A few weeks ago when I reviewed Spring Tides (my review here), the ever-perceptive John Self asked whether I had also read The Invention of Morel (La Invención de Morel, 1940; tr. from the Spanish by Ruth L.C. Simmons, 1964). Though I couldn’t say there’s any thematic similarities, similar elements abound: an island with only a few developed structures, an unnamed man and named woman, loneliness, and the tides — spring tides, to be exact. As fate would have it, I had purchased The Invention of Morel only a few weeks earlier and had it packed with me while on holiday. At a mere 103 pages, each densely packed and adroitly controlled, it was definitely a pleasant holiday read.
The cover image that NYRB Classics chose to place on this book is a 1927 publicity still of film star Louise Brooks. It is both misleading and perfect. Louise Brooks apparently inspired this novel, but it’s a spoiler to say how. So I won’t.
In fact, I don’t really want to say much of anything about the book — it’s worth exploring with little to no foreknowledge. In what I have written below I have tried hard not to spoil this book for anyone. I think the best place to start, then, is the first paragraph. On a first read, it sounds like Bioy Casares is simply establishing the setting:
Today, on this island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time. I moved my bed out by the swimming pool, but then, because it was impossible to sleep, I stayed in the water for a long time. The heat was so intense that after I had been out of the pool for only two or three minutes I was already bathed in perspiration again. As day was breaking, I awoke to the sound of a phonograph record. Afraid to go back to the museum to get my things, I ran away down through the ravine. Now I am in the lowlands at the southern part of the island, where the aquatic plants grow, where mosquitoes torment me, where I find myself waist-deep in dirty streams of sea water. And, what is worse, I realize that there was no need to run away at all. Those people did not come here on my account; I believe they did not even see me. But here I am, without provisions, trapped in the smallest, least habitable part of the island — the marshes that the sea floods once each week.
Astonishingly, this first paragraph is packed with plot elements. It’s a very different paragraph after having read the book. What we know now (well, we’ll know it in a few pages) is that our narrator is hiding out on a mysterious island. He is an escaped convict, nervous that these newcomers will turn him in to the authorities. Even when he figures out that they are not aware of his presence, he continues hiding out in the marshes. The part of the island he had to leave was much more pleasant. There was a museum, a chapel, a swimming pool. All were completed in 1924 but then abandoned, leaving these strange, lonely structures. Despite these strange, lonely structures, it doesn’t appear that anyone will be visiting the island. Indeed, that is why the narrator came here. When escaping, he was told:
“Chinese pirates do not go there, and the white ship of the Rockefeller Institute never calls at the island, because it is known to be the focal point of a mysterious disease, a fatal disease that attacks the ouside of the body and then works inward.”
Then why did these strange people, who look like snobbish vacationers, come? The plot thickens when our narrator falls in love with one of them. From a hidden vantage point, he watches an ambiguous woman as she silently watches the sunset. She hardly misses a night, and neither does he. Hating the hope it engenders, the narrator nevertheless thinks of ways he can meet the woman, whose name, he learns, is Faustine. But as he gains courage, he finds that something is keeping them apart, no matter how close he gets to her.
It’s a very lonely novel, and the loneliness is nearly driving the narrator mad.
I dreamed of Faustine. The dream was very sad, very touching. We were saying good-bye; they were coming to get her; the ship was about to leave. Then we were alone, saying a romantic farewell. I cried during the dream and then woke up feeling miserable and desperate because Faustine was not there; my only consolation was that we had not concealed our love. I was afraid that Faustine had gone away while I was sleeping. I got up and looked around. The ship was gone. My sadness was profound: it made me decide to kill myself.
One of the best things about The Invention of Morel, though, is that even when we readers understand the nature of what is going on, Bioy Casares doesn’t stop there. Many lesser books stop with cleverness. In this one, the intelligent construct is only incidental to an even more intelligent examination of love, lust, loneliness — and the ambiguities of immortality.