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The Invention of Morel (1940)

by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,058605,809 (3.91)122
Jorge Luis Borges declared The Invention of Morel a masterpiece of plotting, comparable to The Turn of the Screw and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Set on a mysterious island, Bioy's novella is a story of suspense and exploration, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious.   Inspired by Bioy Casares's fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, The Invention of Morel has gone on to live a secret life of its own. Greatly admired by Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Octavio Paz, the novella helped to usher in Latin American fiction's now famous postwar boom. As the model for Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet's Last Year in Marienbad, it also changed the history of film.… (more)
  1. 50
    The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells (chrisharpe)
    chrisharpe: Bioy Casares uses H G Wells' "The Island of Doctor Moreau" as a model for "The Invention of Morel". After Morel, the Wells tale is rather pedestrian, but still worth reading.
  2. 10
    The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe (chrisharpe)
  3. 10
    The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier (chrisharpe)
  4. 10
    Aura by Carlos Fuentes (chrisharpe)
  5. 02
    The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: An island with mysterious properties.
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» See also 122 mentions

English (50)  Spanish (7)  French (2)  Swedish (1)  All languages (60)
Showing 1-5 of 50 (next | show all)
I read that Borges praised this book, and indeed in the Introduction he says that "To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole." While I'm not quite sure it reaches those Olympian heights of accomplishment, this hazy, hallucinatory science fiction novella posed an enormous number of great questions. It begins as the simple diary of a man hiding from the world on a remote tropical island who encounters some mysterious intruders, but the slow revelation of its premise is eventually tied in with the main character's impossible, unrequited love in a way that also manages to function as a 1930s-era reaction to the invention of motion pictures with sound, which is pretty interesting from the perspective of 2016. Its simple, clear prose comes across well even in Ruth Simms' translation, which makes the otherworldly events of the novel more vivid in that H.G. Wells way (whose own The Island of Doctor Moreau is an obvious influence). And much like a Wells novel, Casares's work touches on broader social themes like the morality of technology, how it offers escape from nature, and its effect on population.

For the modern reader, nothing comes to mind so readily as the TV show Lost (which actually featured it in one of those winking character-happens-to-be-reading-relevant-literature moments). The unnamed protagonist is a fugitive from political turmoil in his native Venezuela who has escaped justice by traveling to a remote Polynesian island, which outsiders avoid due to its fearsome reputation for a wasting disease. Life is a struggle until a strange group of people show up on the island. They don't seem to notice him, but they come and go suddenly, have odd conversations with each other which seem to repeat themselves, and conduct mysterious meetings at one of the few structures which is safe from the unpredictable tides. He falls in love with Faustine, one of their number, but she seems oblivious to him, and he becomes obsessed with her potential relationships to the other members of the group. And then, in the course of his furtive explorations of the island, as he becomes gradually more and more determined to win over the oddly distant and unreachable Faustine, he discovers the secret behind their mysterious presence on the island:

"To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares - to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost)."

One of the group's number, the titular scientist Morel, has discovered a way to capture the life-energy of a person the way a camera captures their image or a microphone their voice, and store it so that the person is actually alive when the recording is replayed. There are two catches: one, that the process inevitably results in the death of the subject via that same wasting disease reported by outsiders (shades of the dissolving photographs in Back to the Future); and two, that the person within the recording is unable to interact with the outside world. Furthermore, Morel has set up the machine so that it's powered by the tides, replaying endlessly. So the fugitive is in love with a hologram that's stuck in an impenetrable Nietzschean eternal recurrence, pondering both how to reach the woman he can't stop thinking about, and what would happen if knowledge of this machine spreads beyond the island. He frequently references Malthus, obsessed with the power and yet the fragility of Morel's invention:

"When minds of greater refinement than Morel's begin to work on the invention, man will select a lonely, pleasant place, will go there with the persons he loves most, and will endure in an intimate paradise. A single garden, if the scenes to be eternalized are recorded at different moments, will contain innumerable paradises, and each group of inhabitants, unaware of the others, will move about simultaneously, almost in the same places, without colliding. But unfortunately these will be vulnerable paradises because the images will not be able to see men; and, if men do not heed the advice of Malthus, someday they will need the land of even the smallest paradise, and will destroy its defenseless inhabitants or will exile them by disconnecting their machines."

That pull-the-plug worry brings to mind an under-discussed aspect of the contemporary discussion about AI and uploaded personalities - why exactly would ordinary people devote huge amounts of resources to virtual consciousnesses if doing so meant lower living standards for everyone who wasn't an AI? In a Malthusian world, pies are always a fixed size, and since AIs would ultimately be fairly helpless without a protective phalanx of Terminator robots, I just doubt they'd get more than a tiny slice unless they truly offered fantastic advantages to the earth-dwellers who could easily find other uses for all the electricity they consumed (for an innovative solution to this very question, see Greg Egan's superb Permutation City). Morel's invention does allow for an eternal life free of outside constraint, as long as the machine is running, but of a very particular and limited kind. It turns out that he recorded his companions without their knowledge, reducing them to the mysterious wasting corpses that attracted the attentions of the protagonist to this island in the first place. He's invented something fantastic, but only those with the very highest amor fati would consider the fate of his victims anything but horrible.

