The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, translated by Ruth L.C. Simms #1940Club

My plan to take a few days off over Easter turned into a somewhat more extended break and as such I am a day late for the 1940 Club hosted by Kaggsy and Simon.

The Invention of Morel is hard to categorise. It’s slim pages manage to encompass science-fiction, modernism, mystery and romance. To explain too much of the plot would spoil what is a tightly structured and carefully paced plot, but it’s safe to say that Casares created a meditative exploration of love, life, death and the nature of what it means to be human.

The novel is narrated by an unnamed convict who is on the run from the authorities for an unnamed crime. He has been hiding out on a tropical island, rumoured to infect anyone who lands on it with a deadly plague. So far, the fugitive has remained healthy and has settled into relative comfort in an abandoned museum, church and swimming pool initially built to house potential guests. He might be lonely and he may be putting his health at risk, but all that is preferable to the law catching up with him.

His solitary existence is one day shattered by the sudden and inexplicable arrival of a group of tourists, led by the titular Morel. Convinced they will report him to the authorities if they find him, he hides out in tidal marches close by, watching to try and work out why the group are there and what they plan to do. He finds their behaviour somewhat strange. Every day they listen to the same two songs repeatedly and dance outside regardless of the weather. There seems to be no sign of a boat, which must surely have brought them to the island.

The music and the shouting woke me up a few hours later. I have not slept soundly since my escape; I am sure that if a ship, a plane, or any other form of transportation had arrived, I would have heard it. And yet suddenly, unaccountably, on this oppressive summerlike night, the grassy hillside has become crowded with people who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad.

As time passes, he notices other odd phenomena: there are now two suns and then two moons in the sky. A wall demolished with a crowbar is undamaged the following day. Alongside these oddities, he finds himself increasingly attracted to one of the guests in particular, an insular and attractive woman named Faustine, who sits by herself on a rock daily. The narrator watches her and comes to fall for her, relived to see that she rejects the advances of Morel. The narrator finds himself attracted to one of the tourists in particular, a woman named Faustine.

She watches the sunset every afternoon; from my hiding place I watch her…But I still feel…that if she only looked at me for a moment, spoke to me only once, I would derive from those simple acts the sort of stimulus a man obtains from friends, from relatives, and, most of all, from the woman he loves.

When he finally builds up the courage to talk to Faustine, he is horrified to discover that she either cannot see him, or is intentionally ignoring him. So begins the narrator’s quest to work out exactly what is happening on the island. Are these people a hallucination? Is the narrator himself already dead and haunting them as a ghost? I won’t give away anything more of the plot, but Casares’s scenario is both more interesting and more existential than either of those options would suggest.

Illustration of Francine by Norah Borges de Torres

The Invention of Morel is expertly plotted, with Casares dropping hints to the happenings on the island throughout and bringing his fascinating narrative together with skill and surety. What could read as a slight science-fiction story, becomes, in his hands, an inquiry into the very nature of being human and how our knowledge of mortality and our need for romantic connection drives our entire lives. It is also wonderfully translated, with Ruth LC Sims perfectly capturing the pace and atmosphere that makes it such a propulsive read.

I had hoped to read one more book for the 1940 Club but life just got in the way, so instead I’ll go off and see if I have anything in the 746 that might work for the next Club in October, which is stopping off in 1962.

Novellas in November The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

14 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Lovely review, Cathy. It’s a very intriguing book, isn’t it? I think you’re right in saying that it’s a story about mortality / the pursuit of immortality, the nature of happiness and the enduring power of love. A thought-provoking one-sitting read.

    Liked by 1 person

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