Monday 31 October 2011

The Invention of Morel - Adolfo Bioy Casares

Despite the tidal waves of books that come into my possession, and the fact that I rarely leave the house without buying at least one book (I've bought five since I did the meme on Friday) only relatively rarely do I buy a book on a complete whim.  Usually I've read other things by the author, or heard good things, or am following up a blog review etc.  These links can be tenuous, and tend to create an ever-widening field of gosh-yes-I-think-I'd-like-that books.  But occasionally I buy one, knowing nothing whatsoever about it or its author.

And that, dear reader, is how I came to buy The Invention of Morel (1940) by Adolfo Bioy Casares, translated from Spanish by Ruth L. C. Simms. 

I was lured in by the fact that it was an NYRB Classic, and they're always beautifully produced, whatever else may come inside.  And I was further tempted when I saw that it was a 'fantastic exploration of virtual realities' (thus potentially useful for my thesis) and had apparently inspired the film Last Year in Marienbad, which has been in Amazon basket for years.  Apparently it was mentioned in 'Lost', too, but I didn't see any of that.

This novella (only a hundred pages) should probably be classed as science fiction, and there is definite allusion to H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau in Bioy Casares' title - but this isn't a tale of robots and computers, but of one lovestruck, bewildered man.  He isn't named, and seems to be known as The Fugitive, since he is hiding on the (fictional) island Villings to escape the death penalty in his home country of Venezuela.  The Invention of Morel takes the form of his diaries.  The opening paragraph flings the reader into the catalyst of the novella:

Today, on this island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time.  I moved my bed out by the swimming pool, but then, because it was impossible to sleep, I stayed in the water for a long time.  The heat was so intense that after I had been out of the pool for only two or three minutes I was already bathed in perspiration again.  As day was breaking, I awoke to the sound of a phonograph record.
Despite having appeared to be a deserted island, complete with abandoned chapel and museum, suddenly the shore is filled with people - eccentric people, dressed in clothes of the past, dancing and socialising in the unseasonal heat.

The Fugitive is most interested in one of the women, whom he names Faustine.  She (although the narrative does not explicitly say so) resembles Louise Brooks and was inspired by Bioy Casares' fascination with that film star.  The Fugitive follows her, watching her sunbathing and spying on her activities and - as people do in novels - falls besottedly in love with her, without ever engaging her in conversation.  His rival for her affections, who does have conversation with her and everything, is the Morel of the title.

And then all the tourists disappear.

It's always difficult to tell how much a novel's style is due to its author, when it comes in translation.  Either Bioy Casares deliberately wrote most of The Invention of Morel in a disconcerting, imprecise style, or Simms didn't do a great job translating.  The novella is quite difficult to read.  It certainly doesn't flow.  It is disjointed, not entirely chronological, meandering through speculation and confusion in between scribbled declarations of love.  All of which certainly echoes The Fugitive's confusion, thrusting the reader into the same bewilderment he must be feeling.  What makes me suspect that this is deliberate is this paragraph, about Morel explaining his 'invention' (fear not, I shall tell you when to look away, if you want to avoid spoilers!)
Up to this point it was a repugnant and badly organized speech. Morel is a scientist, and he becomes more precise when he overlooks his personal feelings and concentrates on his own special field; then his style is still unpleasant, filled with technical words and vain attempts to achieve a certain oratorical force, but at least it is clearer.
Although this refers to Morel's speech, it also reflects upon the style and structure of The Invention of Morel itself.  After this point, it becomes much more lucid and readable.  Which means Bioy Casares is being rather clever, but doesn't make the first two-thirds of the novella any easier to read...

Ok, now I'm going to tell you what Morel's 'invention' is - so run away, if you don't want to know.


Ok, still with me? Here it is: Morel has recorded all of their actions for the week - but not simply audio and visual, but all five senses.  What The Fugitive has been witnessing is one of the endless replayings of the week, which keeps that group of visitors to the island in some curious form of immortality - and which explains all manner of other strange phenomena.

The Invention of Morel has been filled with all manner of clues from the outset, which make sense looking back, but merely seem confusing upon first reading them.  I especially liked this one:
I went to gather the flowers, which are most abundant down in the ravines.  I picked the ones that were least ugly.  (Even the palest flowers have an almost animal vitality!)  When I had picked all I could carry and started to arrange them, I saw that they were dead.
What originally seems to hint towards The Fugitive's delusional or deranged state (and can that interpretation ever be ruled out, in fantastic works?) slots into the reader's new understanding of the novel.

Giving away this device shouldn't prevent you having a rewarding reading of The Invention of Morel.  The book doesn't rest upon the power of a twist, as many less intellectual books and films do - rather, Bioy Casares explores themes of isolation; what constitutes immortality; what rights ought scientists to have over humans; even the power of love.

The final third of the novella, being so much less stylistically confused and confusing, allows these themes to come to the fore and it was definitely this section which I most valued and enjoyed.  Perhaps a slow, thoughtful reading of the first two-thirds would prove equally rewarding.  As it was, I did feel rather like I was battling through quicksand, never able to settle into a comfortable reading rhythm - but, after all, probably that was what Bioy Casares intended...?

Others who got Stuck into it...

"It's the kind of read that's slightly unsettling and not with a lot of closure." - Amy, My Friend Amy

"I was delighted to find The Invention of Morel to be such a quick and engaging read, and yet one that has depth if I chose to read it on a deeper level in the future." - Rebecca, Rebecca Reads

"As a mystery it’s engaging, and all the threads come together in an intricate weave with no frayed lines to tug on." - Stewart, BookLit


  1. I read the other book by Casares, I can't think of the title, but the NYRB edition has a dog headed person on the cover.

    It also played with the the question of what is reality. And it had the same stylistic issues you describe here.

    I did some looking into Casares and found he worked with Borges among others.

  2. It's odd, but this novella has really stuck with me since I read it. I read a short story by M.T. Anderson a few years ago that reminded me of it in a lot of ways.

  3. This has been on my wishlist for a long time! You've written an interesting review. I'd still like to try this very strange-sounding novel.

  4. I've been looking for a copy of the book for years, since Roberto Manguel mentions it in one of his books so was delighted to find the NYRB publication. It sounds fantastic!

  5. I'm weirdly drawn to this book after reading your review of it, so might have to search it out and give it a go. Thanks for recommending Simon!

  6. CBJ - I think I'd have to work up to another Casares, especially if it's stylistically similar.

    Amy - I think it will stay with me too, in outline at least. I find books which distort reality really interesting.

    Dan - let me know what you think, if you try it!

    Stefanie - I do enjoy Manguel's books, and could have guessed that he'd like this, given his love of Borges.

    Lyndsey - lovely! I look forward to your thoughts on it...

  7. Reading your review I realized that I liked this book more than I thought. It didn't strike me as innovative (although for the time when it was written, it was) and the pacing was uneven, but I enjoyed it a lot.


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