“The Double” – What Defines an Individual?

The double

“The fictional character is the master, the writer his apprentice” – prolific Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago uttered these words at the start of his Nobel acceptance speech. These words of wisdom have come true in Saramago’s writing, where the characters travel to places they want, remaining nonchalant to the conventional forms of storytelling. Saramago has a unique writing style similar to that of classical literature. He rarely uses full stops, commas, or capital letters thereby giving a breathtaking rhythmic flow of continuous conversational style. There’s said to be a reason behind this.

In 1969, he joined the Portuguese Communist Party. He wrote for and helped to edit the party paper during the revolution in 1974. His writings after the revolution exhibited increasingly pessimistic views about the course of politics and the new Portugal state (the newly formed regime depended on the aid given by British Labor party and German Social Democratic party). The leftist convictions of Saramago made him to employ this particular writing style. It is deliberate, since it enhances the quality of all people and things he wrote about. Individuals, places, and even gods are not mentioned in capital letters, which is said to be a reflection of Saramago’s view of how life should be – everyone and everything as equal. So, if you are going to read a novel by Saramago, you need to patient; must attend to the details; must have an ability to suspend disbelief; and like him leave the imagination to reign.


Saramago’s playful novel “The Double” has an absurd, unbelievable premise. However, like Kafka, through unbridled imagination, he weaves in a world so indistinguishable from our own, that the characters’ nightmares becomes our own. The protagonist of the novel is a high school history teacher named Tertuliano Maximo Afonso. He is depressed and divorced. He leads an undistinguishable life in an unnamed 5 million people residing city. One day, a Mathematics teacher advises him to distract or relax himself by watching a movie. The Math teacher suggests a movie and warns him that it’s just a mirthful B-movie. Tertuliano slips the rented video into his VCR, and except for few chuckles, mostly retains his sullen mood. When he goes to sleep, something, in the back of his mind nags him. He wakes up, once again puts up the video and shockingly discovers a bit-part actor who is exactly identical to Tertuliano himself.

Tertuliano, hardly a movie buff, becomes obsessed with finding out who this person is and what kind of life he lives. He rents piles of movies – made by the same production company – and hatches an elaborate plan to find out the actor’s name (since extra actors transiently mentioned). Eventually he discovers the actors’ actual name – Antonio Clara. Tertuliano then deploys a more daring plan to meet this doppelganger, who shares more than an identical face. However, the meeting makes them realize the looming threat to each other’s existence. The two of them engage in a psycho-sexual power struggle, bringing out their disastrous character flaws.

"Enemy" -- loosely based on the novel "The Double"

“Enemy” — loosely based on the novel “The Double”

Many readers may denounce the sentences that run on so long (sometimes for a pages), separate only by commas. I must forewarn readers that this style is off-putting.

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.

The above given paragraph within the quotation marks is a simple representative of the entire book. You must read the remarks carefully to find out which remark was made which character. However, if you get past the initial 30 pages, you can easily acquaint with the narrative style. You will feel an overwhelming feeling of wonder for achieving a remarkable conversational tone within such a complex prose. As for the story, it is more philosophical and psychological than thriller. Saramago often breaks off from the main story and carries rattling discussions with us, the readers. These discourses are filled with wit, intoxicating philosophical musings, and with provocative comments on human nature. The other delightful passages in the novel are the conversations between Tertuliano and his common sense. The common sense is not embedded within the protagonist, but rather visits him frequently. These passages reflects the human condition, where we are convinced of the value of ‘Common Sense’ but remain hesitant to use them.


Saramago’s prose captivates the impact of alienation within the society and individual. The characters always exhibit a sense of being outsiders in their own lives and also end up fearing their neighbors. Like in a modern society, they think that everyone is scrounging for an advantage and give in to the base and senseless impulses. Saramago merges history, role-playing (movies) and a biologically impossible scenario to ask us that ‘what constitutes our individuality?’ In this privacy-invaded, social-media society, the question is very relevant. The answer has been always known to us: our soul – which can be shaped by our free will and morally conscious acts.

Jose Saramago’s “The Double” is eerie, gripping and challenging. It exposes and studies the chaos in a claustrophobic and nonsensical world.


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