A collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges’ and the husband of poet and short-story writer Silvina Ocampo, the next author in our Beyond Borges series is recognised as one of the most innovative and imaginative names in Argentine writing.
Most known for his brief but resounding novel ‘La invención de Morel’, Adolfo Bioy Casares left an indelible impression on Latin American literature, reflected by the array of prestigious prizes and international honours he was awarded during his lifetime.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1914, Bioy received a privileged upbringing as the only child of an aristocratic family. His first work of fiction was published and personally financed by his father and, encouraged in his writing, he went on to become a regular contributor of the literary review, ‘Sur’.
It was through the magazine’s founding editor, Victoria Ocampo, that an 18-year old Bioy would be introduced to an already influential Borges. With 15 years between them, a friendship emerged that, over the course of their lifetimes, saw them collaborating on various screenplays and anthologies of gauchesque poetry, Argentine poetry and fantastic literature.
Interestingly, if Borges had shunned the influence of his older mentor Macedonio Fernández, he seemed content to share the spotlight with Bioy throughout his life, making efforts to secure for him the same recognition and acclaim he had garnered for himself.
In 1936 they founded their own short-lived review, ‘Destiempo’, and later, under the collective pseudonyms H. Bustos Domecqe, B. Lynch Davis, and B. Suárez Lynch, published a series of satirical sketches and detective stories.
But it was with his own name, and one short but impressive novel in particular, that Bioy would leave his lasting mark as an author.
The Invention of Morel
In his prologue to Bioy’s 1940 novella, ‘La invención de Morel’, Borges can be seen as campaigning on behalf of the 26-year old writer, foreseeing potential criticism of the work and setting out a watertight defence of both the novel and the genre before it had even begun. But, described by both Borges and the Mexican author Octavio Paz as “perfect”, it seems likely that the novel would have stood up alone.
Prioritising a well-developed plot over character, it tells the story of a fugitive surviving on a remote island in the Indian Ocean. When the narrator’s solitude is disturbed by the arrival of a group of visitors, he finds himself falling in love with a beautiful woman who he calls Faustine. Unfortunately, his attempts to win Faustine’s affections are fruitless, since she and the other visitors are merely projections of a holographic machine invented by Morel.
Seamlessly constructed, the novel reveals its author to be a meticulous stylist, and suffers from neither from the chaotic influence of surrealism or from the techniques of automatic writing that marred his early work. Characterised by concise sentences, it showcases Bioy’s less is more style that is said to have pushed Borges himself towards a leaner prose.
Introducing elements of mystery, science fiction, horror, and romance, ‘La invención de Morel’ emerges as an immaculate and accomplished text. Bioy himself considered it his first satisfactory work, saying: “I understand that something is wrong with my way of writing, and I tell myself it’s time to do something about it. For reasons of caution, in writing the new novel, I don’t strive to make a big hit, just to avoid errors.”
In doing so, he created a novel that required readers to patiently suspend their disbelief. Only at the end, does he reveal an explanation that not only expands the scope for interpreting the novel, but makes everything that came before appear essential and carefully planned.
With no superfluity in either plot or language, ‘La invención de Morel’ imports necessary references and subtle clues that can only be appreciated on a second read.
The Reinvention of Adventure
Stemming from the rigid logic that underlines their work, critics have drawn comparison between Bioy and the Czech master of literature, Franz Kafka. Though Kafka often favoured the third person narrative, Bioy heightened the reader’s sense of discovery by telling his stories through diary notes, letters and documents left behind by his protagonists.
Though he wrote and published consistently until his death in 1999, ‘La invención de Morel’ will always remain the most remarkable for its revitalisation of the adventure genre and the truly original concepts it introduced.
Described by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño as “the first and the best fantastic novel in Latin America” it has inspired a steady stream of films, including Alain Resnais’ ‘Last Year at Marienbad’, Argentine director Eliseo Subiela’s ‘Hombre mirando al sudeste’, and most recently, the story lines of the US television series ‘Lost’.
Although the former made efforts to deny its Latin influences, Subiela’s film was proud to affiliate itself the Argentine classic and featured a scene where a passage from the book was read. Producers of ‘Lost’ only hinted at the inspiration for their storyline by showing a principle character named Sawyer reading the book – a small gesture which had dramatic effect on the sales of the New York Review Book’s English language translation.
Widely acknowledged as an innovative and original writer and the author of an Argentine masterpiece, Adolfo Bioy Casares was awarded various literary honours inside Argentina abroad. Among others he received the Mondello Prize for best foreign writer in Italy in 1984, an international prize from the Latin American Institute of Rome in 1986, a Miguel de Cervantes prize in Spain in 1991, the Alfonso Reyes prize for Latin American letters in Mexico in 1991, and the Roger Caillois prize awarded to him in France in 1995.