The Double, by Jose Saramago. Harcourt. 336 pages. $25.
Most English classes teach us that parables and morality tales are antiquated forms of literature, replaced, in the way of natural evolution, by that creation of hardy Anglo-Saxon realism, the novel. But in truth, what new agers call "wisdom literature" has never left us, and the Portugese writer, Jose Sara-mago, has imbued it with enough highbrow knowingness to win him the 1998 Nobel Prize.
In his new novel, The Double, Saramago turns to one of the archetypal themes of world literature, as old as folktale and yet deftly pitched to an age of "identity politics." Shakespeare's comedies are full of twins and imposters, and Saramago uses some of the same plot twists in a modern context.
A man discovers that there exists another man just like him in every physical detail, down to the moles on the forearm and the timbre of the voice. If his body is not only his, who, then, is he?
The first of these men is a high school history teacher named Tertuliano Maximo Afonso. Burdened by history with his laughable first name, Afonso has allowed himself to be defined by history in other ways: not just in his role as a history teacher, but in how the breakup of a marriage has constricted his heart, disabling him from taking any risks in a new relationship.
Afonso discovers in watching a video that there is an actor who is his exact look-alike, and sets out to find him. Their meeting allows the teacher to move forward, at last, in his own life. But the actor -- even though he claims to be "the original" in a material sense, born first by a half-hour -- is more dependent on the integrity of his image, and consequently more seriously unhinged by the existence of a replica. The actor's essential impulsiveness and the teacher's basic cowardice (for while they are physically identical, each can claim his character flaws as his own) combine with disastrous result.
Thus, Saramago carefully lays out the constituent parts of a human being and examines each one: there is history (personal and collective), there are the roles we play (a postmodern favorite), there is biology, there is moral (or immoral) decision-making and action. It is not hard to guess which of these that Saramago believes is the bearer of true human individuality -- his answer is the same as that of traditional religion. The uniqueness of any person resides in the soul, the part of the human being that has, and is shaped by, free will. By our acts, they shall know us.
Traditional parables, however, are more economical than this, and the eeriness of this story would certainly be heightened by a more spare, precise, and perhaps unhappy talent. It would be a better story, probably, in the hands of Edgar Allen Poe. There is a cheerful, whimsical quality to this book, and a bombastic, teacherly aspect to Saramago's prose, that it seems the Nobel-winning novelist was dancing with his own double, an ebullient gremlin who wanted to write a moral potboiler. In the final lines, as Tertuliano sets off with a gun in his hand, you are left to decide which of the two is triumphant.
Alane Salierno Mason is a senior editor at W.W. Norton & Co. and founding editor of www.wordswithout borders.org, an online magazine devoted to international literature.