Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Island in the stream: The Invention of Morel

Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1968

In his prologue for the original 1940 edition of The Invention of Morel, Jorge Luis Borges makes an impassioned and, unsurprisingly, hugely articulate defense of fantastic literature. He laments its denigration, citing Robert Louis Stevenson’s reports on the British reading public’s scorn for the fantastic back in 1880 before continuing to note the disapproval it drew through the ensuing decades. I wonder what would Borges think of today’s climate, where the fantastic has gained considerable acceptance both among the general public and the literati, yet is so often employed either ironically, as an ingratiating nostalgic device, or in works of juvenile fiction that cross over into an adult reading public for reasons that may have much to do with a longing for the sort of strong narrative many fear has been forsaken by the authors of what we bizarrely choose to call literary fiction. (As opposed to non-literary fiction?) Of course, even now, in the year of the death of J.G. Ballard, the adult-geared, diverting yet thematically rich fantastic abides—most excitingly in the work of Spanish novelist Albert Sanchez Piñol, whose first two novels I'll be writing about later.

But among the attributes that remain so extraordinary about
The Invention of Morel is this short novel’s simultaneous homage to its forebears and its tremendous prescience. It looks backward, most openly to Clemente Palma’s XYZ and to H.G. Wells and The Island of Dr Moreau, and forward, most especially to the ontologically vertiginous novels and stories of Philip K. Dick, with which it shares a special gift for scenarios so resonant as to inspire a kind of terror that never really leaves you, and most recently to the game Myst and the television show Lost. It’s author, Adolfo Bioy Casares, was only 26 at the time of its publication, yet his prose reveals a precocious blend of ambition and humility (“I don’t strive to make a big hit,” he wrote of the novel’s genesis, “just to avoid errors”), the result being vivid clarity in constant tension with near-baffling mystery.

Avoiding a prison sentence, a man flees to an apparently uninhabited island. A small group constructed a museum, a chapel, and a pool there in 1924 and then vanished—the island is said to host a grotesque, fatal disease. The fugitive is, we’ll learn, Venezuelan, though he seems to have traveled widely. We never learn the precise nature of his crimes. He is writing two books: Apology for Survivors and Tribute to Malthus. He’s also developing theories about immortality. He’s smart, smart enough to actually interpret the strange events he’ll soon encounter, but of the fact that he’s evading one kind of prison for another he seems not entirely cognizant. Much to his initial alarm, he’ll be joined by a group of tourists, including a woman, possibly Quebecoise, with whom he falls hopelessly in love. Yet rather than threaten his liberty, they seem not to notice him at all. What’s more, they seem to be repeating the same actions over and over. The repetition, combined with the apparently unbreachable distance that separates him from the woman he’ll learn to call Faustine, only intensifies the fugitive’s longing. (Bioy Casares was apparently drawing upon his own fascination-from-afar with the actress Louise Brooks.) As Ocatvio Paz would later characterize it, the novel conveys how in our longing for what we cannot touch “we bow to the tyranny of a phantom… not only do we traverse a realm of shadows, we ourselves are shadows.”

Bioy Casares with Borges

Bioy Casares with Silvina Ocampo

Even if he had never written a word, Bioy Casares would have a hallowed place in the literary pantheon of Latin America, and his home country of Argentina especially, by mere association: he befriended Borges in 1931, and the pair would go on to collaborate on a number of ventures, beginning with a pamphlet on the virtues of yogurt; and in 1940 he married Silvina Ocampo, another magnificent author of peculiar and bewitching imaginative powers. (Their complimentary yet distinctive styles and subjects, as well as the unusual conditions of their romantic relationship, align them to another sublime pairing of 20th century talents, that of US authors Paul and Jane Bowles.) My fear that Bioy Casares may be forgotten by much of the non-Latin world seems confirmed by the fact that for all of the wonderful supplementary essays, testimonies and documentaries on the Criterion Collection’s new deluxe two-disc edition of Last Year at Marienbad, mention of the pivotal influence of The Invention of Morel on that film is nowhere to be found. It’s a shame, since knowledge of one only enhances the reading of the other.

As with Marienbad, the “rotating eternity” that streams through the fugitive’s experience on the island, the sense of moments that always build toward a point that can never come to fruition, create a fusion of elements that penetrate the emotions as deeply as they do the intellect. That says something. And we’re so much closer to actually living the fantasy of The Invention of Morel; to the merging of the fugitive’s dreams of immortality with that of the scientist who visits his island—and who the fugitive fears may be be wooing his beloved Faustine; to the synthetic duplication of experience that in allowing us to, in some sense, live forever, is also draining us of life. But don’t let me spell all of this out for you—Bioy Casares does such a perfect, surprisingly lucid job of guiding us through this labyrinth. Go back to him. There’s a wonderful edition of the book still in print from New York Review Books Classics ($12.95 US/$16,95 Can.), translated by Ruth L.C. Simms and complete with Borges’ prologue, a very informative introduction from Suzanne Jill Levine, and the original illustrations by Borges’ sister, Norah Borges de Torre.

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