Jorge Luis Borges called it perfect, as did the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. The Invention of Morel by Argentine novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares is a fantastical novella, a carefully constructed conceit. Spare and tautly plotted, this work of “reasoned imagination,” as Borges described it, is the offspring of the speculative fiction of H.G. Wells, the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson and the theological detective stories of G.K. Chesterton. Not coincidentally, it also echoes the themes of Bioy’s mentor—that master of the rational, philosophical and speculative–J. L. Borges.
In a prologue to the 1940 first edition of The Invention of Morel, reprinted in the New York Review of Books’ English edition, Borges argues that the psychological novel exhausted itself in masquerades of realism that were “formless” and “tantamount to chaos,” whereas the plot-driven adventure story, though often called puerile by critics, is alive and well—witness the number of detective stories written and devoured today. Borges goes on to compare Bioy’s novel to the Turn of the Screw and The Trial.
I respectfully disagree. While The Invention of Morel is a finely cut jewel, it has all the warmth of a white diamond. If there is fire, it is locked deep inside its facets. I won’t spoil the book’s conceit. Suffice to say, it resolves with a fantastical premise that seems less fantastical today than when it was written. Bioy’s conceit reminds me of such theoretical postulates as the multiverse proposed by modern physicists—those quantum ideas that can’t be experienced or proven but the mind can deduce, just as it can consider a mathematical equation, syllogism or paradox. “Isn’t that interesting,” you conclude and then get on with your life. As much as I enjoy Borges for such intellectual exercises, he’s the last writer I’d choose to remind me of what humanity is about. The thrill of James’ ghost story or the terror of Kafka is not derived from the plot, as Borges maintains, but from the psychology underlying the plot, not from what happens when but from the interpretation of what may have happened.
According to Borges, “there are pages, there are chapters of Marcel Proust that are unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and emptiness of each day.” Yes, but I’ll take those pages full of miserable, messy humanity any day over the meticulous, reasoned imaginations of Bioy or Borges, as intriguing as they are.