Inspired by his fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, Adolfo Bioy Casares’s novel The Invention of Morel is on one level a stoic evocation of the pains and frustrations of romantic love and on another level a profound metaphysical mystery story. Along with his friend and mentor Jorge Luis Borges, Bioy Casares (1914–99) believed that the mission of the 20th-century writer was to react against the effusiveness of 19th-century realist and psychological novels and their representations of human experience. Against the notion held in the previous century that the production of a voluminous novel with a condensed or nonexistent story was the height of skill, Bioy Casares sought to redeem the overlooked centrality of plot, inspired by the adventure, mystery, and science fiction of writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, G. K. Chesterton, and Edgar Allan Poe. With The Invention of Morel, he achieved his most successful synthesis of metaphysical speculation and taut and suspenseful plotting.
The narrative, written by an unnamed narrator and presented by an editor who makes occasional interjections to clarify or contradict details of the narrative, takes the form of a record of time spent on an island. The beginning of the novel details the narrator’s arrival at the supposedly deserted island, despite having received warnings that it is the focal point of a mysterious and deadly disease. His decision to make the journey is not rationalized, but it has a distinctly fatalistic resonance: “But my life was so unbearable that I decided to go there anyway . . . . I have the uncomfortable sensation that this paper is changing into a will.” Before arriving, he is told that around 1924 a group came to the island and built a museum, a chapel, and a swimming pool, abandoning the island as soon as the work was completed. One night, another group of people unaccountably appears on the island and occupies the built-up part of it to “dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort.”
The narrator satisfies himself by observing the visitors from the marshy lowlands of the island and exploring the buildings under the cover of night. On one excursion, he discovers a strange-looking generator and a series of what look like bomb shelters in the museum’s basement. Soon after, he encounters a young woman who regularly comes to sit on some rocks to watch the sun set. The narrator quickly becomes fascinated by her and eventually summons the courage to address her. When he does so, she gives no response and behaves as though she has not seen him. As his love for her deepens, he conceives of several ways to attract her attention: He cultivates a garden and spells out messages for his with flowers, yet she continues not to notice these. Further events on the island puzzle the narrator: Some of the other guests fail to notice him despite his proximity; a bearded man named Morel appears and speaks to Faustine, the woman on the rocks, the narrator, consumed with jealousy, eavesdrops on the pair only to find that their conversations and actions are strangely repetitive. One day, two moons and two suns appear in the sky.
Several explanations are considered by the narrator to account for the unusual occurrences on the island: that he has caught the island’s fabled disease; that he is invisible; that the visitors are either extraterrestrial or insane; or that the island is a kind of purgatory for the dead. None of these are satisfactory, though, so the narrator takes advantage of his apparent invisibility to watch the other inhabitants of the island more closely. He attends a gathering of the group hosted by Morel, who explains his titular invention: Morel confesses to the visitors that he has been filming them since they came to the island, and, coupled with the aid of recorders and projectors, his invention will ensure that the week they have spent there will be recreated and replayed for the rest of eternity on the island. His audience is incredulous and then grows angry at the suggestion that for those who have been “taken” by Morel’s invention, fatal consequences await. The narrator soon comes to realize that the figures he shares the island with are projections of the people recorded by Morel’s invention for one particular week in the past, after he had purchased the island and had its few buildings erected. When he recognizes that Faustine’s image may correspond to a dead woman, or to one he might never meet, his life on the island becomes intolerable. He investigates the machines in the museum basement and learns how to operate them so that he can turn on the recorders and insert himself alongside Faustine into the eternal projection: “I hope that, generally, we give the impression of being inseparable, of understanding each other so well that we have no need of speaking.” This accomplished, the narrator discovers that the island’s illness is a result of having been recorded by Morel’s invention; the narrative closes as he is dying, pleading to be allowed to enter the heaven of Faustine’s consciousness.
One of the most noticeable features of the novel is its terse style, which maintains a constant mood of suspense throughout. The reader has no authority upon which to rely but the narrator’s, and because his motives are ambiguous and undefined, one finds oneself doubting the veracity of his statements. Might it be possible that the island and its inhabitants do not exist, and the invention is the narrative itself? Like many South American writers of the period, Bioy Casares delighted in exploiting the indeterminate status of the writer in his fiction. Who, he asks, is controlling what happens in the novel; is it Morel, the narrator, or the author?
Aside from drawing inspiration from the intricate plotting of those writers mentioned above, the novel has a very specific reference point in H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. Both novels take the form of a found manuscript of questionable legitimacy and feature an island dominated by a strange personality engaged in hubristic activity. While the novel contains many elements of Wellsian science fiction, its eventual investigations and implications are of a more metaphysical than scientific nature. Doctor Moreau’s grotesque creations appear early in Wells’s narrative to create a sense of shock, and the novel can be read as a direct engagement with contemporary issues in Victorian science, such as vivisection. Bioy Casares adopts Wells’s framework but only allows Morel’s decidedly banal creations to reveal their dreadful nature at the novel’s climax, thus prompting his metaphysical enquiry about the nature of time, materiality, and immortality.
As with the best science fiction writing, The Invention of Morel proved to be intuitive and prophetic in its anticipation of the moral and philosophical debates surrounding everything from monitoring and surveillance to reality television. Inspired in part by the early years of film, the novel played its part in the stylistic development of the genre. Last Year at Marienbad, 1961, scripted by Alain Robbegrillet and directed by Alain Resnais, was heavily influenced by The Invention of Morel and was the first cinematic depiction of two people who coexist spatially in two separate temporal dimensions. The notions underlying this innovative idea preoccupied Bioy Casares throughout his writing: the comic and tragic lengths to which lovers will resort, the inability to master one’s ultimate destiny, and the essential solitude of life.
Bioy Casares, Adolfo. The Invention of Morel. Translated by Ruth L. C. Simms. New York: New York Review Books, 2003.
———. Memorias. Barcelona: Tusquets Editores, 1994.
Camurati, Mireya: Bioy Casares y el alegre trabajo de la inteligencia. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Corregidor, 1990.
Curia, Beatriz. La Concepción del cuento en Adolfo Bioy Casares. Mendoza: Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Instituto de Literaturas Modernas, 1986.
Levine, Suzanne Jill: Guía de Adolfo Bioy Casares. Madrid: Fundamentos, 1982.
Martino, Daniel. ABC de Adolfo Bioy Casares. Madrid: Ediciones de la Universidad, 1991.
Snook, Margaret L. In Search of Self: Gender and Identity in Bioy Casares’s Fantastic Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.
Suárez Coalla, Francisca. Lo fantástico en la obra de Adolfo Bioy Casares. Toluca: Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, 1994.
Toro, Alfonso de, and Susanna Regazzoni, eds. Coloquio Internacional en Homenaje a Adolfo Bioy Casares: Homenaje a Adolfo Bioy Casares: una retrospectiva de su obra (literatura, ensayo, fi losofía, teoría de la cultura, crítica literaria). Frankfurt, Vervuert, and Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2002.