An Odd Relationship with Words

Jose Saramago’s writing is so peculiar that three weeks after I finished reading his latest novel, The Double, I’m still baffled by how he pulls it off. It wasn’t just the long, sinuous sentences or the simultaneously disturbing and comical events that teeter on the brink of absurdity, but also the odd voice of the narrator, who most of the time seems omniscient, though never omnipotent, and, at times, almost ineffectual, that made me love this maddening book so much. The narrator is like a deist’s God who winds up the characters, sets the story in motion, and sits back to watch what happens, either unable or unwilling influence the course of action. Oh, he’ll poke his nose in the characters’ business from time to time and inject his commentary, but for the most part the characters seem quite out of the narrator’s control.

Usually when this narrator makes himself obvious, stepping into the foreground of the book, it’s to pontificate about an abstract philosophical concept that arises from some mundane event. These were my favorite parts of the book, the moments when the narrator would go off on a meandering tangent and then casually loop back into the flow of the story.

For example, when the protagonist impulsively looks up “monkfish” in the encyclopedia, the narrator leaps smack into the middle of the land of epistemology:

We have an odd relationship with words. We learn a few when we are small, throughout our lives we collect others through education, conversation, our contact with books, and yet, in comparison, there are only a tiny number about whose meaning, sense, and denotation we would have absolutely no doubts if, one day, we were to ask ourselves seriously what they meant. Thus we affirm and deny, thus we convince and are convinced, thus we argue, deduce, and conclude, wandering fearlessly over the surface of concepts about which we have only the vaguest of ideas, and, despite the false air of confidence that we generally affect as we feel our way along the road in the verbal darkness, we manage, more or less, to understand each other and even, sometimes, to find each other.…

Sure, it’s an interesting idea about the sloppiness and slipperiness of meaning, but the part that really gets me, the part that makes me scratch my head and laugh, comes next when he blames his digression on the character, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, as if the narrator had no choice but to engage in small talk while Afonso went about his business.

Responsibility for this tedious linguistic digression lies entirely with Tertuliano Maximo Afonso for having taken such a long time to put A Man Like Any Other in the VCR, as if he were hesitating at the foot of a mountain, pondering the effort required to reach the summit.

Right. It’s all the character’s fault.

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