The late Nobelist Jose Saramago couldn’t resist remaking Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Double” (cleverly calling his version “The Double”). Russia turns into Portugal. The asphyxiating office setting of the original gets slightly more sophisticated: this non-hero, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, is a history teacher instead of a lowly clerk. And instead of first glimpsing his inexplicable clone in the flesh (like Dostoevsky’s Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin), Tertuliano Maximo Afonso first sees his double on a TV screen. That’s modernity for you.
Tertuliano Maximo Afonso: that’s a punny name, and the way Saramago insists on its full evocation all the time keys us to some deeper meaning. It is ridiculously high fallutin, vaguely suggestive of Roman Emperors, for starters. Tertullian was an early Christian writer most notable for the first historical formulation of the concept of the Trinity (“The Triple”?) Afonso is an extremely common Portuguese and Hispanic last name. Maximo is modifying the Alfonso: TMA is the ultimate average guy.
His twin is a supporting actor named Antonio Claro, his name equally as significant, “clear”, perhaps as a drop of dew is clear, of course drops of dew are known for their persistent, mysterious tendency toward being identical, whereas humans, swollen with hubris, put their efforts into uniqueness even if it comes down to a matter of a longer nose here, a shorter dress here, extra pounds or odd dietary habits, who knows what we will do not to allow clarity to be our trademarks, uniqueness becomes its own form of duplicity, but then aren’t duplicity and duplication the same?
Sorry, that’s Saramago’s style here: Commas link thoughts, drag the omniscient narrator into post-modern conversation with the characters, as Tertuliano Maximo Afonso and Antonio Claro engage in a cat-and-mouse (or is it cat-and-cat game?) for supremacy. The women in their respective lives become targets. (Without giving much away, at one point I found myself asking the question: if someone is deceived into having willing sex with someone they would be unwilling to have sex with, is that a rape?) “The Double” is frequently suspenseful and entertaining throughout, as long as one isn’t nagged by the feeling that it is simply a “Twilight Zone” script that has been artsified by a Nobel laureate. It gets extra points for the compelling usage of Anton Chekhov’s shotgun-on-the-wall dictum.
P.S.: Saramago’s novel inspired “The Enemy,” directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Have not seen and cannot comment, but judging by a couple of reviews that mention its frustrating ambiguities, some liberties must have been taken. “The Double” explains itself plenty.