Adolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel, transl. Ruth L.C. Simms, NYRB.
This is the first of the books that I have lined up for the #1940Club, as hosted by Simon and Karen. I read it in one sitting, at the airport and on the plane coming back from France, and it was a truly unforgettable, mind-twisting experience.
Both Octavio Paz and Borges described this as a perfect novel, but it is incredibly difficult to describe or define – and fits in perfectly with two other novels published in 1940 that I have on my list. I wonder if the outbreak of war caused many writers to feel that reality was too uncomfortable to deal with and that they should focus either on escapism or, if they wanted to address any social issues, they should write them ‘aslant’.
It could hardly get more remote than the island where the narrator lives, in an attempt to flee justice for a crime that he never quite describes. He was told about this island by an Italian rugseller in Calcutta: an uninhabited island where ‘around 1924 a group of white men built a museum, a chapel and a swimming pool’, but anyone who attempts to live there is said to fall prey to a fatal disease that attacks the outside of the body first and then works its way inward. Nevertheless, the narrator is desperate enough to seek refuge there. However, the island seems to be decaying: prone to unpredictable tides and flooding, the marshlands on the south side of the island seem to be taking over, the trees are diseased and the food stores in the ‘museum’ (which feels more like a hotel or a sanatorium) have long since run out.
Then, all of a sudden, the island is ‘invaded’ by a group of people intent on partying, dancing, playing ‘Tea for Two’ and ‘Valencia’ on their phonograph, playing tennis, lounging around and chatting. It all feels very Evelyn Waugh at this point. The narrator is terrified that they might stumble upon him and call the police, yet he cannot stop himself observing them from a distance, especially a dark-haired woman who sits every evening on the rocks to admire the sunset. He becomes obsessed with this woman and tries to woo her with an offering of a garden of dead, picked flowers (yes, really!). But when he attempts to talk to her, he either stumbles over his own ineptitude or else she simply ignores him. Then he discovers that she is also being wooed by ‘an ugly bearded tennis player’ called Morel and he cannot stop himself eavesdropping on their conversation.
Throughout the story, we get the sense that we are caught in someone’s fever-dream, although the narrator assures us that these visitors are not hallucinations. But strange, illogical things keep happening: doors that will suddenly not open anymore, but later on do; people appearing and disappearing mysteriously and silently; fragments of conversation being repeated verbatim. Has the narrator, weakened by hunger and illness, invented Morel and his retinue, or is Morel running an eerie experiment with all of them? (The influence of the ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ is strong here) The ambiguity of the title becomes ever more apparent.
This novel is an intriguing blend of an adventure story with touches of surrealism or science fiction, a story of impossible love, a novel of psychological insight and a meditation on the nature of memory and trying to preserve our most precious moments of happiness. I’m not sure I understood everything, especially in the second part of the book, but it casts a trance-like spell on the reader. The language is very clean and tidy, not a random stray edge anywhere, but highly suggestive. It’s all about reading between the lines – and the author leaves plenty of room for us to make up our own stories and interpretations.
It felt particularly appropriate to read this book, with its surrealist flourishes, right after admiring the paintings of the surrealist artists gathered in Marseille during the war, waiting for a passage to freedom and a new life.