The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (tr. Ruth L.C. Simms)

When I put together my list for the Classics Club back in December 2015, I included a few translations just to mix things up a bit. The Invention of Morel (first published in 1940), was one such book. It’s an early novel by the Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose joint novella with his wife, Silvina Ocampo, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate – a thoroughly entertaining take on the traditional detective story – made my end-of-year highlights in 2014. While I didn’t love Morel as much as the Casares-Ocampo co-production, I did enjoy it. It’s an intriguing story, one that keeps the reader guessing until certain revelations come to light.

morel-1

The story centres on the fate of an unnamed narrator, a fugitive who is hiding out on a supposedly uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere in the hope of evading the authorities following his conviction for a serious crime. It is said that the island is home to a mysterious, fatal disease, one that attacks the human body from outside in. Nevertheless, the narrator is prepared to take his chances; it’s either that or run the risk of recapture by the police.

When we join the story, the narrator has been on the island for a few months, typically taking shelter in a museum, one of two buildings constructed by the previous inhabitants. One day his peace is disturbed by the sudden appearance of a crowd of people – it is almost as if they have come out of nowhere.

When I was finally able to sleep, it was very late. The music and the shouting woke me up a few hours later. I have not slept soundly since my escape; I am sure that if a ship, a plane, or any other form of transportation had arrived, I would have heard it. 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. (pp. 10-11)

Fearing for his safety, the narrator moves to the least habitable area of the island where he can observe the strangers from a suitable distance. As it turns out, the interlopers spend much of their time dancing to the same two records which they play on a phonograph, irrespective of the weather. The arrival of these figures raises various questions in the narrator’s mind (and in that of the reader). Is this a strange hallucination, the consequence of exposure to extreme heat perhaps or the after-effects of eating a poisonous plant? Is it all an elaborate a ruse by the authorities to lure the narrator into submission – and if so, why go to such lengths? Or are these images ghosts, no longer living but returned from the dead?

The narrator seems no nearer to solving the mystery when he tries to make contact with one of the strangers, a beautiful woman named Faustine who sits on a rock observing the sunset on a daily basis. The narrator is fascinated by Faustine and her gypsy-like sensuality; to him, she represents a kind of hope where before there was none. However, when the narrator tries to make contact with Faustine, all his dreams are dashed; either she cannot see his figure or she is ignoring him, defying his presence as she sits by his side.

It has been, again, as if she did not see me. This time I made the mistake of not speaking to her at all.

When the woman came down to the rocks, I was watching the sunset. She stood there for a moment without moving, looking for a place to spread out her blanket. Then she walked toward me. If I had put out my hand, I would have touched her. This possibility horrified me (as if I had almost touched a ghost). There was something frightening in her complete detachment. But when she sat down at my side it seemed she was defying me, trying to show that she no longer ignored my presence. (p. 29)

morel-2

There are also occasions during the story when the author ratchets up the tension, the narrator fearing for his safety and freedom in this strange, unfathomable environment.

I started to walk down the hall, feeling that a door would open suddenly and a pair of rough hands would reach out and grab me, a mocking voice would taunt me. The strange world I had been living in, my conjectures and anxieties, Faustine – they all seemed like an invisible path that was leading me straight to prison and death. (pp. 48-49)

Casares plants clues throughout the story as to what is happening on the island, but there comes a point when all is revealed. I don’t want to say a lot more about it here, other than it’s a very clever explanation with nods to both science and art. Morel is a novel which explores ideas around mortality, the pursuit of immortality, the nature of happiness and the enduring power of love. As long as the narrator can stay close to Faustine, in whatever form this may take, then there is hope for the future; but without this, what is there to live for?

Several other bloggers have 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 too.

