Spanish Lit Month hosts, Richard and Stu, have chosen Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel 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 Casares’ novels, the last, in fact, to be translated into English (by Suzanne Jill Levine), The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata, which he wrote in 1989, almost fifty years after Morel. It tells the story of a young photographer, Nicolasito Almanza, who is despatched to La Plata on a commission to photograph the town. (Casares himself was a very keen photographer). He lodges with an old friend, Mascardi, but also becomes involved with a family who arrive in town at the same time as him, feeling dutiful towards the father, Don Juan Lombardo, and attraction towards his two daughters, Griselda and Julia. Is he, though, the victim of a plot against his life? Who can he trust, if anyone?
Almanza’s chance meeting with the Lombardos as he arrives in La Plata is quickly revealed to be less than coincidental, though not before he has helped them with their luggage and donated blood after Don Juan falls ill:
“When we told you we waved at you because we took you for an outsider, that wasn’t the truth…We suspected that you were from out of town, but why deny it, I thought that you looked the spitting image of my son.”
Don Juan recounts the story of his missing son: an argument originating in his decision to insure his son’s life led to him leaving home; Don Juan has not heard from him since. “He’s probably dead, but that’s not enough to collect the insurance.” From this point on, Don Juan insist on treating Almanza like a son, but whether this is a sentimental attachment caused by regret or a plan to use him to claim the life insurance is unclear. Almanza is not short of voices warning him to be careful, beginning with Mascardi:
“The outsider should watch his steps…For some time now we’ve been noticing what we call down at headquarters a new kind of foul play. A family, which is really a gang of dubious individuals with a long record. They establish a relationship with the victim…and the whole thing ends up in a swindle or worse.”
When he takes his film to be developed, the owner of the shop similarly warns him: “Outsiders should be careful.” Of course, one might question whether Almanza can entirely trust Mascardi who, unbeknownst to many of his student friends, is now a policeman:
“If someone comes over to chat with us, don’t even remember I’m with the police.”
Later, he is accused of sending a friend to jail; Almanza also suspects he is following him.
Almanza is generally unfazed, however; an innocent adventurer, in stark contrast to the loveable rogue of the picaresque (“He’s a man who does not expect people to lie.”), he calmly continues his relationship with the family, finding time to sleep with both Griselda and Julia:
“Maybe I like both, but as far as loving goes, perhaps only one. I don’t know.”
His only worry is that the cheque he has been promised for his photographs has not arrived, a mixture of poverty and pride reducing his diet to the point that he begins to hallucinate (at least, that would be the rational explanation for the novel’s dream sequences). For the most part, like a camera, he perceives everything from the outside. When it is suggested to him that he is an artist, he says, “Only a photographer.” This might explain the gift he receives at the end, a kaleidoscope, inviting him to look at the world a different way.
The novel itself is not unlike a kaleidoscope, its different parts turning to create new patterns: conversations in cafes; perambulations with camera; enquiries regarding the post; phone messages; Don Juan’s requests… The novel repeats its scenes like a series of stills. Almanza even expects his own feelings to be judged through a lens:
“…if Julia had followed him from afar (he clarified: “with a telescope”) along a good part of his last afternoon in La Plata, she would think that she wouldn’t matter to him.”
The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata resists attempts to reach beyond the surface. A mystery where there may be no mystery; a love story where we are never certain of the love; the novel of a photographer, not an artist.