Regardless, Morel's invention of a true life on record is an interesting metaphor for Casares' reaction to movie technology, as he based the unreachable Faustine on silent film star Louise Brooks, whose career dried up after films with sound became popular. As Marshall McLuhan said, media technologies are often as interesting for what they obsolete as they allow, and many successful silent film stars couldn't make the transition into the newly enhanced medium. Certainly for a lovesick exile from the world like the protagonist, a life spent not only watching a movie starring his beloved but actually entering into it and becoming a character alongside her must sound like heaven compared to certain lonely death on the island (the reference in Faustine's name to Faust is surely deliberate). All the more so because his suicide-into-immortality-by-machine at the end, recording himself in the hope that some future inventor would read his diary and find a way to splice his recording into Faustine's so that they could live together in perfect bliss forever, would almost certainly never happen (if the word "never" has any meaning to someone living out the same span of a recording over and over again). Despite our emotional connections to the characters in the films we see, they're ultimately just images, incapable of loving us or even knowing of our existence.

There's lots to admire here: atmosphere, plot, pacing, imagination, and philosophy; very different from the typical "man stranded on a desert island" story. While probably not perfect, it's without any flaws that matter, and I can't really think of anything I would change about it. Casares easily deserves a place alongside Wells and Verne in the pantheon of pre-postwar science fiction novelists for this novel alone. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
An odd tale of obsession and the ultimate simulacrum. A criminal fugitive escapes to a remote island where he tries to conceal himself from its inhabitants. He falls in love at a distance with a dark woman of few words (sadly all too common an archetype) and slowly uncovers the eternal secret that binds all to the island. The concept was interesting, but execution was lackluster. The narrator’s singular obsession with Faustine prevented richer introspection about the unique situation on the island. ( )
  jiyoungh | May 3, 2021 |
  chrisvia | Apr 29, 2021 |
I can't recall where I first came across mention of this book. I don't want to get into too much of what the plot is as it's almost entirely built around a big central mystery. It's clever and eerily prescient - the part on the back cover that describes it as being like a proto-Philip K. Dick novel (Dickian?) is very on the ball. Unfortunately, I don't know if I feel like Casares is/was up to the task he set himself - there are occasional flashes of inspiration but I thought the writing was pretty workmanlike. An interesting historical curiosity, but I don't know if it's worth hunting down. ( )
  skolastic | Feb 2, 2021 |
Mesmerising
Αν δεν ήταν η στεγνή, γεμάτη υποσημειώσεις (που σε έβγαζαν από το κλίμα του βιβλίου) μετάφραση θα ήταν 4/5. ( )
  NickosX | Sep 18, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 50 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bioy Casares, Adolfoprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
徹, 清水Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
信明, 牛島Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Borges, Jorge LuisIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Horst, Karl AugustTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Levine, Suzanne JillIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sabarte Belacortu, MarioleinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Simms, Ruth L. C.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Torre, Norah Borges deIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Jorge Luis Borges
First words
Hoy, en esta isla ha ocurrido un milagro.
Today, on this island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time.
Quotations
I intend to show that the world is an implacable hell for fugitives, that its efficient police forces, its documents, newspapers, radio broadcasts, and border patrols have made every error of justice irreparable.
...the memory of men - the probable location of heaven...
I believe we lost immortality because we have not conquered our opposition to death; we keep insisting on the primary, rudimentary idea: that the whole body should be kept alive. We should seek to preserve only the part that has to do with consciousness.
Perhaps my "no hope" therapy is a little ridiculous; never hope, to avoid disappointment; consider myself dead, to keep from dying. Suddenly I see this feeling as a frightening, disconcerting apathy.
We are suspicious of a stranger who tells us his life story, who tells us spontaneously that he has been captured, sentenced to life imprisonment, and that we are is reason for living. We are afraid that he is merely tricking us into buying a fountain pen or a bottle with a miniature sailing vessel inside.
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Jorge Luis Borges declared The Invention of Morel a masterpiece of plotting, comparable to The Turn of the Screw and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Set on a mysterious island, Bioy's novella is a story of suspense and exploration, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious.   Inspired by Bioy Casares's fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, The Invention of Morel has gone on to live a secret life of its own. Greatly admired by Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Octavio Paz, the novella helped to usher in Latin American fiction's now famous postwar boom. As the model for Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet's Last Year in Marienbad, it also changed the history of film.

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Jorge Luis Borges declared The Invention of Morel a masterpiece of plotting, comparable to The Turn of the Screw. This fantastic exploration of virtual realities also bears comparison with the sharpest work of Philip K. Dick. It is a story of suspense and a bizarre romance, in which every detail is a once crystal clear and deeply mysterious.
Inspired by Bioy Casares's fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, The Invention of Morel has gone on to find such admirers as Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Octavio Paz. As the model for Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet's Last Year in Marienbad, this classic of modern Latin American literature also changed the history of film.
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