After enjoying Melville House’s recent translation of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (written in collaboration with his wife, Silvina Ocampo), it was only a matter of time before I read another of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ slim novels – and what better destination to disembark than his most famous work, The Invention of Morel, written in 1940, in a translation by Suzanne Jill Levine. The Invention of Morel was not Casares’ first publication but is regarded by most (including the author himself) as his starting point, and is still the novel most associated with him, in part due to his friend Jorge Luis Borges’ endorsement: “To classify it as perfect s neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.”
The novel is narrated by a fugitive who is hiding on an uninhabited island – he is, in fact, told “a human being cannot live there.” A previous attempt to settle there – a museum, chapel and swimming pool were built – was quickly abandoned. Imagine his surprise when he discovers he is not alone:
“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.”
The narrator regards the interlopers as “unconscious enemies” representing “a network of consular establishments and a file of fingerprints that can send me…to jail.” At first he watches them from a distance, puzzled at times by their behaviour. Why, for example, do they listen to the music of their phonogram outside, singing and dancing, despite “a torrential downpour that threatens to uproot all the trees”? He is, however, attracted by one particular woman, Faustine:
“She watches the sunset every afternoon; from my hiding place I watch her…But I still feel…that if she only 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.”
From this point on the novel becomes a love story fully deserving of the adjective unconventional, as well as a mystery. When finally he reveals himself to Faustine he receives no response:
“Trembling, almost shouting, I begged her to insult me, to inform against me even, if only she would break the terrible silence.”
As this continues the reader begins to speculate: is the narrator a ghost? Is he simply imagining the people around him? Is he the victim of a strange hoax? Casares’ solution is both more interesting and more elegant, but to reveal it here would take away much of the pleasure of the novel: I found the opening section worked well taken at face value, thanks in part to its Robinson Crusoe template, with only the vaguest of doubts at first, and indistinct whisper that slowly becomes a nagging voice. The tipping point, where rational explanations no longer suffice, will be different for every reader, though ironically Casares’ explanation is perfectly rational (though the novel is frequently classed as ‘fantastic’ it is more properly science fiction, just like the novel whose title it echoes, The Island of Doctor Moreau).
Like Wells, Casares uses his central idea to question what it is to be human. The novel also has interesting things to say about how we relate to one another, and about memory. It seems to suggest that however we try to distance ourselves from our humanity, by science or isolation, we cannot escape our nature.