The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

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After reading both Crime and Punishment and The Three Musketeers this month, I really needed something quick and easy, engaging, and yet unique to catch my attention and give myself a break from the excellent but long masterworks my mind has been wrestling for the past three or four weeks.

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares was a perfect book for such a time. Although I read the novella quickly and enjoyed it simply as a fantasy story, it has depth that I suspect would benefit from more serious reading and study.

An unnamed narrator has fled to an abandoned island to avoid serving a sentence. After a few months, strange visitors, including a beautiful woman, arrive. His reaction of paranoia caused me to wonder at first if the story was really a psychological study. However, I quickly came to see that it is a science fiction/ fantasy story that questions reality.  Suffice it to say that things are not as they appear on a few different levels. In the introduction, Suzanne Jill Levine writes, “[Bioy’s] narrators say less rather than more, inviting one to read between the lines” (page xiv). I think that is a perfect way to describe what is going on, and what Bioy Casares wants us to find in the story.

I was intimidated by Bioy Casares because I knew he was friends with Jorge Luis Borges and I didn’t really “get” Borges when I read him last year. I was delighted to find The Invention of Morel to be such a quick and engaging read, and yet one that has depth if I chose to read it on a deeper level in the future. (I checked out the Spanish original as well, but since it’s been a heavy reading month for me, I chose not to read it at this time. Maybe I’ll try Spanish when I decide to revisit it!)

I realize I haven’t shared very much about the book. It’s less than 100 pages, though, so I wanted to avoid spoilers. If this mysterious and fantastical island sound like it appeals to you, you should give it a try. I have to say I’m also curious to read The Island of Moreau by H.G. Wells which was somewhat of the inspiration. Have you read that book?

If my word isn’t enough, take the word of Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares’ close friend and literary mentor. He did not hesitate in his praise:

To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole. (from the Prologue by Jorge Luis Borges, page 7)

I can’t say I loved it quite that much, but I certainly did enjoy it.

A question: I say “science fiction/fantasy” because I’m not sure what category it fits in. It’s supposedly explained by science, but I suspect such science is actually impossible. What makes a novel science fiction? What makes it fantasy?

I picked up this book because I saw it in the New York Review Books catalogue. The Spotlight Series is highlighting this small publisher in May. Sign up before April 30 to invite them to your blog!

Reviewed on April 23, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’ve been super-intrigued by this novella ever since I saw the Alan Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad and then learned that it was inspired by a book (which frankly, I have trouble imagining)! Thanks for the reminder to get to it one of these days. 🙂
    .-= Emily´s last post on blog ..Almost No Memory =-.

  • This book sounds really fascinating; I’ve never heard of it before! Like you, I’ve never had much luck with Borges, but your review gives me hope that I might enjoy this one quite a lot. It also sounds like it was a really good translation, which is something I’m trying to pay more attention to when it comes to books not first and foremost in English.
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..“Elizabeth Costello” by J.M. Coetzee =-.

  • I immediately knew this one was NYRB because of the cover! I love how distinct they are. Also, thank you for the Spotlight Series shout-out 🙂

    My differentiation between fantasy and sci fi is odd- I KNOW when a book is one or the other, but I can’t describe why. Sci fi I always think of as taking place in the future. Fantasy- either the present or the past (or a SENSE of being in the present or past).

    This sounds like a really interesting novella, even though I’m not quite sure what it’s about 🙂
    .-= Aarti´s last post on blog ..With Reverent Hands: Call it Sleep =-.

  • OKay… so I admit, I read your description and went “OK… so I know it’s about an island?” I looked it up on Wikipedia, and saw that it was also inspired by the death of Louise Brooks. I am now really, really intrigued. Will have to put this on my list, thank you …
    .-= Jason Gignac´s last post on blog ..Charlotte Mew =-.

    • Jason, yeah, I didn’t say much in this post. I knew next to nothing going in, though, and I really enjoyed that. And like I said, I’d have to read it again to really “get” it, I’m sure. I just liked it on a superficial level this time around!

      I don’t know who Louise Brooks is. Off to find the Wikipedia entry…

  • Funny, I had never heard of Bioy Casares until just recently and now he seems to be popping up everywhere. I have Asleep in the Sun on my TBR shelf and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Interesting question about the difference between sci fi and fantasy. I don’t usually mind if the science is “impossible” as long as it’s internally consistent. On the other hand, my husband recently pointed out that the scenario described in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is fatally flawed: without plant life the carbon cycle would be disrupted and everyone would have suffocated. Now I can’t take that book seriously at all any more!

    • Fredegonde, Apparently this book was mentioned on a TV show. I don’t watch tv, but maybe that is how I heard of it….

      Interesting fact about The Road. I haven’t read that yet.I wonder if I’ll be all annoyed now when I do. 🙂

  • I’m SO glad you enjoyed this – as you know, I just checked it out from the library and can’t wait to read it. I actually skipped the part of your review where you discussed the plot b/c I want to know absolutely nothing about it beforehand.

    And a funny thought … I think that I added this book to my list (for the LOST challenge) thinking that it was actually THE ISLAND OF MOREAU – go figure!
    .-= Heather J.´s last post on blog ..Old Man’s War =-.

    • Heather J., I don’t really talk about the plot at all in this post. It’s a very non-helpful post in terms of what it’s about! I think that’s the best way to approach the book.

  • Fascinating book – I just read it for the second time, and found a whole host of priceless things that I had missed out on the first reading. His work is a lot like Borges, but it also reminded me of Kafka, and of Philip K. Dick (very strongly). I just reviewed it myself.

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