nthposition online magazine

The invention of Morel

by Seamus Sweeney

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"Dreamlike" is a disconcerting word when used to praise a work of art. "The dream has nothing to communicate to anyone else... and is for that reason totally uninteresting for other people" pronounced Freud, whose famous work on oneiromancy was based on his own dreams - perhaps thus proving his own point. Anyone who has been bored at a party by a detailed description of a weird/freaky/astonishing dream of utter banality will concur. "Dreamlike", when used to describe art, is usually shorthand for "boring and impenetrable but vague enough to perhaps seem artistic."

The invention of Morel, however, deserves the reclamation of "dreamlike" as a word of unambiguous praise. Adolfo Bioy Cesares is somewhat in the shadow of Borges, his great friend, in the South American literary canon. They collaborated on detective novels various other projects; Borges once called Bioy (as he was universally known), 15 years his younger, his "secret master" for helping to lead him from Baroque overwrought prose to a leaner, Classical style. Suzanne Jill Levine, in a perceptive introduction that pleasingly doesn't reveal any of the secrets of the narrative to follow, observes that Borges meant this in a double sense; the great Anglophile was well aware of the meaning of "master" as a designation for a young boy.

Borges, for his part, led Bioy away from an over-suffusion with Surrealism and Joycean stream-of-consciousness. In this volume, Borges' "prologue", really an introduction, is a defence of the fantastic in literature. Like the prefaces to his own collections, it is an understated mini-essay steeped in the familiar erudition.

Octavio Paz wrote of The invention of Morel that it "may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel" and Borges writes "to classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole", all of which has the ring of exaggeration, imprecision and hyperbole. But it is "perfect", in the sense that it is an exquisitely formed little tale with no superfluity of plot or language. The apparently slightly arbitrary features of the physical setting make perfect sense in the end. It has the property of the detective story, the sense that nothing is included that won't directly affect the plot - as Borges observes, "the odyssey of marvels he unfolds seems to have no possible explanation other than hallucination or symbolism, and he uses a single fantastic but not supernatural postulate to decipher it.".

Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad was modelled on Bioy's book, and the tale is suffused with loss and regret and a haunting beauty. According to Levine's introduction, a number of films and TV movies have been based on the book, surprising perhaps because of its emotional delicacy but unsurprising because of the major role film and the representation of reality come to play in the novella. Bioy's own fascination with the Twenties star Louise Brooks, whose pensive, bobbed image adorns the cover, informed the genesis of the story.

The story is of an unnamed narrator, a fugitive from Venezuela after some unnamed crime, who comes to an island in what seems to be the Indian Ocean. As the narrator's informant, an Italian rugseller in Calcutta, puts it "Chinese pirates do not go there, and the white ship of the Rockefeller Institute never calls at the island, because it is known to be the focal point of a mysterious disease, a fatal disease that attacks the outside of the body and then works inward." The disease is hardly mentioned for most of the rest of the book, only to play a crucial part in the neat way it all comes together.

On the island, the narrator finds he is not alone. A group of men and women - they seem like holidaymakers, but he is unsure - are also there. Hiding from view, he falls in love with one of the women, and tries to make his feeling known to her. Like Levine in her introduction, I am reluctant to say much more about the plot; too much, perhaps, has been given away already. Borges' comparison with The Turn of the Screw is apt - it is an eerie, brief masterpiece, of the right duration to make for a supremely vivid afternoon's reading.