Saturday, May 09, 2009

the last book I read

The Double by José Saramago.

History teacher Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is half-heartedly watching a video he's rented on the recommendation of a colleague when he notices that one of the minor characters is played by an actor who appears to be his exact double in every respect. He embarks on an obsessional quest to track down firstly every other film in which the same actor appears, and then, having established his identity, to track down the actor himself (this is more difficult than you might anticipate, as we seem to be living in a world without the internet).

It's soon apparent that we're in cautionary be-careful-what-you-wish-for unforeseen consequences territory here - the actor (whose name turns out to be António Claro) suggests meeting up at a house he owns out in the countryside, but insists on bringing a pistol with him. When the two men meet in person it soon becomes apparent that they are not just very similar but identical. They agree to go their separate ways, but find themselves unable to. Things become complicated when their respective partners become involved and it becomes clear that neither can tell the two men apart - this provides an obvious channel for escalating acts of aggression and revenge - Saramago's implied rationale for this being that none of us can bear the thought of not being unique.

I enjoyed this greatly; the prospective reader should be aware of a few things though. It's constructed in great dense blocks of text (a sample extract of the first few pages of the book can be found here) with very few paragraph breaks and no direct speech - in fact the speech is reproduced in such a way as to make it quite difficult to work out who's saying what at times. No doubt this is intentional, particularly when the two main protagonists are talking to each other. The effect can be a bit exhausting, though not quite as much as in The Autumn Of The Patriarch - the plot structure here is a bit more linear, mercifully.

There is also plenty of metafictional authorial intervention (as in Slow Man) throughout, which may not be to everyone's taste, though it's playful rather than pompous. In this respect, and in particular in the slightly twisty ending, it's quite reminiscent of Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller (which is brilliant and you should read), although much more orthodox generally in plot and structure.

I'm dropping a few names here, so I'll add one more: the other author I was reminded strongly of by this is Paul Auster, whose New York Trilogy (the only Auster I've read, as it happens) seems very similar to this in a lot of ways, though it's less playful and more.....more.....I'm struggling not to cheesily juxtapose "Auster" and "austere" here, but I can't manage it; sorry.

Anyway, and now the obligatory prizegiving section: Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. You don't get the Nobel prize for any particular work, so my list has simply to be winners I've read anything at all by - I've also restricted it to novelists as there are a few poets and playwrights on the list as well. And it goes like this: 1946, 1954, 1962, 1970, 1972, 1976, 1982, 1983, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1998, 2003, 2007.

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