The Invention of Morel is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

46 thoughts on “The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (tr. Ruth L.C. Simms)

  1. MarinaSofia

    Hmm, I was thinking of ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ as I was reading your review – sounds like the premise is reasonably similar, although it then probably diverts quite a bit.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, good call! I haven’t actually read the Wells myself. Nevertheless, Suzanne Jill Levine notes some similarities between the two books in her introduction to the NYRB edition of Morel. In fact she offers the view that Dr Moreau acts as a kind of leitmotif throughout Bioy Casares’ novels from Morel to A Plan for Escape to Asleep in the Sun. Quite a connection all told.

      Reply
  2. Jonathan

    I read this a few years ago but was quite underwhelmed with it. I think I was expecting something completely different. I would like to read it again to see if I’d appreciate it more.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s quite understandable. While I liked it well enough, I wasn’t blown away by it. The premise is very intriguing, and the explanation rather clever – but if I had a criticism of the book as a whole I’d say the story lacks a little depth. .

      Reply
  3. Tredynas Days

    Still haven’t read ABC or S Campo. Must do so…once my present forage through VMC is over. Need to give Clarice (L, not the Silence of the Lambs one) another try, too. Didn’t care for her short stories too much – stopped before finishing them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They’re worth reading reading, both of them. That said, I preferred their joint novella to this one as the humour worked so effectively in the context of the story. I would also rate Silvina Ocampo’s short stories ahead of The Invention of Morel, certainly as far as my own personal pecking order is concerned. I need to try again with Lispector as my first encounter (Near to the Wild Heart) wasn’t entirely successful either!

      Reply
  4. bookbii

    Lovely review Jacqui. This sounds like an intriguing and pleasant read which keeps you guessing until the end, so likely a bit of a page turner. The illustrations are lovely too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. While it doesn’t have the sustained tension of a page-turner, it is rather intriguing. I love the illustrations too – they certainly add some value to the novel.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha – well, I had better not mention them by name, then! I have a feeling you would enjoy this one, Scott. It has some interesting things to say about immortality and the nature of love.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s not a bad idea, Max – I’m sure it would add another dimension to this story. It’s an interesting little book, definitely worth considering, but maybe some of the ideas could have been developed a little further.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I remember you saying as much in your end-of-year round-up. It’s interesting, isn’t it? I do wonder if I’m missing something in the story…

      Reply
  5. Caroline

    This was part of my 20 under 200 project which I’ve still not finished, I bought it after watchig the sries Lost in which this plays a role. It still sounds interesting but I need to be in the mood for this.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I wasn’t aware of the ‘Lost’ connection – but now you’ve mentioned it, that does make sense. I sort of fell out of the groove of watching that series when it moved from terrestrial to satellite TV in the UK. Maybe I should try to catch up with it again at some point.

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    Thanks for the link. What I liked about this was the many questions it raised as you read, first seeming to be simply the tale of an isolated individual whose island life is disturbed, before demanding a different explanation. I don’t think Casares is a great writer, but he is an interesting one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re welcome. Yes, The set-up is very intriguing, but once the explanation becomes clear then the story loses a little momentum. It raises some interesting ideas, not least about the pursuit of immortality, but I wonder if some of the other themes are somewhat underdeveloped? I don’t think I would rush to read another Casares…

      Reply
  7. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  8. BookerTalk

    How intriguing. `i kept wondering whether you would reveal if this is an allegory but it seems from your final few paragraphs that the answer is more straightforward than this.
    Sorry to have been so lax in commenting recently – I dont know why but your blog disappeared from my feed. Hope I fixed it now

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There could well be an element of allegory in this story – maybe it’s the element of depth that was missing for me.

      No worries about the glitch in your blog reader – these things happen from time to time.

      Reply
  9. erdeaka

    Wew, it’s been awhile since the last time I visited your blog! I must have missed many things!

    Oh, well, I don’t think I like the idea of this book, though it’s still a good review, Jacqui. 😉 I think the one he wrote with his wife sounds better.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Nice to see you back again, Ratih. I much preferred Where There’s Love, There’s Hate. In some ways, it’s a shame they never wrote any other books together…

      Reply

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