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Authors: Jose Saramago

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BOOK: The Double
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W
ELL, THAT'S NOT QUITE TRUE. THERE WAS A TIME WHEN
there were so few words that we did not even have enough to express something as simple as, This is my mouth, or, That is your mouth, still less ask, Why are our mouths touching. It doesn't occur to people nowadays what a lot of work was involved in creating those words, it was necessary, in the first place, to realize that there was a need for them, which may, who knows, have been the most difficult thing of all, then to reach a consensus on the significance of their immediate effects, and finally, a task that will never fully be completed, to imagine the consequences that might ensue, in the medium and long term, from these effects and from these words. Compared with this, and contrary to common sense's peremptory statement of last night, the invention of the wheel was no more than a lucky chance, as would be the discovery of the universal law of gravity, all because an apple happened to fall on Newton's head. The wheel was invented and stayed invented forever and ever, whereas words, those and all the others, came into the world with a vague, diffuse destiny, as highly provisional phonetic and morphological clusters, however much, thanks perhaps to the inherited glow of their
glorious
creation, they may insist on passing themselves off, not so much in their own right, but on behalf of the thing they variably mean and represent, as immortal, undying, or eternal, depending on the taste of the person doing the classifying. This congenital tendency, which they proved unable to resist, became, over time, a grave and possibly insoluble problem of communication, either in the collective or in the personal sense, getting their apples and their onions mixed up, their legacies with their legalese, the words usurping the place of the thing that, before, for better or worse, they had done their best to express, and out of which came, in the end, don't let the mask fool you, the thunderous clatter of empty cans, the carnivalesque cortege of canisters with labels on the outside but nothing inside, or merely, fading fast, the evocative smell of the food for mind and body that they once contained and conserved. This rambling reflection on the origins and destinies of words has led us so far from our real subject that we have no option but to start again at the beginning. Contrary to appearances, it was not mere chance that made us write the phrase, This is my mouth or the phrase, That is your mouth, still less, Why are our mouths touching. Had Tertuliano Máximo Afonso spent some of his time years ago, always assuming he had done so at the right moment, pondering the consequences and effects, short-term and long-term, of similar phrases and others that tend and incline to the same end, it is highly probable that he would not now be looking at the phone, scratching his head, a perplexed look on his face, wondering what the devil he will say to the woman who twice, possibly three times, left her voice and her lamentations on his answering machine. The smug half smile and dreamy expression we noticed last night when he listened to the messages were, after all, just a reprehensible sign of
pride,
and pride, especially among the male half of the world, is like one of those supposed friends who, at the first hint of trouble in our life, make themselves scarce or look the other way, whistling loudly. Maria da Paz, for that is the sweet, promising name of the woman who phoned, will soon be leaving for work, and if Tertuliano Máximo Afonso does not speak to her right now, the poor woman will have to spend another day worrying, which, whatever may have been her errors or her sins, if, indeed, she has committed any, really would be most unfair. Or undeserved, which was the term she preferred to use. It must be said, however, in respect and obedience to the rigor of the facts, that the difficulty Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is wrestling with at the moment has nothing to do with estimable questions of morality or scruples about justice or injustice, but the knowledge that if he doesn't phone her, she will phone him, and that the new call will bring down on him more recriminations, possibly tearful, possibly not. The wine has been poured and, in its time, savored, now he has to drink the bitter dregs in the bottom of the glass. As we will have ample opportunity to discover in the future, and in situations that will teach him some hard lessons, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is not what one would call a bad person, we could even find him honorably included in a list of good people, if the list was drawn up according to some fairly undemanding criteria, but apart from being, as we have seen, extremely sensitive, which is a clear indication of a lack of self-confidence, his main weakness lies in his emotions, which have never been strong or enduring. His divorce, for example, was not one of those classic melodramas, all jealousies and betrayals, desertions and violence, it was merely the climax of a long process of continuous decay that had afflicted his own loving feelings and which he, whether out of
distraction
