The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Imagination is a powerful beast. It can drive a protagonist to believe in almost anything.

The Invention of Morel is a hidden science fiction gem. I only stumbled across it by chance. It’s not widely regarded as science fiction, and there is no indication on the front cover, other than the mention of prologue by Jorge Luis Borges, that this novella is anything other than a work of literary fiction. The blurb in the back gives more away, but not wishing to spoil the plot too much I won’t repeat it. Borges has described it as ‘a masterpiece of plotting’, which is not bad considering this edition is just under 100 pages long, and includes illustrations. It has been compared with HG Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, although having read both, I’m not sure why.

Casares was an Argentinean poet, critic, librarian and author. The Invention of Morel was his first ‘novel’. His last was 1993’s An Uneven Champion, published the year of his death.

The story starts with a confession. The narrator is a criminal and a fugitive. He has escaped to an island that, legend has it, was abandoned due to an outbreak of a fatal disease. Our protagonist starts a journal once a group of tourists arrive, charting his fear of being discovered. However, as in all good fiction, he falls in love. He hides and observes while the group take over an abandoned building known as the museum. The woman, who he discovers is called Faustine, sits on the edge of a cliff every day, watching the sunset. She is often joined by a man who is called Morel. Giving way to his emotions, our narrator decides he must approach Faustine and declare his love. However, she ignores him. Other encounters with the tourists have a similar result which leaves us and the narrator unsure of what is going on. Then, the tourists vanish and there is no clue, no sign that they were ever even there. And this is the point when imagination takes over. The imagination of the diarist speculates on what is happening to him. Is he hallucinating? The imagination of the reader speculates on what type of story this might be? Is it a ghost story? Magic realism? The unreliable narrator who has no credibility (recall, he is a self-confessed criminal). But then they return, and the storyteller begins to come across identical copies of dead animals. The tourists act oddly in the heat, as if it was cold, and there appears to be two suns and two moons. So, are we now on an alien world? Or is it an insane asylum? Morel reveals the true nature of his invention to the characters in the tale, but I won’t do that to the reader. It is for you to discover.

What is clear, however, is that the nature of the story is revealed in a wholly satisfying way, after toying with the paranoid narrator and the unsure reader alike. Even the title can be seen as either an invention created by a character called Morel, or the narrator’s invention of Morel to explain the madness around him. Casares is a skilled storyteller, leading us on a short yet interesting journey. The descriptions of the island and of the characters help to make you part of this odd little scenario. Evidence of its influence is clear in Lost but a case should also be made for The Matrix and Dark City, amongst others. The key to the success of the story, however, may lie in the separation of self. The narrator is constantly held apart from the tourists and especially from Faustine. He is unsure of himself and even his environment. He misleads the reader (it is not known if deliberately or not) with references to his earlier writings. Everyone exhibits their flaws. There is talk of the soul…Whether one accepts that it is a treatise on love and loneliness, or a clever science fiction allegory on the consequences of science, this forgotten novella is well worth reading.

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