14 May 2006

Döppelganger fiction (excluding Kierkegaard and Gstrein)

What do Jorge Semprún and José Saramago have in common? Both were members of the Communist Party. Saramago still is — he describes himself as “a militant member” — but Semprún was expelled in 1964. Semprún, who adapted Vassily Vassilikos’ novel for Costa-Gavras’ feature film “Z”, and Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998, wrote novels featuring literary characters-as-döppelgangers-as-protagonists. Ricardo Reis was one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms. In Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the eponymous hero returns to Lisboa from Rio de Janeiro in 1935 after receiving the news of Pessoa’s death. This Reis writes Pessoa’s verse and continues to be visited by the poet months after his funeral against the backdrop of the rise of fascism in Spain, Portugal, Germany and Italy. Semprún’s The Second Death of Ramón Mercarder features a character, also a killer, who bears the same name as Trotsky’s assassin (Mercader was one of his many names), twenty-five years after the assassination. Watched by the CIA, Stasi, the Soviets, and Spaniards, Semprún’s Mercader is later found dead in a hotel room. The quest for his identity begins. Is he or is he not the same Mercader? “Stories never begin where they seem to have begun. Their origins are sunk in obscurity, and a time comes when you suddenly find yourself in the very heart of a story,” Semprún writes. As in Borges’ famous story, the question is who is dreaming whom? Who is the creator, who the created?

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