Novel Thoughts - The Invention of Morel (Alfredo Bioy Casares, 1940)
Updated: Apr 2
There are two big questions an author needs to answer when choosing to write in the first person. For whom is your narrator writing, and why are they writing? Whether or not a novelist answers these questions at the beginning of the writing process, or as they stumble through drafts; the question is answered explicitly by the narrator, or implicitly, the answers are simply unavoidable.
Without them, the author can’t begin to establish the tone a first person narration needs to convince readers of its authenticity. Unlike third person narrations, the first person asks the reader to engage in an extra leap of faith – someone else (not the author), wrote this text.
Adolfo Bioy Casares’ working life was dedicated to literature. He had written several novels he considered failures before finding success, both commercial, and in his own estimate, with The Invention of Morel. The title has a double-meaning, and it is a novel full of technical cunning. Casares’ first-person narrator is a nameless fugitive from justice who isolates himself on an abandoned island. The narrator makes his intentions for writing explicit in the second paragraph and returns to the question of why he is leaving his account of events several times over, revising subtly his intentions as events over-take him. It is a fantastic tale that depends completely on this trick of sober credibility.
A collaborator of Borges, Bioy Casares was a progenitor of Argentinian modernism, but the technique of presenting fiction as a true, first-person account, is as old as the 17th century novel, which is sometimes said to have grown from the protestant habit of journaling records of achievements and confessions before God. Journalists, the theory goes, struck upon the idea of creating fictional journals - first person narrations that weren’t true. The exemplar is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Given Casares’ literary education, it is no coincidence that Crusoe, and Casares’ childhood favourite The Island of Dr Moureau (note the title similarity), are also narratives about narrators abandoned on islands. All three novels are hunting the same big fish found in metaphysical themes.
Morel is both adventure story, like Crusoe, and tale of the fantastic, like Moureau, but its strangeness also connects with the meta enquiries of Borges and the Argentinian modernists. By appending false footnotes to the first-person narration, the author works hard to help us take seriously the fantastical nature of events on the island. What Casares knows about the first person, is that it presents an opportunity to relate a partial, unexplained, subjective viewpoint, with credibility. If some of the vital mechanics of the fictional universe go unexplained, or if exposition is left wanting, we forgive the narrator more than we would the omniscient author. Moreover, gaps in knowledge, and even weak credibility itself (what was the crime of the fugitive narrator? Why do some parts of the account feel unbelievable? What year are the events of the narration?) can be explained as part of the narrator's ineptitude, and used to generate the pace and plot drivers of tension and mystery.
If a first-person narrator wants to abruptly cut from scene to scene or leap into digressions of thought, it feels natural to the reader, and credible, in a way that more often feels frustrating, unnatural, and disorganised, in the hands of the third person narrator who is the invisible, organising hand of narration.
Casares also knows that plain, almost scientific, language, is effective when describing incredible events, and his narrator goes about the task of telling their story like a man who has never had much occasion to write, but now, in a last act, desperately needs to articulate with as much precision as he can muster, the nature of events he witnesses. He tries, he fails, and he tries again. It is a literary author working hard to manifest a narrator who himself has little literary skill. Something is sacrificed here in the reader's emotional connection with the narrator. We do not know enough about the life of the narrator for heightened sympathies to be generated, but the story relies instead on our intellectual engagement with the puzzle the narrator presents.
Famously, Morel is said to have been an influence on the scripts of Last Year In Marienbad, and the TV series 'Lost'. For a slight novel to have influenced both the course of Left Bank cinema and the contemporary era of extended television series, is no mean feat.