Friday, February 19, 2010

Mysterious inventions

I'd picked up The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, some time ago, along with a few other New York Review Books classics, whose acquisition was in part inspired by the NYRB challenge I've been following with interest, but mostly, they're simply beautiful and very eclectic books that feel good, in your head and your hands. So it was after having chosen this title that I thought to look up the author and see if I ought to know more about this book before reading it that I discovered Sawyer spent an episode of Lost being interrupted while trying to read it. (Man, does he make reading sexy!)

There's not much I can tell you about this book. Jorge Luis Borges (to whom the novella is dedicated) in his prologue said that "To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole." A mere 94 pages of story, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it when I came to the end, but by now I've read it about two and a half times, and I find it hard to argue with Borges' judgement.

The story begins thus:

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 each week.

I am writing this to leave a record of the adverse miracle. If I am not drowned or killed trying to escape in the next few days, I hope to write two books. I shall entitle them Apology for Survivors and Tribute to Malthus. My books will expose the men who violate the sanctity of forests and deserts; I intend to show that the world is an implacable hell for fugitives, that its efficient police forces, its documents, newspapers, radio broadcasts, and border patrols have made every error of justice irreparable. So far I have written only this one page; yesterday I had no inkling of what was going to happen. There are so many things to do on this lonely island! The trees that grow here have such hard wood! And when I see a bird in flight I realize the vastness of the spaces all around me!

We don't really know what the narrator is doing on this island, but it soon becomes a love story, and then it's a mystery, and, well, I can't say much more. It's a slim novella, and the titular invention doesn't take hold (or at least become clear as having taken hold) till about half way through, but it's full of mood and mystery and musings on consciousness and the soul. And time. And memory. Love. Immortality.

Being a loyal watcher of Lost, I delighted in finding similarities between the TV show and this novella, and I couldn't help but read for clues to Lost's resolution. I'm fairly certain there is no answer to be found in these pages, but it's fun to draw parallels and theorize about the outcomes, to revel in the interconnectedness.

- The action takes place on a desert island in the South Pacific.
- The island is rumoured to be the focal point of a mysterious, infectious disease.
- The narrator is a convict on the run from the law.
- He comes across a group of people, living in a civilized if somewhat anachronistic manner.
- He appears to be caught in a time loop.
- He considers the possibilities that these people are ghosts or aliens.

I highly recommend The Invention of Morel for literary Lost fans.

It's par for the course for me that the introduction is better saved for later. This one doesn't spoil the story per se, but it's more meaningful after having a sense of Bioy Casares' style and getting a feel for the way he transitions through seemingly different genres.

According to the introduction, Morel has become a kind of cult cultural touchstone; for example, it's referred to in the Argentinean film Man Facing Southeast (1985) as a possible inspiration for the eponymous man's story. (I repeat this here because that's one of my favourite movies of all time!)

If you don't want spoilers, don't read the Wikipedia entry on this book.

Introduction to this edition, by Suzanne Jill Levine.


claire said...

Hee. That pic of Sawyer reading it is enough to make me want to.

Emily said...

I really want to read this! In addition to Lost (which I must admit I've stalled out on watching after reaching the end of Season 3), have you heard that it inspired the Alain Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad? My partner & I went to see it at the local art-house theater, and I'd be super-intrigued to read any book that film was "based on"! Sounds like the book is appropriately and deliciously bizarre. Give the film a gander if you're a fan of the weirdly atmospheric. Anyway, thanks for the reminder about Morel!

Richard said...

I've had a copy of this at home unread for the last 3-4 years, Isabella, so I'm way jealous that you've actually read it and I still haven't! I've also wanted to buy the English translation you have b/c almost any book with Louise Brooks on the cover is worth owning. Those NYRB titles tend to inspire runaway collector fetishist tendencies in me, so I'm not sure this post was all that good for my wallet. Thanks anyway, I guess!

Isabella K said...

Thanks for the tip, Emily! I know of Marienbad by reputation, but I'll make a point of checking it out now.

Now, if NYRB released all the titles Sawyer's read... [drool]