Tea Time Book Review: “The Double”

Tea and a good book are two things that, at least to this dedicated tea drinker, go together like cold Winter days and cozy fires. How much you enjoy the tea and the book will depend on how carefully you select which tea to have and which book to read. Fairly obvious.

What’s also obvious is that I did a pretty lousy job of selecting the book (The Double by José Saramago). In fact, I’ll sum up the experience by saying that, as far as this book is concerned, don’t bother. Save yourselves a frustrating reading experience due to an absolutely insane writing style and a feeling at the end of utter futility. I asked myself, after finishing the final paragraph, “Why did I bother?”
A pretty rare thing for this English Lit major to say.

About the writing style, I can’t say enough bad things. Every writer has his or her own style, and that I can applaud. However, to Saramago I say, “Have a heart.” First, some of the paragraphs are several pages long (yeah, I know other authors do, too, but for some reason, this book seemed far more tedious than they did). Second, some of the sentences are also several pages long, winding around in your brain from clause to clause and eventually getting back on the path. Third and by far the worst, the author avoided using any quotation marks, meaning that “conversations” were tricky to follow, with each person’s speaking part being separated from the others with commas and the new person speaking starting with a capital letter. Fine and dandy unless what one person said had a clause in it that needed a comma and the next part of their sentence started with a capital “I”, which happened numerous times. Needless to say, I had to back up and reread more than once or twice or thrice.

Update 28 Jan 2011: At request of some readers, I inserted a photo of a sample page. This is just one of a several-pages-long conversation with no quotation marks to delineate one speaker from another.

Okay, now for the plot. First, it’s totally improbable, yet it’s not being presented as some kind of science fiction novel. Also, I’m used to suspending disbelief when reading a novel (e.g., Peter Pan), especially if the improbable circumstance is an intriguing one, which this was — at least at first. Second, the action in this book could have taken place in about one-tenth of the number of pages if the author had not felt compelled to interject as much useless elaboration and a bunch of winding backs to some earlier philosophical point as he could manage. Third, events went quickly from an opening that grabbed my interest to a tedium of slogging slowly toward an inevitable conclusion.

As for the characters, the main character has a name (Tertuliano Máximo Afonso ) that is apparently very odd and well-known in Portugal (the book was originally written in Portuguese) but that the author does not bother to explain to readers outside of Portugal and rather assumes we will all understand. This would be okay if he did not also make a big issue about the name at every opportunity imaginable. The way the book was written always gave me the impression that I was just standing on the sidelines watching a very weird series of events and often with very little interest, just a determination to stick it out to the end. So, I never got really interested in this person, nor any of the other characters. Afonso was a divorced school teacher (history) in the cliché relationship with a woman that he was keeping at arms distance. He discovers he is physically the double of a small-time actor who is slowly working his way up to bigger film roles. From here, he is inexplicably drawn to find his double, who turns out to be pretty upset at having a double.

Not to give too much away, I can say that this starts out as a neat concept and, like a full balloon that you lose hold of before being able to fasten the end, flies aimlessly around the room until it is flat. By the end, you could find yourself saying, “Sheesh, so glad THAT’s over!”

You’ll be happy to hear that I faired a lot better in my tea selection. I stuck to black teas that could take milk and sweetener and went thru several potfuls during my push to finish this book. The next book will be selected with a bit more care. The tea always is.

Shown in the photo above: Irish Breakfast before milk and sweetener were added. One cupful was for me, and the other for my “double.”

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