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Bioy Casares, Adolfo 1914–

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Bioy Casares is an Argentinian novelist, short story writer, essayist, and screenwriter. He is an inventive, imaginative writer whose work is frequently compared with that of Jorge Luis Borges. Like his fellow Argentinian, Bioy Casares is preoccupied with labyrinths and metaphysical puzzles. He has also published under the pseudonyms Martin Sacastru and Javier Miranda, and has collaborated with Borges under the joint pseudonyms H(onorio) Bustos Domecq and B. Suarez Lynch. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

D. P. Gallagher

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Bioy Casares's novels and short stories are comic master-pieces whose fundamental joke is the gap that separates what his characters know from what is going on. The most notorious victim of that gap is the narrator of La invención de Morel, who frequently attempts to declare his love for one Faustine without realizing that she is a sort of holographic image who cannot therefore perceive his presence. Yet even the most trite situations that occur in Bioy's work contain the same fundamental dilemma. Thus his sex comedies in Guirnalda con amores or El gran serafin depict situations in which a man is convinced he has achieved a spectacular success only to discover that the girl's motives were notoriously less flattering than he imagined them to be. (p. 247)

Bioy Casares imposes upon his characters an adventure, whether plausible or fantastic, in order to reveal their comic puniness.

Traditional adventure stories (those of say Stevenson, Defoe, Wells or Verne) have long been dear to Bioy as they have to Borges…. Bioy Casares's novels, and in particular La invención de Morel and Plan de evasión (1945), are to a large extent readings of earlier, less sophisticated adventure stories. They are novels which reveal the extent to which the adventure story furnishes a dynamic dramatic form to express the gap that separates what a man knows from what there is. (p. 248)

Bioy's adventure stories emphasize the suspense and mystery of the adventures without in the end resolving them. Sometimes, they appear to be resolved; the concluding 'explanation' seems to fit exactly. But usually the attentive reader will find that an alternative explanation fits equally well…. Always the effect is one of bringing to bear on the conventional adventure story a new perspective, a new reading, one in which we visualize what is implied, what is at stake in stories which we traditionally hurried through as a 'good read', unaware, perhaps, of how much our breathless longing to reach the explanatory end was telling us about our fundamental ignorance. (p. 249)

Bioy Casares is not a trendy man, and it would be wrong to see the plot [of Diario de la guerra del cerdo] as a reflection of the current generation gap. The 'pig's war' designation is, I think, a coincidence topically speaking. The point is rather that Bioy has deliberately devised a somewhat abstract plot in order to show up certain archetypal mechanisms pertaining to persecution in general which would probably be disguised if the plot were more recognizably familiar, if the novel were about the persecution of the Jews for instance. If you make the object of a persecution in a novel a fantastic one, you are probably in a better position to investigate the nature of persecution in general. And indeed the novel parades all the structural mechanisms that perhaps all persecutions share. (p. 260)

[The plot of Diario de la guerra del cerdo is] an abstract game designed to expose the structure of persecution in an undisguised form, just as the plot of La invención de Morel is designed to expose the structure both of investigation and of communication. The more abstract the game, the more the padding which conceals the basic structure will be dismantled.

Much of what I have written so far about Bioy Casares's novels could be applied also to Borges's work. Borges too confronts limited hypothesizers with contingent reality, and Borges too forces his reader into a similarly intimidating hypothesizing enterprise with respect to the fiction he is reading. Yet Borges and Bioy Casares are very different writers. For instance, though both present characters whose most notorious characteristic it is to be limited, Borges would appear to be interested mainly in the mere fact that they are limited, whereas Bioy Casares is concerned to depict the specific forms their limitations take…. The difference in the two writers may be the difference between a novelist and a writer of lapidary short stories. Bioy Casares at any rate investigates the limitations of his characters in depth, and is as keen to depict the specific form their limitations take as he is to state the fact that they are limitations. (pp. 260-61)

Bioy Casares has a Chekhovian skill in dissecting pathetic details in the behaviour of his characters: little quirks, mannerisms, or accidents of dress for instance, which again serve to circumscribe their limitations. The comedy and the pathos is of course enhanced when the ruthlessly dissected characters believe their absurd behaviour to be vastly important. The joke rests on the gap that separates what a character believes to be important from what is important, on the character's sublime confidence in his insular perspective….

