It has been, again, as if she did not see me.

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares and translated by Ruth Simms

The Invention of Morel comes with an endorsement by Borges stating simply that “To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” I disagree.

An unnamed fugitive makes his home on an uninhabited pacific island. He plans to live out his remaining years there safe from discovery and the imprisonment that would inevitably follow. We do not know of what crime he is accused but we know it must be serious.

The island has a handful of empty buildings but its inaccessibility makes it a safe refuge. Or so it seemed until without warning a group of apparent holidaymakers appear among the buildings. They seem utterly ignorant of the fugitive’s presence. Are they ghosts? Is he? Is this some malevolent prank on their part aimed at his capture? Or is the truth much stranger?

The book comes with some rather charming illustrations. Here’s a map of the island showing the various structures on it:

And here is a mysterious sunbathing woman named Faustine with whom the fugitive falls furtively in love:

At first he daren’t approach her, uncertain both as to the group’s intent and her likely reaction. When he does he finds to his dismay that she doesn’t acknowledge him. It’s as if he were invisible, inaudible. He tries to make tribute to her by planting a floral garden where she sunbathes each day:

When I made this garden, I felt like a magician because the finished work had no connection with the precise movements that produced it. My magic depended on this: I had to concentrate on each part, on the difficult task of planting each flower and aligning it with the preceding one. As I worked, the garden appeared to be either a disorderly agglomeration of flowers or a woman.

That quote seems as obvious a metaphor for the process of writing a novel as one could hope for. Casares’ book was well received; the garden isn’t even glanced at. A male companion, Morel, visits the woman and walks over the flowers as if they weren’t there.

The problem is that it’s evident very early on that the holidaymakers are genuinely oblivious to the narrator. Unfortunately, the plot requires that he doesn’t realise this which means that he wanders about coming up with bizarre hypotheses for why everyone pretends not to see him despite it being perfectly apparent that they can’t (and despite other plainly outré events such as seeing two suns in the sky). I worked out what was going on pretty quickly (it’s not hard if you’ve read any pulp SF) but the narrator struggles even after Morel spends four pages (four!) in outright exposition setting out precisely what’s happening.

This next quote comes after the narrator has spent those four pages listening to Morel explain in detail the nature of his invention, after which everyone seems to vanish without trace:

There was no noise, there was almost no light. Had they all gone to bed? Or were they lying in wait to capture me?

Really? Four pages of exposition and he still doesn’t get it? The narrator doesn’t understand because the plot requires him not to. It’s clumsy, to be kind.

Invention is not generally seen as a genre novel. I’m not quite sure why that is since it’s actually a pretty straightforward SF tale. It deals in issues of mortality, love and how we ascribe meaning to our lives but there’s no rule that genre can’t address big issues.

It is well written and perhaps that’s why it’s won so many fans. I loved for example this quote which comes when the narrator is considering just declaring his passion to Faustine without further attempt to win her by garden gift or subtle wooing:

We are suspicious of a stranger who tells us his life story, who tells us spontaneously that he has been captured, sentenced to life imprisonment, and that we are his reason for living. We are afraid that he is merely tricking us into buying a fountain pen or a bottle with a miniature sailing vessel inside.

Casares is of course quite right. I think most of us have had the experience of some seemingly friendly stranger on a holiday turning out to have a timeshare to sell or a hard-luck story tucked away ready to bring out once trust is won. On the other hand the quote’s charm was lessened for me by the fact that there seemed no reason that the narrator shouldn’t already have realised that Faustine simply wouldn’t hear him if he poured his heart out.

By the close the narrator comes to understand what’s going on and the implications for his love. For me, the final few pages are the best in the book as the narrator responds to his situation and creates meaning from it. His response has a certain questionable beauty which I can’t explain or discuss without spoiling this utterly for future readers. It’s just a shame that he has to understand so little along the way and ignore so many evident incongruities in order to make it all work.

It’s rare I write a review this negative and all the more so when as here the book is well written. I may well read more Casares just because he plainly can write. For me though Invention was contrived with character and behaviour painfully twisted to serve the demands of unrelenting plot and situation. I didn’t think the payoff worth the journey.

Other reviews (and a note on the translation)

Several, and mostly glowing. Kaggsy describes this as “perfect” and a “five-star read” here; Gautambhatia pays considerable tribute to the book here in a review I’d describe as itself being perfect and a five-star read, not least for his clearly marked spoiler section; other reviews of interest (though more ambivalent ones to my eye) are from Grant of 1st Reading’s blog here and from Jacqui of Jacqui Wine’s journal here.

Finally, there’s a good piece here on the problems of the translation. Unfortunately it appears it’s pretty poor with plenty of changes, needless tidying and outright omissions. It looks like Casares meant it to be even more obvious to the reader what’s going on than it already was to me. I think that might have helped, because it would have brought out the intentional artificiality of the narrator’s obtuseness by making everything all the more apparent. It’s a shame. I may not have liked the book but Casares deserved better.

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19 Comments

Filed under Argentinian fiction, Casares, Adolfo Bioy, South-American fiction, Spanish

19 responses to “It has been, again, as if she did not see me.

