Archive for the ‘Adolfo Bioy Casares’ Category

The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata

July 17, 2015

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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.

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The Invention of Morel

February 17, 2015

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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.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate

July 19, 2014

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Adolfo Bioy Casares is probably best known for his friendship and collaboration with Jorge Luis Borges. They wrote a number of books together, adopting the pen-name of Bustos Domecq, and co-edited the anthology The Book of Fantasy. Casares was an author in his own right, however, most famously of the novel The Invention of Morel. Now, thanks to Melville House and translators Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell, we have another of his collaborations, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, which he wrote with his wife Silvina Ocampo. Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is not an unjustly neglected classic, but it is an absolute delight, the fun the couple clearly had concocting their tale communicating itself charmingly to the reader.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate takes the form of a murder mystery. The setting is a suitably isolated hotel:

“The building, white and modern, appeared picturesquely set in the sand like a ship on the sea, or an oasis in the desert.”

The guests are a suitably varied and interconnected collection: Mary, who (in the first of many in-jokes which also prove relevant to the plot) translates detective novels, her sister, Emilia, Emilia’s fiancé, Atuel, a Doctor Cornejo, and an Englishman, Manning. Also present are the hotel owners, and their mysterious young son, Miguel. The final guest is the narrator, also a doctor, Humberto Huberman, who from the beginning, has the fortunate habit of overhearing:

“…by now it was impossible not to hear the voices. Reluctantly, I strained to place them. They were the voices form the beach. Emilia and Mary were insulting each other with a shocking ferocity! I could scarcely bare to listen to them.”

It is Mary who is found poisoned the next morning. Huberman, as we would expect from our narrator, is convinced that he can unravel the mystery of her death. Unfortunately he is far from the ideal protagonist, and it is here that much of the novel’s humour lies. As well as being arrogant and ego-centric, he finds it difficult to treat the fatality with any seriousness. Even while examining the body he reflects on a comment he has made, “I found this amusing”, and later watches with tears of laughter in his eyes as the coffin is brought to the hotel. He is similarly distracted by his appetite. While discussing Mary’s death shortly afterwards, his mind is elsewhere:

“It wasn’t only the soup that deserved high praise. The toast was outstanding.”

Above all, his investigation, based largely on his knowledge of detective fiction, is frequently well off the mark. Meanwhile the real investigation (of which he thinks he is an integral part) goes on around him. When he finds Manning and Atuel making notes on detective novels which Mary has translated he refers to this as “childish activities” little knowing that they are closer to discovering the truth than he is.

What is impressive about Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is that it works successfully as a whodunit while at the same time satirising the genre. Casares and Ocampo also create an insufferable narrator with whom the reader happily spends time. Any lover of detective fiction looking for something a little different should get hold of this book.