Language is the signature of Bioy Casares's characters. Their language tells us who they are, where they come from, what they are like—whether they are mad or in love or self-opinionated or timid and in particular what their values are. For Bioy Casares's characters are consistently attempting to impress each other, and his narrators to impress us, by imitating what they assume to be an impressive model of style. The language of each one is an unconscious parody of what they or the class or profession from which they come believe to be an impressive way of speaking or writing. (p. 262)

In Bioy Casares's books,… we have observed a use of language that is not only polysemantic in the Borgesian sense but also socially and psychologically polyphonous. And on the evidence of Bioy Casares's work, who could honestly deny that the books they have written together such as Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi (1942) may well contain more of Bioy than of Borges? For only in Bioy's work is there anything comparable to that splendid gallery of parodied voices that Bioy and Borges have construed under the pseudonym of H. Bustos Domecq. (p. 265)

It would be absurd to claim that Bioy Casares was a 'better' writer than Borges through being, in a sense, a more 'complete' writer, one more deeply rooted in a given historical reality. As Borges once said, 'La literatura no es un certamen'. It is anyway churlish to divide two great friends by comparing their value. But there do seem to be healthy signs that Bioy is now beginning to be identified as something apart from Borges, and that is a different matter. (p. 266)

D. P. Gallagher, "The Novels and Short Stories of Adolfo Bioy Casares," in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies (© copyright 1975 Liverpool University Press), Vol. 52 No. 3, July, 1975, pp. 247-66.

Emir Rodriguez Monegal

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The story told by Bordenave [the protagonist of Dormir al sol (Sleeping in the Sun)] is very strange but it takes place in the context of everyday trivia. He is a common man, who runs a watch-repair shop, is married to Diana, a beautiful and tyrannical woman…. One day his wife becomes a patient in Dr. Samaniego's clinic. Bordenave tries, very inefficiently, to bring about her release. He even buys a female dog which he immediately baptizes Diana, to give to his wife as soon as she comes home. At last, Diana (the wife) does come home; however, she is a different woman: she is still beautiful but now she is also gentle and pleasant. Bordenave recognizes her former self less in his wife than in the bitch, and the solution to this mysterious transformation takes him into labyrinths of confusion until Bordenave reaches the point where he is sent to the Clinic to suffer a decisive mutation.

As in Bioy Casares' former novels, there is in this latest one a baffling situation, the menace of God-knows-what sort of surgical operations, a solution which is not supernatural but still quite fantastic. Also as in his former novels, a different text (invisible but "quoted" in the present text's filigree) suggests false leads, parallel horrors and thrills. I am talking, of course, of H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), a story which today is probably better known in its movie version: The Island of Lost Souls…. [In Wells' fiction, the sinister Dr. Moreau] changed animals into men by means of sadistic operations. The readers or spectators will probably remember that Dr. Moreau was not successful in maintaining the metamorphoses of the beasts intact and, little by little, they reverted to animality.

In three of his five novels to date, Bioy Casares makes some allusion to that novel. In The Invention of Morel (1940), it is the image of Moreau's tropical island and the name of the inventor (Moreau-Morel) which are "quoted"; in A Plan for Escape (1945), Dr. Castel's experiments to alter the vision of the prisoners of Devil's Island provide both the common location and the similarity in the operations. In Dormir al sol, Bioy Casares returns to Wells in a way at once more literal (Dr. Samaniego really manages to metamorphose men into beasts) but less scientific than the Wellsian prototype since Wells had placed his fiction very close to what the science of his time could believe possible while Bioy Casares displaces his tale to the realm of pure fantasy. Dr. Samaniego (a name that in Spanish brings echoes of a famous XVIIIth century writer of animal fables) is really less interested in the scientific side of his operations and more concerned with the permutation of souls between men and animals. From this point of view, Bioy Casares' latest novel is less indebted to Wells' fiction than to Bioy's own previous works.

What Dormir al sol is really about is the impossible possession of the loved one. Bordenave loves his wife but she runs away. When Dr. Samaniego sends her back home, changed for the better, Bordenave refuses to accept the change. Yes, the new Diana is better, she is more loving, she is more faithful, but she is another woman. Very soon Bordenave has to admit that one loves somebody even because of his/her defects. The new Diana won't do.