or indifference, would merely have sat back and watched to see what arid deserts would result, but which the woman to whom he was married, more honest and decent than him, finally found unbearable and unacceptable. I married you because I loved you, she said one famous day, but the only reason I would continue in this marriage now would be out of cowardice, And you're no coward, he said. No, she said, I'm not. The likelihood of this, in many ways, attractive person playing a part in the story we are telling is, alas, minimal, not to say nonexistent, it would depend on an action, gesture, or word from this her ex-husband, a word, gesture, or action that would doubtless be determined by some need or interest of his but about which, at this stage, we have no way of knowing. That is why we do not feel it necessary to give her a name. As for Maria da Paz, whether or not she continues to be a presence in these pages, for how long and to what end, is up to Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, he knows what he will say to her if and when he finally decides to pick up the phone and dial a number he knows by heart. He doesn't know by heart the mathematics teacher's number, which is why he is looking it up in his address book, it would seem, after all, that he is not going to phone Maria da Paz, he thought it more important, more urgent, to clear up an insignificant misunderstanding than to soothe a suffering female soul or deliver the coup de grâce. When Tertuliano Máximo Afonso's ex-wife said she was not a coward, she was at pains not to offend him with the assertion or even suggestion that he was, but in this case, as so often in life, a word to the wise is enough, and returning to the present emotional scene, the long-suffering, patient Maria da Paz is not even being granted half a word, although she has already grasped almost everything there is to understand, namely, that her boyfriend, lover, sexual partner, or
whatever
people call these things nowadays, is preparing to say good-bye. It was the mathematics teacher's wife who answered the phone and asked, Who is it, in a voice that barely disguised the irritation caused by a phone call at that hour in the morning, she didn't communicate this with half words but with a shrill, vibrant subtone, we are clearly in the presence here of a subject crying out for the attention of scholars from various disciplines, in particular that of sound theory, with appropriate help from those who have known most about the subject for centuries now, we are referring, of course, to people in the music world, to composers, in the first place, but also to the interpreters, to musicians, who are the ones who have to know how to make the sounds. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso began by apologizing, then gave his name and asked if he could speak to, Just a minute, I'll call him, the woman cut in, and shortly afterward there was his colleague saying, Good morning, and him responding, Good morning, he apologized again, said that he had only just heard his friend's message, I could have waited to talk to you at school but felt I should clear the air as quickly as possible so as not to leave room for any further misunderstandings, these things can so easily get out of hand, As far as I'm concerned, there is no misunderstanding, said the mathematics teacher, my conscience is as clear as a baby's, Yes, I know, I know, said Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, it's all my fault, the fault of this apathy, this depression that puts my nerves on edge, I get oversensitive, mistrustful, I imagine things, What things, asked his colleague, Oh, I don't know, just things, for example, that I'm not being treated with the consideration I think I deserve, sometimes I even have the feeling I don't really know what I am, that is, I know who I am, but not what I am, does that make sense, More or less, but it still doesn't explain the reason
for
your, what should I call it, reaction, yes, your reaction, To be perfectly honest, I don't understand it either, it was just a fleeting impression, as if you had treated me, how can I put it, in a paternalistic way, And when did I treat you in this paternalistic way, to use your terms, When we were standing in the corridor, about to go off to our respective classes, you placed your hand on my shoulder, it was obviously a friendly gesture, but I just took it the wrong way, it was as if you had hit me, Yes, I remember now, How could you not remember, if I'd had an electricity generator in my stomach you would have been struck down there and then, You mean your rejection of my gesture was that strong, Rejection may not be the right word, the snail doesn't reject the finger that touches it, it simply withdraws, That's the snail's way of rejecting it, Yes, But you haven't got much of the snail about you, Sometimes I think we're very similar, Who, you and me, No, me and the snail, Look, just shake off that depression and it will put a whole new complexion on things, That's odd, What is, That you should use those words, What words, About putting a whole new complexion on things, The meaning's fairly obvious, isn't it, Oh, yes, I understood what you meant, but what you've just said chimes in exactly with certain recent anxieties of mine, If I'm to continue following you, you're going to have to be more explicit, It's too soon for that now, but perhaps one day, Good, I'll look forward to it. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso thought, You can look forward to it all you like, and then, Coming back to what really matters, my friend, I just wanted to ask you to forgive me, You're forgiven, man, you're forgiven, although it's really not that important, you'd just created inside your head what people usually call a tempest in a teacup, fortunately, these shipwrecks nearly always happen within sight of the beach and no one drowns, Thanks for
taking
