The Invention of Morel

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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.

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15 Responses to “The Invention of Morel”

  1. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    Sounds like a thought provoking read, that inability to pinpoint when things changed, all told as if it were reality. Fascinating.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes – I wish I could have said more about what’s really going on but I felt that would spoil the reading experience for others (I’m not usually so thoughtful!)

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    As I mentioned last night, this is very high on my post #TBR20 wishlist (in fact, I nearly bought it in the autumn but couldn’t find a copy at the time!). I’m very intrigued by your review so I’ll have to get it once I’ve completed the twenty. It’s a beautiful edition, isn’t it? Is that a picture of Louise Bourgeois on the cover?

    • 1streading Says:

      The cover photograph is Louise Brooks (I suspect that’s who you meant) chosen for it’s similarity to one of the illustration inside. They aren’t credited – I don’t know if this means they are contemporary or perhaps by Casares himself. Hopefully when you finally get your copy it won’t disappoint (I was lucky enough to get mine in a charity shop!)

  3. Cathy746books Says:

    This sounds fantastic, great review!

  4. Séamus Duggan Says:

    This one is high on the books I hope to find when I browse the Charity Shop shelves. I may even buy it somewhere else if I don’t find it soon. The sci-fi reference has me even more intrigued.

    • 1streading Says:

      Again, I don’t want to reveal too much, but events on the island are very much caused by science (as the title makes clear) making this a work of science fiction rather than fantasy (though Borges was using the term ‘literature of the fantastic’ in a more all-encompassing way, of course).

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Criminally not available on kindle, how annoying! Still, it does sound fabulous, and it’s not as if I’m put of by SF elements in a book.

    • 1streading Says:

      Didn’t realise it wasn’t available on Kindle – I just wish that more out of print books were made available electronically (this would cover most of Casares’ other novels!)
      I hope I haven’t overplayed the SF element – it’s just that the novel’s ‘solution’ is science based, and that, like all the best SF, it raises questions about our humanity.

  6. Caroline Says:

    I don’t know wheter you saw my recent post on the TV series Lost but Jacqui just told me about your review as I mention this in the post. Aparently it was very inmportnat in the creation of some seasons. Like H.G. Wells book of course. I wasn’t too sure whether I should read it but now I definitely want to. It sounds amazing.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’d no idea about that, though it does make sense. Unfortunately, though I watched the beginning of more than one season of Lost, I never made it to the end of any of them!

  7. The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] as the group read title this year: a fantastic choice but unfortunately one which I have read and reviewed only recently. Not wanting to miss out entirely I decided to participate by reading another of […]

  8. The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (tr. Ruth L.C. Simms) | JacquiWine's Journal Says:

    […] reviewed this book as Richard and Stu hosted a readalong a couple of years ago. Here’s a link to Grant’s excellent review which I recall seeing in the past. I’m sure there are many others […]

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