admirably, like a man, But I am a man, Yes, I’m not saying you’re not, but in the past your weaknesses have always tended to get the best of your strengths, So a man is anyone who isn’t subject to weaknesses, A man is also someone who isn’t dominated by them, In that case, a woman capable of overcoming her female weaknesses is a man, or is like a man, In a figurative sense, yes, you could say that, Well it seems to me that common sense has a very chauvinistic way of expressing itself, That’s not my fault, it’s just the way I was made, That’s hardly a good excuse from someone who does nothing but offer advice and opinions, But I’m not always wrong, This sudden rush of modesty suits you, Look I would be better than I am, more efficient, more useful, if you helped me, Who, All of you, men and women, after all, common sense is just a kind of arithmetic mean that rises and falls according to the tide, Predictable, you mean, Yes, I am the most predictable of all things….”

I enjoy the gentle humor of such interjections.

While I was delighted, awed, entertained and challenged by this wonderful novel, I am a bit sad to be finished with it. I don’t have any further Saramago books in hand, awaiting my sympathetic reading. However, not all is lost.

I’m only aware of two further novels in Saramago’s corpus. The very first novel, THE MANUEL OF PAINTING AND CALLIGRAPHY is hard to find, but I have just received word from a book seller in England that a copy is on the way to me. My friend, J.L. Lindhurst, a devoted and fanatical Saramago fan, tells me his latest novel has been translated into English and will be released soon. I’ll certainly get a copy of that book as soon as it is released.

I am most excited by the coming of my copy of THE MANUEL OF PAINTING AND CALLIGRAPHY since I want to see the earliest Saramago novel and compare his style of today with this oldest sample of his fictional style.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett