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Authors: Jose Saramago

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BOOK: The Double
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He drove slowly through the city, like someone who has decided to make the most of being out and about early, and while he did so, despite the help of a few red and amber lights slow to change, he vainly racked his brains to find some way out of a situation that, as would be clear to any reasonably informed person, was entirely in his hands. He knew where the difficulty lay and admitted it to himself out loud as he reached the street where the school stands, If only I could put all this nonsense behind me, forget about this insane business, just dismiss the whole absurd situation, here he paused to consider that the first part of this sentence would have been quite sufficient on its own, and then concluded, But I can't, which shows all too clearly how obsessed this disoriented
man
has become. As mentioned before, the history class doesn't start until eleven, which is two hours away. Sooner or later, his colleague the mathematics teacher will appear in the staff room where Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, who is waiting for him, is pretending, with apparent naturalness, to check through the homework in his briefcase. An attentive observer would not perhaps take long to notice this pretense, but for that he would have to be aware that no run-of-the-mill teacher would start reading for a second time what he had corrected a first time, not so much because there was a chance he would find new mistakes and therefore have to make new emendations, but as a matter of prestige, authority, and experience, or merely because what has been corrected stays corrected, and it is neither necessary nor possible to go back. That was all Tertuliano Máximo Afonso needed, to be correcting his own mistakes, always assuming that on one of the sheets of paper, which he is now reading without seeing, he had corrected what was right and put a lie in the place of an unexpected truth. As can never be stated too often, the best inventions are made by those who did not know what they were doing. At this point, the mathematics teacher entered the room. He saw his colleague the history teacher and went straight over to him. Good morning, he said, Good morning, Sorry, he said, I'm interrupting you, No, no, not at all, I was just having another quick glance through these, but I've corrected most of them already, How are they, Who, Your students, Oh, the usual, so-so, not too bad, Exactly like us when we were their age, said the mathematics teacher, smiling. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso was waiting for his colleague to ask him if he had, in the end, got around to renting the video, if he had seen it and liked it, but the mathematics teacher seemed to have forgotten entirely, his mind far from their interesting
conversation
of the previous day. He went and poured himself a coffee, came back, sat down, and calmly spread the newspaper out on the table, ready to learn about the general state of the world and the country. Having perused the headlines on the front page and wrinkled his nose at each of them, he said, Sometimes I wonder if the disastrous state the planet's in isn't all our own fault, Ours, whose, mine, yours, asked Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, pretending to be interested but hoping that this conversation, even though it was starting off with a subject so very far from his own concerns, would, eventually, lead them to the nub of the matter, Imagine a basket of oranges, said his colleague, imagine that one of them, at the bottom, starts to rot, and then imagine how each orange, one after the other, starts to rot too, who would then be able to say where the rot began, The oranges you're referring to, are they countries or people, asked Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, Within a country, they're the people, within the world, they're countries, and since there are no countries without people, it's obvious that the rot begins with the people, And why should it be us, you, me, who are the guilty parties, It must have been someone, Ah, but you're not taking society into account, Society, my dear friend, like humanity, is an abstraction, Like mathematics, Far more than mathematics, mathematics, in comparison, is as real as the wood this table's made of, What about social studies then, So-called social studies are often not studies about people at all, Let's just hope no sociologists are listening, they would condemn you to a civic death, at the very least, Contenting yourself with the music of the orchestra you play in and with the part you play in it is a common mistake, especially among nonmusicians, Some people are more responsible than others, you and I, for example, are relatively innocent, of the worst evils that is, Ah,
the
usual argument of the easy conscience, Just because it comes from an easy conscience doesn't mean it isn't true, The best way to achieve a universal exoneration is to conclude that since everyone is to blame, no one is guilty, Perhaps there's nothing we can do about it, perhaps they're just the world's problems, said Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, as if bringing the conversation to a close, but the mathematics teacher retorted, The only problems the world has are problems caused by people, and with that he stuck his nose in his paper. The minutes passed, it was nearly time for the history class, and Tertuliano Máximo Afonso could see no way of bringing up the subject that interested him. He could, of course, simply ask his colleague directly, put the question to him point-blank, By the way, except that he hadn't been coming that way at all, but these language fillers exist precisely for such situations, an urgent need to change the subject without appearing to insist, a kind of socially acceptable pretend-that-I-just-remembered-something, By the way, he would say, did you notice that the clerk in the film, the one at the reception desk, is the spitting image of me, but this would be tantamount to showing your strongest card in a game, making a third person party to a secret that wasn't even known as yet to two parties, with all the subsequent, future awkwardness of avoiding inquisitive questions, for example, So, have you met your double yet. Just then the mathematics teacher glanced up from the newspaper, So, he said, did you rent that video, Yes, I did, replied Tertuliano Máximo Afonso excitedly, almost happy, And what did you think of it, Quite amusing really, It helped with your depression, your apathy, I mean, Apathy or depression, it makes no odds, the name isn't the problem, It helped you though, Possibly, it made me laugh a couple of times. The mathematics teacher got up, he too had students waiting for him, what
better opportunity for Tertuliano Máximo Afonso to say, By the way, when was the last time you saw
The Race Is to the Swift,
not that it really matters, of course, I was just curious, The last time was the first and the first time the last, When did you see it though, About a month ago, a friend lent it to me, Oh, I thought it was yours, part of your collection, No, if it had been, I would have lent it to you, not made you go spending good money on renting it. They were in the corridor now, on their way to the classrooms, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso felt easy and relaxed in his mind, as if his depression had suddenly evaporated, disappeared into infinite space, perhaps never to return. At the next corner, they would part and go their separate ways, and it was only when they had reached the corner and had both said, See you later, then, that the mathematics teacher, when he was about four paces away, turned and said, By the way, did you notice that one of the bit-part actors in the film looked incredibly like you, all you need is a mustache, and you'd be as alike as two peas in a pod. Like a devastating bolt of lightning, his depression fell from on high and reduced Tertuliano Máximo Afonso's buoyant mood to ashes. Despite this, he put on a brave face and managed to reply in a voice that seemed to break with every syllable, Yes, I did, it's an amazing coincidence, absolutely extraordinary, then added with a colorless smile, The only difference is that I haven't got a mustache and he's not a history teacher, otherwise we're identical. His colleague looked at him oddly, as if he had just met him again after a long absence, Now that I think of it, you had a mustache a few years ago too, he said, and Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, throwing caution to the wind, just like the lost man who will listen to no advice, replied, Perhaps, at the time, he was the teacher. The mathematics teacher came over to him, placed a paternal hand
on his shoulder, You really are seriously depressed, I mean, something like that, a silly, unimportant coincidence, shouldn't upset you in this way, It didn't upset me, I just didn't sleep very much, I had a bad night, You probably had a bad night because you were upset. The mathematics teacher felt Tertuliano Máximo Afonso's shoulder tense beneath his hand, as if his whole body, from head to toe, had suddenly grown hard, and the shock was so great, the impression so strong, that it forced him to withdraw his hand. He did so as slowly as he could, trying not to show that he knew he had been rejected, but the unusual hardness in Tertuliano Máximo Afonso's eyes left no room for doubt, the pacific, docile, submissive history teacher whom he usually treated with friendly but superior benevolence is a different person right now. Perplexed, as if he had been set down in front of a game whose rules he did not know, he said, Right, I'll see you later, then, I won't be having lunch at school today. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso's only reply was to bow his head and go off to his class.

 

 

 

 

 

C
ONTRARY TO THE ERRONEOUS STATEMENT MADE A FEW
lines back, which, however, we neglected to correct at the time, since this story is at least one step above a mere school exercise, the man had not changed, he was the same man. The sudden shift in mood observed in Tertuliano Máximo Afonso and which had so shaken the mathematics teacher was nothing but a simple somatic manifestation of a psychopathological state known as the wrath of the meek. Making a brief diversion from the central theme, we might be able to explain ourselves better if we were to refer to the old classification system, albeit somewhat discredited by modern advances in science, that divided the human temperament into four main types, namely, the melancholic, produced by black bile, the phlegmatic, produced, obviously, by phlegm, the sanguine, related no less obviously to the blood, and finally, the choleric, which was the consequence of white bile. As you can see, in this quaternary and primarily symmetrical division of the humors, there was no place for the community of the meek. Nevertheless, History, which is not always wrong, assures us that they already existed in those far-off times, indeed existed in great numbers, just as the Now, a chapter of History always
waiting to be written, tells us that they still exist, that they exist in even greater numbers. The explanation of this anomaly, which, if we accept it, would serve as a way of understanding the dark shadows of Antiquity as well as the festive illuminations of the Now, may be found in the fact that when the clinical picture described above was defined and established, another humor had been forgotten. We are referring to the tear. It is surprising, not to say philosophically scandalous, that something so visible, so commonplace and abundant as tears have always been should have gone unnoticed by the venerable sages of Antiquity and received so little consideration from the no less wise, although far less venerable, sages of the Now. You will ask what this long digression has to do with the wrath of the meek, especially bearing in mind that Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, who gave such flagrant expression to it, has not yet been observed to cry. The statement we have just made regarding the absence of the tear from the humoral theory of medicine does not mean that the meek, who are naturally more sensitive and therefore more prone to that liquid manifestation of the emotions, spend all day, handkerchief in hand, blowing their nose or dabbing constantly at tear-reddened eyes. It does mean that, inside, a person, be they male or female, could well be tearing themselves to pieces as a result of loneliness, neglect, shyness, what the dictionaries define as an affective state triggered by social situations and which has volitive, postural, and neurovegetative effects, and yet, sometimes, all it takes is a simple word, a mere nothing, a well-intentioned but overprotective gesture, like the gesture made, quite unwittingly, by the mathematics teacher, for the pacific, docile, submissive person suddenly to vanish and be replaced, to the dismay and incomprehension of those who thought they knew all there was to know about
the human soul, by the blind, devastating wrath of the meek. It doesn't usually last very long, but while it does, it inspires real fear. That is why the fervent bedtime prayer of many people is not the ubiquitous Lord's Prayer or the perennial Ave Maria, but Deliver us, O Lord, from evil and, in particular, from the wrath of the meek. The prayer seems to have worked well for Tertuliano Máximo Afonso's students, assuming they have habitual recourse to it, which, bearing in mind their extreme youth, is highly unlikely. Their time will come. It is true that Tertuliano Máximo Afonso entered the room frowning, which caused one student who thought himself more perspicacious than the others to whisper to the colleague beside him, He looks really pissed off, but this wasn't true, what could be seen on the teacher's face were merely the final effects of the storm, the last, scattered gusts of wind, a delayed flurry of rain, with the less flexible trees struggling to raise their heads. The proof of this was that, having called the register in a firm, serene voice, he said, I had intended saving the revision of our last written exercise for next week, but I had yesterday evening free and decided to get ahead of myself. He opened his briefcase, took out the papers, which he placed on the table, saying, I've corrected them all and given marks based on the number of errors made, but I'm not going to do as I usually do, simply hand the work back to you, instead, we're going to spend this class analyzing the mistakes, that is, I want each of you to explain the reasons for your mistakes, and the reasons you give me might even lead me to change your mark. There was a pause, and he added, For the better. The students' laughter blew the last clouds away.

BOOK: The Double
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