This subject traverses, like an invisible thread of fire, all Bioy Casares' novels. In The Invention of Morel, what really mattered was not the fantastic machinery which could project three-dimensional images on the air, but the impossible love between the narrator and the woman he used to meet in his walks on the island: a woman made of film images. When the protagonist finds the machine that projects the images and learns how to make it work, he changes himself into an image that can be projected alongside her image. Thus, he is able to walk with her, to talk to her, to create the fiction that she is also looking and talking to him. That is what love is, Bioy Casares seems to say: a sustained fiction. The true invention of Morel is that one, and not the amusing but impossible "scientific" machinery. (pp. 41-2)

Bioy Casares has changed style. In his more recent books, adventure is no longer at the center of the text or is no longer so blatantly presented. In fact, adventure has been internalized and disguised. In choosing for his last two novels a deliberately gray part of Buenos Aires (the world of the poor middle-classes) and the ominous times of the first post-Peronist era, Bioy Casares has demythified the adventure story. If Diana is not a sophisticated woman, she is no less complicated than the Faustine of The Invention of Morel…. The body triumphs, the animal finally wins. But now he, like his "missis," is an animal and they can finally meet in this new dimension of flesh. That end, which is only suggested in the book, is really as horrid as Dr. Moreau's. As terrible as the (apparently) happy ending of The Invention of Morel. If the human body is a prison and one cannot possibly escape from it, what will become of the animal body in which Bordenave is finally imprisoned? (pp. 42-3)

[The changed] perception of reality [is] the theme which unifies Bioy Casares' five novels. In The Invention of Morel, the woman that the protagonist loved was only a cinematographic image in three dimensions, in Diary of the War of the Pig, a political fiction masks the allegory of the corruption of the body; in Dormir al sol, the "other" Diana is no longer the woman Dr. Samaniego sends back home but the bitch. In the three novels, a different perception of reality is the secret miracle performed by fiction.

The same thing happens in the other novels written by Bioy Casares. In El sueño de los héroes (The Dream of Heroes, 1954), Emilio Gauna relives the same carnival night twice…. [The same reality] produces two parallel and different versions of life. In A Plan for Escape, Bioy Casares advances a theory of perception. Dr. Castel, a rather literal disciple of William James, alters the perception of reality of the Devil's Island inmates by a series of delicate operations on their senses…. Once the perception is altered, the external world becomes another, we become another.

This is what Bordenave finally discovers: the body of a dog in which he is caught is still a prison, but all bodies are prisons, although bodies are our only means of salvation.

Bioy Casares' characters are not only imprisoned in their bodies. They are also imprisoned in another body, even more impossible to escape. It is the body of the novel. It is not casual that out of five novels, four consist of "reports" or "diaries" written by somebody to communicate the protagonist's adventures. (p. 43)

The only apparent exception is El sueño de los héroes, a third-person narrative. But even in this novel, the impersonal narrative is interrupted at least four times to identify an "I" who seems to be a witness to the adventure. In all cases, either using a first person account or a third person narrative, Bioy Casares attracts the attention of the reader to the fact that he is reading a text. There is a motive behind this decision.

Practically all Bioy Casares' characters write, although they are not professional writers. They are forced to write by a sort of compulsion created by the circumstances in which they are placed….

Writing is another prison…. In the text, inside the text, or in the lines in between the texts, is the only reality these characters will ever have. They are made of words, and not of bodies and souls. Nevertheless, their words talk about the fire of love, the horror of being in prison, the despair of loneliness….

Bioy Casares has developed in five novels and several volumes of short stories the infinite parable of man, imprisoned in a fiction, menaced by "adverse miracles," trying to escape from the circularity of a writing which, fatally, always refers to itself. In Dormir al sol, this writing reaches a sort of warm, luminous perfection. In maturing and mellowing, Bioy Casares has learned how to substitute for the most unbearable complexity of A Plan for Escape and the stories of The Celestial Plot, a fluid narrative style which is already evident in El sueño de los héroes and reaches a perfect balance in the stories of Guirnalda con amores (A Garland of Love, 1959). In his last two novels, this balance has reached a perfect, unassuming mastery.

But if Bioy Casares did learn how to hide the structural complexities of his former books in plain-looking, deceptive narratives, he has not renounced the basic quest which marks all his work: the quest for reality. Inscribed on the body or the soul of the woman they love (a real text which is decoded through desire) or written on paper, the code of reality is what Bioy Casares' characters are after. They are in search of an elusive gnoseology of reality which is a gnoseology of fiction: the fiction covered by the name of Adolfo Bioy Casares. There one can find the final unity of an extraordinary series of texts…. (p. 44)

Emir Rodriguez Monegal, "The Invention of Bioy-Casares," in Review (copyright © 1975 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Fall, 1975, pp. 41-4.

