The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, and The Houseguest & Other Stories by Amparo Dávila

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The Invention of Morel is a classic of Latin American literature written by one of its premier writers of the 20th century. These are facts, yet I only heard of it for the first time within the past year, and indirectly while reading about Jorge Luis Borges. Its author, Adolfo Bioy Casares, was an equal to his lifelong friend and collaborator during their respective lifetimes, but while Borges’ influence has spread with fittingly labyrinthian pervasiveness over all of literature since his death, Casares’ has faded – at least in regard to English speaking audiences. I make this judgement after looking for other books by the very prolific Casares in print/translation, and the only titles other than Morel I am able to find are another short fantastical novel, Asleep in the Sun, a collection of stories, A Russian Doll & Other Stories, and an experimental murder mystery he co-wrote with Sylvina Ocampo (another widely respected writer in her lifetime whose work remains almost entirely untranslated into English), Where There’s Love, There’s Hate. Even his collaborations with Borges appear to have faded out of print.

Morel is an eerie, hypnotic, and wildly inventive novella that deserves to be read and discussed alongside the best of Borges’ stories. The New York Review Books edition even comes with a prologue by Borges expressing his admiration for the novella with absolutely no restraint. And that is the last time I will mention Casares’ legendary friend.

Casares’ achievement deserves to be praised on its own terms. It would be an unforgivable sin for me to reveal too much about the story here; Morel‘s haunting power lies in the way Casares reveals the mysteries of the dream/nightmare world he creates. A man travels to an abandoned  island to flee an unspecified crime he committed. Present on the island are a chapel, a museum/residence, and a pool. The man has been on the island for months when one day he discovers people have appeared. Forced into hiding to avoid detection, he watches them from a distance. They are dressed in strange clothes as if from another time period, and endlessly drink and dance, playing the same two songs on a loop. Each day a woman comes to a hill to watch the sunset, and the man, who is living by the ocean, watches her and becomes infatuated. He devises ways to get her attention, but it’s as if she is in a trance and is unable to notice anything he does. In desperation he takes more risks, and discovers that everyone on the island seems to be in the same trance as the woman. Then one day everyone has vanished and the man is able to return to his life of isolation, until just as abruptly they return again as if they had never left.

This is all I will say. There are abundant hints to what the strange circumstances on the island signify, but nothing can prepare you for the genius of the climactic twist/revelation. It’s the sort of discovery that gives the entire book new meaning and complexities, and encourages re-readings.

Casares was inspired by his fascination with the film star Louise Brooks (Pandora’s Box), and his visually haunting and structurally disorientating style in turn inspired the Alain Resnais film Last Year in Marienbad. It influenced the major figures of the Latin American Boom of the 1960s-1970s, including Julio Cortázar, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and Octavia Paz. Casares deserves to be as widely read as the figures he inspired.

Houseguest

The Houseguest and Other Stories is a collection by Amparo Dávila, a Mexican writer of strange stories that drew her being compared to Kafka and Shirley Jackson. This collection is her only work that has been translated into English, and is composed of 120 pages and twelve stories.

The collection is hit-and-miss. The stories often feel like beginning fragments of ideas, interesting yet not fully developed. On top of that, Dávila is fascinated by the idea of hauntings disguised by real life, and explores this idea repeatedly with repetitive results. “Moses and Gaspar” is about a man whose brother dies and leaves him as the guardian of two humans with doglike qualities or dogs with human-like qualities, which is the case is never explicitly said but the former is implied. The story is a tale of grief that is by turns disturbing and funny, and the tonal shifts work well. Another highlight is “Fragment of a Diary,” which is composed of diary entries by a woman who spends her days sitting on the steps of her apartment focusing all her energy on the feelings of agony and pain. Her tortuous life’s work is continually disrupted by a woman passing her on the stairs whose smiles and beauty make it impossible for the narrator to feel the agony of existence. These stories work because they balance the macabre subjects with a twisted sense of humor.

Alternatively, the title story is about a housewife that finds herself terrorized by a mute guest, a bland setup for a vaguely satisfying climactic act of violence. “Musique Concrète” is about a woman who is abandoned by her husband for another woman, and is then haunted by the mistress with strangely frog-like qualities. Here the serious and eerie tone does not mix well with all the bulging eyes and comical croaking. The collection as a whole feels like a talented writer dabbling with the themes that fascinate them, and which will lead to more fully realized future work. I hope to see more of Dávila’s work translated so I can see if my suspicion is correct.

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