By Benjamin J.N. Harrison
Over the past few months, I have become increasingly interested in Argentine literature. Exploring the works of Jorge Luis Borges prompted me to traverse the country; I encountered Puig, then I met with Aira, and most recently I connected with Bioy Casares. What strikes me as particularly fascinating about literary tradition in Argentina is the apparent disdain for convention; although I have not read many novels from the country, those that I have were wholly divorced from those stringent exigencies of literature seemingly more prevalent up north. Adolfo Bioy Casares’ surreal and superb 1940 The Invention of Morel is no exception.
In an unspecified time, a fugitive from Venezuela hides on a deserted island and records his experiences in a diary; this nameless fugitive is intensely paranoid, racked with fear of being found by the police, though the reader never finds out the wrongs he has committed. The island he inhabits contains but three structures: a three-story building referred to as the museum, a chapel, and a swimming pool. Soon, the fugitive realizes that he is, in fact, not alone on the island; randomly, a large party of people who listen only to ‘Tea for Two’ and ‘Valencia’ arrive. Our protagonist is profoundly confused and he naturally hides, remaining dubious of the visitors’ intentions.
Gradually, the fugitive begins studying the people; at the beach each afternoon when the sun sets, he watches a dark-haired woman named Faustine, with whom he falls in love. One day, the fugitive attempts to converse with Faustine in a nonsensical ramble, but she merely looks ahead, paying no attention whatever to his words. Initially upset, the fugitive eventually realizes that she cannot perceive his presence; as a matter of fact, no one on the island can acknowledge the fugitive and his existence. By this point, the fugitive is deeply disturbed, a feeling exacerbated by his observation that the visitors go through the exact same actions each week, as if in some kind of never-ending loop. Since the people on the island are far too human and physical to be ghosts, the nameless protagonist fears he is going insane. His fears are furthered by other strange visions, like the presence of two suns in the sky during the day and two moons in the sky during the night.
It is not revealed until quite late in the novel that these beings are not people, but rather highly complex and life-like photographs of people; tangible photographs that capture the sensory and spiritual realities of those people. This truth is discovered when Morel, a tennis player, tells of his invention: a recording device he has been using to capture the actions of tourists he brought to the island in the span of one week. This machine is capable of reproducing sensory-dependent external reality by projecting the recordings onto the island, thereby leaving those captured to spend eternity looping through the same week.
Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel identifies key philosophical problems, most notably those of perception and consciousness; the novel meditates on whether reality is merely a creation of the mind, and, in an almost Cartesian fashion, if human sensory perception is truly accurate in experiencing the external world. Moreover, the novel poses some interesting questions on humans in relation to photography, such as: can consciousness be captured?, can one’s essence be captured in a photograph?, is it possible for one’s character to be reproduced with technology?, etc. Bioy Casares further explores the idea that one can continue to live on through the films and photographs they have been captured in, a position affirmed by the gargantuan influence film holds upon society. But even so, how much can one truly live on through their images? How much, if one has been consistently recorded throughout their lives, does one actually die? While The Invention of Morel was written nearly eighty years ago, it nonetheless proffers questions both philosophically fascinating and deeply relevant today.
The Invention of Morel also recounts a bizarre and tragic romance story; the fugitive is infatuated with Faustine, a woman who cannot interact with him, let alone acknowledge his existence. The two do not even live on the same plane of reality; the fugitive is essentially in love with a mere image. But when one confronts the philosophic questions Bioy Casares poses, one wonders just how fundamentally different being in love with an image is from being in love with another human.
Elegant, surreal, and profound, Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel is one of Argentina’s greatest literary triumphs. Transcending genre classification, the novel offers scenarios both strange and intensely thought-provoking. Aware that I am doing no justice to the novel’s greatness, I now turn to the eloquence of Octavio Paz to deliver my sentiments:
“The Invention of Morel may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel…. Bioy Casares’s theme is not cosmic, but metaphysical: the body is imaginary, and we bow to the tyranny of a phantom. Love is a privileged perception, the most complete and total perception not only of the unreality of the world but of our own unreality: not only do we traverse a realm of shadows, we ourselves are shadows.”
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Various insightful reviews about books and movies.