Often, I have dreams in which people close to me who have died are brought back to life — sometimes fully living, sometimes as what my dream-self understands to be a hologram. This is probably pretty common, and I usually think nothing of it, but this morning I woke after one such dream and thought instantly of a book I’d read around this time last year.
The Invention of Morel was originally published in 1940 by Argentinian author Adolfo Bioy Casares — a good friend of Jorge Luis Borges, who, in his prologue to Morel writes of the book, “To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” Indeed it is not.
The book itself is physically small, a short 103 pages — not including the nine or so original pen and ink drawings scattered throughout this New York Review of Books edition (which only just recently brought the book back into print after a long absence on the shelves). But the amount of plot progression and innovative thinking that unfolds in such a limited space is incredible.
Essentially, this is the story of an unnamed criminal on the lam who has taken shelter on a seemingly empty island to escape jail time for a crime undisclosed to the reader. At the time the story opens, the protagonist is wading in the marshy lowlands, hiding from a group of strangers who seem to have invaded his island and who he fears with a paranoid obsession are there to capture him on behalf of the police.
Emboldened by the visitors’ seeming disregard for his presence, he gradually ventures nearer and nearer the island’s few architectural installments: a mansion-like structure of a kitchen and bedrooms, called the “museum,” its adjacent pool, and a small chapel.
From afar he develops an obsessive affection for one of the visitors, a woman, whom he observes day after day, for weeks, sunning herself alone in the grass. And when, after vacillating for weeks, he works up the courage to speak to her, he is utterly ignored. It’s as though she’s looking right through him — it’s as though everyone is looking right through him, as he enters the museum and is entirely ignored by the party of visitors.
Every day the visitors play “Tea for Two” loud enough to be heard across the island; every day the woman suns herself. The protagonist begins to notice the pattern and — in what is maybe the most brilliantly conceived plot twist ever — he discovers these people are not quite as they seem.
In the prologue, Borges writes of Morel, that Casares “renews in literature a concept that was…expressed in memorable cadences by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
I refuse to say exactly what is revealed by the brilliant ending of the book — because it would spoil the story completely — but suffice to say Casares’s magical realism is prescient of a technology we now have today.