"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

May 10, 2014

"The Invention of Morel" (1940) by Adolfo Bioy Casares (Best Novellas)

Some years ago I watched the film Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais (see my post about this film) without knowing that in fact Resnais was inspired by the novella The Invention of Morel by the Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares - a lifelong friend of Jorge Louis Borges. This is the type of labyrinthine novella Borges might have written himself, had he tried longer forms (in fact, Borges and Bioy Casares wrote several books together, which unfortunately still await translation). What Last Year at Marienbad and The Invention of Morel have in common, is that characters in both who are repeating certain actions and conversations, are not real persons but a sort of "holograms," three-dimensional recordings which include all the five senses and are indistinguishable from reality.

In Bioy Casares' novella a nameless fugitive from a Latin-American country arrives on a remote, abandoned island somewhere in Polynesia. It is hinted that the island has the stigma of disease over it. The island is now uninhabited, but that has not always been the case, as the fugitive finds several large buildings and even a swimming pool. In the basement of the largest building he also discovers some mysterious machines.

Then, suddenly, there appear many sophisticated people on the island - holidaymakers, so to see, moving alone or in small groups through the buildings, sitting at the poolside, playing tennis or walking around the island. It is unclear how the visitors have arrived, there is no ship. The fugitive tries to hide, afraid the tourists will turn him in to the authorities, but he has to come back to the building for food, and above all, he has become attracted to a beautiful young woman in the group - based by Bioy Casares on the film star Louise Brooks.

The fugitive catches her name, Faustina, but she seems to have a relation with a bearded tennis player who is called Morel. As he will learn later, Morel is in fact a scientific genius - his name and person resemble "Doctor Moreau" in H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Everyday Faustina watches the sunset alone from a cliff on the western side of the island. The fugitive makes a flower garden for Faustina, but she never acknowledges it; next, he becomes so bold as to speak to Faustina, but she looks right through him. The other people also don't seem to notice him. Next, he is struck by a strange phenomenon: suddenly there are two suns in the sky.

The fugitive starts worrying that something weird is happening to him. Is he dead and existing as a ghost (similar to the narrator of Nabokov's The Eye)? Or has his political "crime" made him socially invisible?

Later, the fugitive finds out the truth when he listens stealthily to a meeting of the whole group of visitors in the large building. Morel discloses to them that for the past week he has been recording all their words and actions, with a machine that can reproduce reality. Morel explains that through looping the recording will enable them to relive that week forever. (The wind and tide will feed the machine with kinetic energy and will keep it running indefinitely). The fugitive realizes that he has not been seeing real people, but only a recording superimposed on the reality of the island.

But the fugitive also learns that the people recorded during previous experiments are now dead - the force of the superimposed reality is apparently so strong that it draws life from those recorded and places their consciousness in the projected copy. It is the inversion of The Picture of Dorian Gray - the "hologram" (my term) takes on greater reality than its original subject. The recreation of past events supplants the current reality of the participants. It are, by the way, these thoughts about consciousness and the recurrence of time that elevate the story to Borgian levels: an ordinary week, pleasantly but unspectacularly lived through, becomes an eternal prison.

The fugitive decides to record himself, too, and has his soul pass to the image - the only way he can for ever be together with the reproduction of the woman he loves...

This is a splendid tale, suffused with a haunting beauty and the feeling of loss and regret, like the film it inspired, Last Year at Marienbad. 

The English translation by Ruth L.C. Simms was published by the New York Review of Books. Senses of Cinema article on Last Year at Marienbad and The Invention of Morel

Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau