Fiction Machine: Alfredo Bioy Casare's The Invention of Morel
By Jay Johnson
If you're in search of a tight, little novella to kick-off you're summer reading season, I must recommend Alfredo Bioy Casare's enigmatic The Invention of Morel. Written in 1940, this book may be short and a quick read, but imagery, text and questions will pleasantly linger for weeks after you've read it for the second or third time. As always, The New York Review Books presents an informed, stylish and durable edition of a work that is important to several areas of writing: science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, adventure and Latin American literature, in general.
Bioy, a contemporary and friend of Borges, weaves a trance-like confession of an obsessed fugitive into a search to discover the devices behind the bizarre actions of the deserted island's mysterious visitors and their leader, Dr. Morel. Science fiction and adventure readers, admirers of fantasies like The Island of Dr. Moreau and the television series Lost, and fans of Alain Resnais' film L'année dernière à Marienbad - the film, written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, author of The Erasers, is influenced by Morel - would thoroughly enjoy this brilliant and overlooked work.
In the introduction to The Invention of Morel, Suzanne Jill Levine writes, “for Borges and Bioy, the fantastic was a far richer medium compared to what they then considered the impoverished artifices of nineteenth-century realism” (vii). This sentiment certainly plays out in the novella through multiple layers of discourse.
Perhaps the most interesting and rich example of fantasy coming into conversation with the “impoverished artifices” of realism is centered on the climax of the novella, when Morel delivers his speech. The narrator, whose is writing is posed as that of a diarist, writes that he had grabbed the notes that Morel read off of to deliver his address to the guests on the island. At this time, the reader is given the fourth footnote of the novella, which states:
“For the sake of clarity we have enclosed the material on the yellow pages in quotation marks; the marginal notes, written in pencil and in the same handwriting as the rest of the diary, are not set off by quotes. (Editor’s Note.)” (65).
First, it is important to note that the Editor is clearly a construction of the novel; there is no true Editor to the New York Review Books’ edition. One of the functions of the Editor, in this footnote, is to reinforce the artifice of the narrator as diarist. If there is an actual sheaf of yellow pages, ostensibly there is a narrator, who introduced us to this yellow sheaf. By extension, there is a Morel, who delivers a speech and invents a machine that captures perfect representations of its subjects—and all the other repercussions of Morel’s invention. In this respect, the existence of an editor’s footnote supports the artifice of realism.
While the existence of an Editor perpetuates the conceit of the novella, the actual text of the note achieves the opposite. The voice of this footnoted section is the same voice found throughout the novella, without exception. Moreover, the form of the text in this section casts serious doubt on the reality of the rest of the work. Morel’s speech takes the form of a scene, as prescribed by the footnote. His speech appears in quotes, while the narrators marginalia appear as narrative observation. The physical existence of Morel’s speech is differentiated from the diary conceit maintained throughout the remainder. If the appearance of this special section is indistinguishable from the other sections, however, how is the reader to believe in this artifice of realism? That two differentiated mediums are ultimately indistinguishable undermines the conceit of realism in The Invention of Morel.
Given the initial sentiment of the introduction, this destabilization of realism is ultimately not surprising. On a tertiary level, the “Editor’s Note” further problematizes notions of realism, as well as the boundary of where a text ends (in the sense of author-editor-reader relationship) as well as authority of narrators and editors. In the eighth footnote of the novella, the Editor refutes the narrator’s citation of his own text, declaring that the excerpt the narrator states to appear at the beginning of the text does not exist (95). Examining the text itself, the narrator is vindicated: the exact text does appear near the beginning of the book. Thus, the Editor has failed a basic condition of her position: that of existing outside of the text, in a position of reference to the artifact itself.
Entering The Invention of Morel through the instance of Editor’s Note to the climax—Morel’s speech—points to a reading supported by the introduction: “In Bioy’s paradoxical universe the symbol turns upon itself: his texts are filled with tantalizing allusions which are no longer keys but rather enigmatic ciphers” (xi). Rather than providing the reader with clues, the Editor undermines the possibility of a literal, realistic interpretation of the text.
 This is certainly one reason why Borges considers The Invention of Morel to be an example in excellent plotting. Morel’s speech is not only centrally important to understanding the text on the most basic level; it also holds many insights into a variety of interpretive avenues.