‘O Homem Duplicado’ (‘The Double’) by José Saramago

My rating: 4 stars

José Saramago really knew how to play with words and convey a socially relevant message without overlooking the plot. O Homem Duplicado, The Double in the English translation, is mainly a book about the human condition, in the sense that it delves into how people want to feel like they are unique and so struggle to come to terms with being equal to others and not particularly original.

Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, the main character in this novel, is quite a peculiarly named History teacher at a secondary school in an unidentified city. He has been suffering from depression since he got divorced and started to live alone. One of his colleagues, a Mathematics teacher, advises him to watch some films, so he can get distracted from his troubles. He takes his colleague advice and goes to a store to rent a VHS tape.

After watching the film that was recommended to him, he realises that the actor who played the short role of a hotel receptionist looks a lot like him, despite having a moustache and a different hairstyle. He then remembers that the film was actually released five years before and goes looking for a photograph of himself from that period. When he finds one, he sees that at the time he also had a moustache and the same haircut as the actor. The two of them look exactly the same after all. This discovery affects Tertuliano Máximo Afonso profoundly, although deep down he knows it is nonsensical to feel that way.

The following day, he returns to the store where he rented the VHS tape to know if they have more films from the same production company as the other one. He is intent on watching them all if need be to discover the name of the actor who looks like a carbon copy of himself. The interactions between Máximo Afonso and the man who works at the video rental store are subtly funny, as are some of the narrator’s asides.

There is an attempt to replicate the way in which we communicate orally through the use of asides by the narrator which generally-speaking fit well into the rest of the story and don’t make it confusing, lose its focus or become excessively slow-paced. Most of the times, the narrator’s asides offer interesting moments of reflection about various subjects. However, in some (rare) occasions, they can become a little boring, simply because I wanted to get quicker to the core of the enigma that intrigued Tertuliano Máximo Afonso so much that it develops almost into an obsession.

While reading, I kept coming up with crazy ideas that could possibly explain the existence of two equal men. But I soon had to dismiss them, because some of the considerations made by the narrator following what I had perceived as clues deemed them impossible. It felt like Saramago, while writing this book, knew that readers would conceive certain theories, so he had fun leaving possible little clues just to then disprove them.

Throughout the novel, we’re not only presented with conversations between Máximo Afonso and other characters but also with a representation of common sense, which explains that its presence is not always advisable. After all, human beings sometimes have to welcome the possible risk of their actions. In one of their interactions, there is a reference to Fernando Pessoa which really made me laugh out loud.

“Já o outro também não quis a vulgaridade plebeia do pseudónimo, chamou-lhe heterónimo.”

“There was that other fellow who disliked the plebeian vulgarity of pseudonyms so much that he called them heteronyms.”

Despite some moments of jesting, the novel gets progressively and unobtrusively gloomier. The topics being covered are one of the reasons for that. There are mentions of how some people don’t understand why others suffer from depression; we are presented with an emotional relationship between two people who seem to have different feelings towards each other; and there are also plenty of pessimistic considerations about human behaviour in society.

“Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, apesar de ensinar História, nunca percebeu que tudo o que é animal está destinado a tornar-se inanimal e que, por muito grandes que sejam os nomes e os feitos que os seres humanos tenham deixado inscritos nas suas páginas, é do inanimal que viemos e é para o inanimal que nos encaminhamos.”

“Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, despite being a teacher of History, has never understood that everything that is animal is destined to become inanimal and that, however great the names and deeds inscribed by human beings on History’s pages, it is from the inanimal that we come and towards the inanimal that we are going.”

Although I quite enjoyed O Homem Duplicado, I was expecting more from it. The main reason why is that I kept coming up with crazy theories for the existence of two identical men. However, explaining the reason why they existed is not the purpose of this novel. What it does is to showcase the consequences of them being equal, which didn’t make it less impactful. So, it was more my fault that I didn’t love it.


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