Deborah Weinberger

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[The] world of Bioy Casares is endless: a world of unlimited possibilities for new worlds which then will form part of it. Everything Bioy Casares writes offers a world or postulates the possibility of worlds different from the one we inhabit, or think we inhabit. Sometimes a character may be a world apart from others and from his surroundings. Frequently the worlds we discover in the works of Bioy Casares are fantastic, and consist of rearrangements of the elements of our own "real" world. Because of their departure from a natural order, these new worlds are at first not understood by those who stumble into them. Unaware that they have discovered new worlds, they only understand that they are faced with something strange and puzzling. Thus, Bioy Casares' fiction frequently involves a character's confrontation with an enigma.

Access to these enigmatic worlds is through perception and the character must consider his mental perception of his sensory perceptions. In his attempt to decipher the unknown then, the character is limited in two ways: he can only perceive what his senses permit him to perceive; he can only interpret his sensory data according to his ability to use his imagination. Accordingly, Bioy Casares demonstrates through the characters' reactions to these enigmatic worlds the inadequacy of perception, both sensory and mental.

A Plan for Escape is based on a theory of perception, although this theory and the importance of sensory perception and possible variants on it, are concealed throughout most of the novel, which is taken up with Henri Nevers' perception of the mystery and the evidence which might explain it. Nevers realizes that there is something odd happening on Devil's Island but since he is forbidden entry, he tries to explain the oddness by the evidence he gathers from observation, from what others tell him and from his own imagination. (p. 45)

Nevers is not an objective observer who can collect evidence without preconceived notions as to what the explanation may be. Because he wants to avoid any serious complications, he would rather see the mystery of Devil's Island explained by something quite innocent, Nevers often deliberately chooses what he will see with that end in mind. As a result of his physical state, his perspective, his emotional condition, his lack of objectivity, Nevers' perceptions—even the information on which he must base his conclusions—may not be accurate. His perceptions may be flawed, as may be his reasoning.

Throughout the novel, the reader follows Nevers' observations and conclusions, watching them change as Nevers obtains evidence to support or destroy his latest theory. (p. 46)

[When] he has discovered the true explanation, Henri rejects it because it is too fantastic to be acceptable…. He will not doubt that he sees what he sees, but since he cannot believe it, he must find an explanation which will not contradict what he can accept: he concludes that they must be mad, because four men slowly rotating in outrageously painted cells cannot be fit into a sane scheme. Hence, Castel is mad. (Ironically, Henri's conclusion is similar to Castel's plan for curing mental illness by changing the patient's sensory perception of the world to conform with the patient's mental view of it.)

In Nevers' rejection of a fantastic explanation there is another example of the inadequacy of perception. It is not sensory perception which is the problem here, but the mental perception: Nevers rejects what he considers an impossible explanation for the apparently inexplicable behavior of Castel because it does not conform to what one may normally expect. His lack of imagination, his thinking only in set patterns which allow him to accept only what he already knows, are further limitations on sensory perception. The perceptions themselves—no matter how accurate—are useless, except as an aid to gaining understanding or knowledge. Nevers neither perceives entirely accurately nor makes the most of his perceptions. (p. 48)

It is not necessary for there to be a change in the senses for the image to change: it is enough that the interpretation of the sensory perceptions change; in other words, that the mental perception or understanding of the information provided by the senses be different. For example, Nevers and Bernheim see the same thing but interpret it differently; Castel and Nevers make the same observations about the nature of things, but their mental perception of such ideas differs.

Of course Nevers is correct in maintaining that symbols are the only way man has for dealing with reality, but he does not realize the significance of his idea. For him, an object is that object, not a symbol of an object. In Castel's newly created world, there are no objects as we perceive them, merely symbols which are interpreted as objects because of the alteration in the prisoners' sensory perception. Thus, a yellow sheet of paper is a symbol of a lance, because with the altered perception, yellow is perceived as length. Thus, a cell, rather than imprisoning, is experienced as liberating because it is perceived as an island paradise….

Through Castel with his experiments in perception, and Nevers with his problems in perception, Bioy Casares suggests that perception, both mental and sensory, is generally inadequate. The world is as we see (and hear and taste and smell and feel) it. Beyond that knowledge is impossible. Even within this world, though, our senses and perceptions are inadequate, and because they are, so is our imagination. Bioy Casares therefore calls some of the unknown worlds to our attention. Perhaps he considers us incapable of perceiving them on our own. (p. 49)

Deborah Weinberger, "Problems in Perception," in Review (copyright © 1975 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Fall, 1975, pp. 45-9.

