Book Review: The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Translator: Ruth L. C. Simms

Original Language: Spanish

Year of First Publication: 1940

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2003

Number of Pages: 103

Publisher: The New York Review of Books

Genre: Fiction

Sub-genre: Fantasy

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

Casares with his future wife, poet and novelist Silvina Ocampo, 1939.

While reading things by and about Jorge Luis Borges, the name Adolfo Bioy Casares comes up fairly often. He was a close friend and collaborator of Borges’s and shared many of his writing interests, among them fantasy literature, adventure stories, and metaphysical fiction. His most famous book, The Invention of Morel, combines elements of all three into 103 brief pages.

Unfortunately, to say all that I want to say about this book requires that I give much of the plot away. So, consider yourself warned.

After being wrongfully convicted of a crime, our unnamed protagonist (sometimes referred to as “the Fugitive”) escapes to a deserted island somewhere around Polynesia. All is very quiet until one day when a boat arrives carrying a group of vacationers. Initially, the main character tries to avoid these people, afraid that they might turn him in to the police. Soon, though, obsession surpasses paranoia when he finds himself falling in love with one of the vacationers, a woman named Faustine. He tries to speak to Faustine and to give her gifts, only to find every time that she behaves as though she can’t see or hear him. After following the group for some time, the Fugitive learns that these people aren’t really people at all: they are projections of people. Morel, the man who organized the trip, is a scientist who has invented what he calls “a new kind of photograph”: a machine that records people and places, with all of their sensory details, in three dimensions, then artificially recreates that particular moment in time. What the Fugitive has been watching is not a group of people on vacation but rather the “record” that Morel took of their vacation, played over and over by machines hidden on the island.

Casares first conceived of this story after becoming infatuated with the American film star Louise Brooks, whose photo adorns the cover of the NYRB edition of The Invention of Morel. He never met Brooks, of course, and he quickly realized that he was not in love with a woman at all but with the idea of her that he saw projected in her films and in the publicity surrounding them. It almost goes without saying that the central fear of the story—that we could mistake mere appearance for reality—is possibly even more relevant in our day than it was in 1940. Not only are we inundated with film and print media just as Casares was, but we also have the internet, on to which people can project any image they wish of themselves or of others.

And it’s not just the folly of mistaking projection for reality that concerns Casares: it’s also the possibility that we could knowingly embrace the projection while discarding its corresponding reality. This idea plays out in Morel when the Fugitive learns Morel’s reason for making the record in the first place. Apparently, Morel was in love with Faustine and she did not return his affection. Because he couldn’t be with her in real life, Morel brought her and all of her friends to the island and recorded them so that he and Faustine could be together forever, at least in appearance.

But it’s more sinister than that: after experimenting with the machines that take and project the “photographs,” the Fugitive finds out that whatever and whoever is photographed eventually disintegrates, like an old wax record played too many times. This means that all of the people from the record of the vacation, including Morel himself, are now dead. Morel knew this would happen before he brought his friends to the island, but he was so in love with Faustine and so obsessed with the idea of existing eternally by her side in some fashion that he did it anyway, without letting anyone know what was going on. He essentially murdered her, and everyone else, so that his fantasy would not have to yield to an inconvenient reality.

It is a very dramatic turn of events, but in its exaggeration, it highlights a very common, very human problem: we don’t like to see what is right in front of our faces. We would prefer to surround ourselves with projections—of what we’ve believed to be true, or what we wish were true, or what others say is true—than to actually face truth. Another drawback of modern media is that it has made it easier than ever for us to wall ourselves off from anything that conflicts with our preferred view of the world. But this is by no mean a problem that technology created. Resistance to what we wish were not true is a part of human nature. It’s only when we make the choice to look outside of our own point of view that we can engage honestly with the world and the people in it.

This is what great fantasy literature does: weaves a spell not so that we can disconnect from the world but so that we can learn to see it more clearly. This is what The Invention of Morel does and why it is such a great novel.

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