THE PORTUGUESE NOBEL Laureate has a definite fondness for strange what-if scenarios. In The Stone Raft (1986) he imagines continental Europe splitting along the Pyrenees, and the Iberian Peninsula, turned island, sailing dangerously towards the Azores. In Blindness (1995) he describes the chilling, totalitarian actions of a panicky government whose citizens are stricken by 'contagious' blindness. But Saramago is certainly no breathless sci-fi fantasist, and to describe this staunch Marxist as a political allegorist barely does justice to the intricate subtlety of his prose and the playful complexities of his ironies. His new novel, The Double, deals very craftily with the fragility of human identity, through the idea of a mysterious programme of human cloning orchestrated by an unknown, invisible hand. It was published in Portugal in 2002, when Saramago, astonishingly, was eighty years old. It seems strange to speak of an octogenarian as being at the peak of his powers, but The Double is written with the gusto, wit and imaginative energy of someone half Sararnago's age.
Tertuliano Miximo Afonso is a depressed history teacher with a divorce behind him, a girlfriend he treats badly, and an embarrassing Christian name. A colleague at school recommends he watch a rather trash; but entertaining film which the other teacher thinks might cheer him up. Afonso is happiest reading books