it all so well, That's all right, I'm glad to, If my common sense weren't so distracted with fantasies and phantoms and unwanted advice, I would have seen at once that the way I responded to your generous impulse wasn't just over the top, it was positively mad, Don't be deceived, common sense is much too common to really be sense, it's just a chapter from a statistics book, the one everyone always trots out, How interesting, I'd never thought of old, much-applauded common sense as being like a chapter from a statistics book, but when I think about it, that's exactly what it is, exactly, It could equally well be a chapter from a history book, in fact, now that we're on the subject, there's a book that should have been written, but which doesn't, as far as I know, exist, What book's that, A history of common sense, You're amazing, don't tell me you always produce ideas of this caliber first thing in the morning, said Tertuliano Máximo Afonso somewhat archly, If I get the right kind of stimulus, yes, but only after breakfast, replied the mathematics teacher, laughing, Well, I'll have to start phoning you every morning, then, Careful, remember what happened with the goose that laid the golden eggs, See you later, Yes, see you later, and I promise I won't go all paternalistic on you again, Even though you are almost old enough to be my father, All the more reason. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso replaced the receiver, he felt pleased, relieved, besides, the conversation had been both interesting and intelligent, it's not every day that someone turns up and tells us that common sense is nothing but a chapter from a statistics book and that what every library in the world lacks is a history of common sense from the time Adam and Eve were driven out of Paradise. A glance at the clock told him that Maria da Paz would have already left for her job at the bank and that the matter could be more or less sorted out,
however
temporarily, with a nice message left on her answering machine, Then I'll see. Out of prudence, just in case fate was conspiring against him, he decided to wait half an hour. Maria da Paz lives with her mother and they always leave the house together in the morning, one to go to work, the other to go to Mass and do the day's shopping. Maria da Paz's mother has been a great churchgoer ever since she was widowed. Deprived of the majesty of matrimony, in whose shadow, which she had always seen as a refuge, she had been shriveling up for years and years, she had gone in search of another gentleman to serve, a gentleman for life and for death too, a gentleman, moreover, whose one inestimable advantage was that he would never leave her a widow again. Once the half hour of waiting was over, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso was still unclear about the terms in which he should respond to the message, he had begun by thinking that a simple reply would be best, affectionate and natural, but, as we all know, the subtle shades of meaning between affectionate and cool and between natural and artificial are little less than infinite, normally, we come out with the right tone of voice for each circumstance spontaneously, but when there's an element of mistrust, as there is in this case, everything that strikes one at first as perfectly adequate and fitting will, the next moment, seem either abrupt or excessive. The eloquent silence, long favored by a particularly lazy kind of literature, does not exist, eloquent silences are just words that have got stuck in the throat, choked words that have been unable to escape the embrace of the glottis. After much racking of his brain, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso decided that, to be absolutely safe, the most prudent course of action would be to write the message down and then read it over the phone. This is what he came up with after several torn-up sheets of paper, Hi, Maria da Paz, I got your messages,
and I'd just like to say that I think we should act with great caution and only make decisions that are right for both of us, bearing in mind that the only thing that lasts a whole lifetime is life itself, everything else is inevitably precarious, unstable, transient, time has taught me that one great truth, but I do know that we're friends and that we'll go on being friends, what we need is to have a good, long conversation and sort things out between us, I'll be in touch again soon. He hesitated for a second, what he was about to say was not on the piece of paper, then he ended the call with, Lots of love. When he had put the phone down, he reread what he had written and noticed the importunate presence of a few subtle shades of meaning to which he had not paid sufficient attention, some were less subtle than others, for example, that awful old chestnut, we're friends now and we'll always be friends, that's the worst thing anyone can say if they're trying to end a romantic relationship, it's as if we had closed the door only to find that we were still stuck fast in it, and then, quite apart from that pathetic Lots of love he had added at the end, there was the crass error of saying that they needed to have a long conversation, he should know by now, from personal experience and from the continual lessons learned from A History of Private Lives through the Ages, that long conversations, in situations such as this, are terribly dangerous, how often has someone begun such a conversation feeling positively murderous toward the other person only to end up in their arms. What else could I do, he groaned, I obviously couldn't tell her that everything between us would continue as before, eternal love and all that, but neither could I, over the phone and when she's not there to pick it up, deliver the final blow, just like that, sorry, sweetheart, it's all over, that would be utter cowardice and I very much hope I never sink
quite that low. With this conciliatory thought, along the lines of you win some, you lose some, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso decided to rest on his laurels, knowing, however, poor man, that the most difficult part was yet to come. At least I did my best, he concluded.

BOOK: The Double
8.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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