  1. I was thinking this would feel artificial and then you used the word. A pity. I have a copy somewhere which I’ll read at some point as I already own it

  2. Sorry this wasn’t a success for you. As you know, I loved it, but it would be boring if we all liked the same thing! 🙂

  3. I’ll certainly be interested to see your thoughts if you do Guy. For me it’s both too artificial and yet not artificial enough. It’s incredibly contrived – the holidaymakers go out in torrential rain as if it were a sunny day but the narrator notably never comments on whether they get wet or not. That though for me would be a very obvious thing to notice and highly relevant. Similarly, when Morel walks over the flowers the narrator doesn’t comment on whether or not they’re actually crushed. There’s a sense of Casares withholding obvious information to manage the plot. If it were more blatant then I think it would actually work better (at least I wouldn’t have been wondering if the narrator were in exile for an unlawful level of sheer stupidity).

    But, and it’s quite a sizable but, I’m a minority on this. Most love it.

  4. Indeed Kaggsy. It’s why I was very happy to link to your review with its very different conclusion!

  5. Oof! While I liked this more than you did, I wasn’t blown away by it – and I can see your frustrations given the points you’ve expressed here. Casares raises some interesting themes about mortality and the pursuit of immortality, but he doesn’t really take them very far. Maybe what’s lacking here is the depth and richness one might expect from this type of novel?

  6. Jonathan

    I read it a few years ago and my reaction was similar to yours. I was a bit underwhelmed and found it a bit clumsy really.

  7. I think that’s right Jacqui. It could use greater depth and richness, and a less dim narrator. It felt a bit Ian McEwan to me – everything slavishly serving the plot and point regardless of the nonsense it makes of character behaviour.

    Jonathan, quite.

  8. I’ve had this book for a while and for some reason I’ve not gotten around to reading it. I don’t think I bought it for more than curiosity about the author. Since it is short, the polarization of views makes me more curious to give it a try, just to see where I land. Your review, if negative, is very constructive.

  9. The kind of book that’s more interesting to think about afterwards than it is to read.

  10. Rough, I’m glad you found the review helpful still. I do think negative reviews have an onus on them to try to be clear if nothing else. There’s not much point in just saying “I didn’t like it” which anyway doesn’t speak at all to quality since it’s quite possible to like a fairly bad book and not like a good one (depending on genre, subject, style and so on).

    Mimic, quite so, quite so.

  11. I agree with you that the last few pages are the highlight of the book. I’d re-read the book just for those.

    A few of my friends to whom I hawked the book disliked it intensely because, in their view, Faustine was a caricature in a manner that suggested an underlying sexist current to the book.

    Casares’ wife – Silvia Ocampo – has a series of short stories, which I would recommend, if you liked Casares’ writing.

  12. I suspect the book suffers from Borges’ endorsement – it’s probably (as with Casares’ work in general) meant to be more entertainment than ‘literature’. Also, as with any use of genre, the reader’s knowledge of that genre can make a difference to their perception.

  13. That’s an interesting comparison with Ian McEwan – not one that had crossed my mind before, but I think I can see what you mean by it. I’ve found him very hit or miss – well, more miss than hit in recent years. I’ve pretty much given up on him now unless I have to read him for book group. Solar was a definite low point in his output – I suspect a lot of readers were turned off by that one.

  14. A character named Morel, another named Faustine, flowers and people on holiday. Is there a Proust reference somewhere?

    I wasn’t fond of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casarès. I thought it sounded fake.
    It seems that you had the same problem with this one.

  15. Interesting on Faustine. I didn’t find her a caricature – we only see her through the narrator’s eyes and it’s not like he ever really gets to know her. He falls in love with an idea of her more than with a real woman. I do plan to read Ocampo – I strongly suspect she may be more my writer than Casares.

    Grant, yes, he oversells it. I’d probably have enjoyed it more if I’d expected a bit of light pulp SF than some literary masterpiece.

    Jacqui, I literally threw Amsterdam across the room on finishing it. That was me for McEwan. To his credit at least he made me care about the book.

    Emma, I think definitely, yes, re the Proust reference. As you may recall I rather liked Where There’s Love, There’s Hate. It is very artificial though (I suspect the difference between artificial and fake may be nothing more than how much one likes the book in question…)

  16. Nick

    I did struggle a bit with this one, for the same reason: too much SF reading! Some passages did seem long.
    I did like Where There’s Love, There’s Hate and also would recommend Ocampo’s short stories.
    Melville House is fantastic, just like NYRB. It’s great when you can nearly blindly buy any book from a publisher.

    I did throw Saturday away… I’m not even sure I did finish it. I did like some of his other books though (Chesil?). I have Solar on my shelves so might try it at one point.
    I just assumed that McEwan was like Murakami to me: either I love his books and short stories or I really hate them.

  17. I don’t have the impression Solar is one of the successes. Chesil might be. Agree on Melville House and I definitely plan to read the Ocampo short stories.

  18. I missed this first time round Max.

    Agree with the consensus that this was a bit of a let-down (although it’s a long time since I read it – it was in fact the 3rd NYRB I ever bought). Maybe we expect too much of it, and it is in fact an esprit de jeu, not to be loaded with so much weight and interpretation? – that, I tell myself, or else I am just not able to figure it out.

    I read about half of the collection of Ocampo’s stories – mean to go back and finish them. Very strange and varied, was my initial impression – much more “meat” to them then in this slim fairy tale.

  19. Sorry Ian, I missed your comment. Glad you agree. I think you may be right that it’s an esprit de jeu, and as Grant says it may be that Borges’ endorsement oversells it to its detriment.

    Incidentally, I read Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre last night which very explicitly alludes to this. If I hadn’t read this I’d have missed the ending of Memory Theatre entirely. Though to be honest if I had to sum up my main concern with Memory Theatre it’s that while it’s well written and funny it does depend a bit too much on the reader getting the references.

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