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Adolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention Of Morel

Ask me what my favourite film is and I’ll no doubt respond with Last Year In Marienbad (1961), written by Alain Robbe-Grillet and directed by Alain Resnais. Its appeal is that no matter how many times I watch it I am never wholly satisfied. Not because it’s a poor work – it isn’t; rather it doesn’t force answers into tidy resolutions and the viewer is left to ponder long after. And with each viewing a new avenue of possibilities opens up, answers always just out of reach.

It was news to me, however, that Last Year In Marienbad was inspired by a novel and more surprising that the work in question was a slim volume of Latin American science fiction. The Invention Of Morel (1940) by Argentinian writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, who, it seems, lived in the literary shadow of countrymen and friend, Jorge Luis Borges. And with Borges providing a prologue (an introduction, really) it would appear he can’t even release a book without his friend casting that shadow.

The Invention Of Morel was Casares’ seventh novel and he believed it was the first true work of his literary career. In said prologue Borges states that “to classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole”. Octavio Paz echoed this when he said of the novel that it “may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel.” With such heavyweights singing its praises and my own curiousity about how it inspired my favourite film I was eager to cast generic sci-fi prejudices aside and see just how perfect it was. As it turns out, rather close. But perfection in reading is subjective.

On the run from the police for a crime in his homeland, the narrator has wound up on a deserted island “known to be the focal point of a mysterious disease”. The novel forms his diary, the entries undated, from the moment when “a miracle” happens. That miracle is the arrival of other people to the island, people dressed as if “from another era”, who take up residence, having seemingly come from nowhere:

When I was finally able to sleep, it was very late. The music and the shouting woke me up a few hours later. I have not slept soundly since my escape; I am sure that if a ship, a plane, or any other form of transportation had arrived, I would have heard it. And yet suddenly, unaccountably, on this oppressive summerlike night, the grassy hillside has become crowded with people who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad.

Fearing being turned in to the authorities, the narrator stays out of their way, but soon becomes attracted to one of their party, the beautiful Faustine, who he observes from a distance, falling, like Casares did for Louise Brooks, who graces the cover, into a love unrequited:

She watches the sunset every afternoon; from my hiding place I watch her. Yesterday, and again today, i discovered that my nights and days wait for this hour. The woman, with a gypsy’s sensuality and a large, bright-colored scarf on her head, is a ridiculous figure. But I still feel (perhaps I only half believe this) that if she looked at me for a moment, spoke to me only once, I would derive from those simple acts the sort of stimulus a man obtains from friends, from relatives, and, most of all, from the woman he loves.

As the days pass events become more mysterious. Two suns take to the sky, followed by two moons. The people of the island talk about the same things over and over again and the narrator becomes braver in his love for Faustine, daring to present himself only to be ignored.

The Morel of the title is a nod to H.G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau and, like his literary forebear, is an unscrupulous scientist. But that’s not what’s important to our narrator, for he belives that Faustine is using Morel – and the other islanders, as he gets to know them – to repudiate him. The invention of the title, however, is best left unmentioned as its revelation serves the story well in answering all of the novel’s mysteries before leading on to the beautiful, but unnerving, coda.

While much of the novel is written as fact within diary entries, there are occasions to dispute the reality. The reader is given pause to wonder if all of this is in the narrator’s mind. After all, the island does bask in severe warmth and it’s not outwith the realms of possibility that severe heat stroke could be causing hallucinations:

From the marshlands with their churning waters I can see the top of the hill, and the people who have taken up residence in the museum. I suppose someone might attriute their mysterious appearance to the effect of last night’s heat on my brain. But there are no hallucinations or imaginings here: I know these people are real – at least as real as I am.

Like Last Year In Marienbad, that’s the beauty of such a narrative and in rereading The Invention Of Morel early passages that inform later events or knowledge enhance the reading experience, all the while leaving dubiety about the conclusion. Each interpretation is possible, just as they dismiss one another.

As far as the perfection quoted by Borges and Paz goes, I can see where they are coming from as Casares has produced an immensely readable novel that is the sum of its parts, with nothing extraneous lurking in the narrative. As a mystery it’s engaging, and all the threads come together in an intricate weave with no frayed lines to tug on. I’d be loathe to call it perfect, however, especially since I’m reading it in translation. But as a novel it’s light on the science, and prefers to linger on themes of immortality and love, within a temporal puzzle, twisting them until they are all the better for it.

January 13, 2008

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