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'The Double' is divinely disorienting

The Double, By Jose Saramago Translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa Harcourt, 324 pp., $25

At his best, José Saramago makes us feel as though his ramblings are ours -- or would be ours, anyway, were we present in the timeless locales to which he loves to transport readers. His wandering phrases, florid dialogue, and discursive observations demand to be read as part of the whole, as tributaries where only the river matters.

In "The Double," a wonderfully twisted meditation on identity and individuality, Saramago's signature style is perfectly disorienting. Voices trail off into one another, thoughts overlap, distinctions blur. The alchemy is deliberate as he invokes the dark comedy of an Almodovar film, the plot twists of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," and the creative labyrinths of Borges.

But the story starts simply enough.

Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is a history teacher at a secondary school in a nameless city, one big enough to hold a million people and small enough that neighbors still look out for one another. He is divorced, halfheartedly dating a bank clerk, and depressed. "He has, for some time, viewed sweet History, the serious, educational subject which he had felt called upon to teach and which could have been a soothing refuge for him, as a chore without meaning and a beginning without an end," Saramago writes.

A colleague at work, a math teacher concerned for his well-being, suggests innocently that Afonso rent a movie. It will take your mind off things, he tells him, presciently. Afonso, wise in the ways of the Mesopotamians and skeptical of film, relents. In truth, he has nothing to lose.

And in that unremarkable film, "The Race Is to the Swift," Afonso sees something that will change his life. On-screen, behind a desk at a hotel, is a bit player who looks just like him. More precisely, the actor looks just as Afonso did five years ago. The movie is five years old.

Transfixed by this coincidence, Afonso looks in the mirror and sees the actor's face. He can do nothing until he finds out who this twin is. So he combs through B-movies to find his man, who is always relegated to some lowly role -- bank clerk, nightclub doorman, police photographer.

Eventually, Afonso reaches his quarry: His double is a man named António Claro who lives across town and dreams of a starring role. They meet, and their relationship soon becomes explosive.

To reveal more would spoil the delicious web that lies on successive pages of this tale. Suffice it to say that things soon take on a new order. The pursuer becomes the pursued. The history teacher, a bit player in his dull and empty life, becomes a lead in a new drama, one in many ways as foolish as the rented movies strewn across his apartment. Life begins to imitate art.

His digressions may be hard to follow, but Saramago, the Nobel Prize-winning author of novels such as "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis" and "The Cave," always rewards the journey. He writes this of Afonso's mettle: "True, he felt all the hairs on his body prickle, but that even happens to wolves when faced by danger, and no one in their right mind would describe wolves as pathetic cowards."

"The Double," translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, also features Saramago's folk wisdom, as in this parable about Afonso's weak attempts to extricate himself from his relationship: "The balance of human lives is constantly swinging back and forth between what is gained and what is lost, the problem lies in the equally human impossibility of coming to an agreement on the relative merits of what should be lost and what should be gained, which is why the world is in the state it's in."

It's more than these things, of course, that have earned Saramago adulation and scorn. It is his willingness to challenge political and religious convention, to question what are held as universal truths, and to be so damning in his sendups. He may have written deeper and more profound satires, but "The Double" succeeds in probing that human core we think we know until a master artist forces us to reconsider.

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