Robert M. Adams

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Both Morel and Escape center on that favorite figure of our cultural fantasies, the mad scientist. To make him omnipotent, the scientist must be isolated, and since H. G. Wells' "The Island of Doctor Moreau" (lurking in the background of both Bioy stories), desert islands have been much in vogue for this purpose. Bioy attempts no untoward novelties. In both his tales, the story is narrated by an outsider who comes to the island, is baffled by some baffling appearances, and finally penetrates to the heart of them: they turn out to involve a series of experiments in systematically deranged perception. The movement of both stories is thus from the outside inward. But there is another dimension to the present novel, a movement from the inside out, which surrounds the other motion without negating it, and which renders the latest book a good deal more intricate than the earlier one.

The narration of A Plan for Escape is beset with complexities and ambiguities which render practically everything said in the book subject to question. (p. 50)

[The] structure of the world within which Lieutenant Nevers encounters his fantastic, but ultimately decipherable, enigma on Devil's Island is more enigmatic and less decipherable than the enigma itself. The very texture of unrelated life is absurd…. The book works in two ways; as Nevers penetrates to the heart of his problem, expounding its formal solution in an extended lecture, confusion, blur, and overlay spread outwards through the world surrounding the problem. (p. 51)

Allegories, phantasms, doublings, and parallels abound in the novel; they are not necessarily significant or insignificant. They may be the product of Nevers' peculiar mind; a possibility is scouted that in some particular matter he may be driven by a "diabolical need for symmetry." (p. 52)

[The book] strikes an unusual balance. By resolving an anomaly or ordering the fragments of a problem, the usual "mystery" book spreads the normal light of natural phenomena across an exceptional dark spot. Here, as the light of nature darkens, what seemed to be a mystery of iniquity turns out to be one area of life at least accessible to the mind, to explanation. The artificial paradise of Commandant Castel may be ghastly when seen from the outside—it is a group of stoned, catatonic zombies wallowing slow-motion in the peristaltic waves of their own stunned nervous systems. But the outside from which it is seen is also ghastly, not so much physically, as in the painful, devious efforts of the characters to explain, to justify, to comprehend a reality that's as queasy and unpredictable as the English Channel on a choppy day…. "Escape," then, must be defined, not as an escape from the island, but from the hallucinations, half-intentions, and tantalizing equivocations that surround it, and from which the fiction itself offers no escape. "Plan" must surely be ironic as well.

Stylistically, the book is sparse, dry, and flat, after the fashion of Borges; there is little heightening or rendering. Characterization is of the stick type, familiar from science fiction. Lieutenant Nevers, for example, has no father, no mother, no schooling, no profession, no friends, practically no memories, and, apart from the quite specific problem in which he is involved, very few experiences. The tropics of the South American landscape, within which he is set, could be extrapolated from an Encyclopedia Britannica description of Madagascar. Metaphors, imagery, and flights of highly colored fancy are non-existent. Bioy has written, less a novel than an extended parable—complicated, unlike those of Kafka which otherwise it resembles so much, by a few specific bearings of time, place, and history. The reverberations that the book contains are literary, philosophical, social; on the psychological side, they do not go much beyond the constant sense of unrelieved anxiety; stylistically, they are deliberately flat. (pp. 53-4)

Even at their most evasive, [Bioy's dry] equivocations define, with the clarity of strong sunlight on wrinkled sand, the things they are not saying…. In the phantom world of Bioy's Iles du Salut, slack and casual conversations generally have to be read for what they are artfully not saying, quite as much as for what they are. (p. 54)

Robert M. Adams, "No Escaping Evasion," in Review (copyright © 1975 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Fall, 1975, pp. 50-4.

F. Jeanneret

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The esthetic roots of a work [like Asleep In the Sun]—self-contained, circular, non-referential, suicidal—are many, but the keystone may be found in that passage from the Bioy Casares-Borges collaboration, The Chronicles of H. Bustos Domecq, in which a literary critic, determined to perfectly assay The Divine Comedy, realizes that in order to do so he must reproduce the poem word for word—i.e., the only legitimate criticism of the text is the text itself. From this angle, Asleep In the Sun is private language masquerading as public language; a riddle that solves itself, asking only that the observer document the cycle.

This kind of puzzle often stumps the critic…. (p. 76)

It needn't be so. Asleep In the Sun is a text which through transparency of novelistic convention denies us direct access. The plot is comic book stuff, seasoned with no-tech science fiction, thematically related to The Stepford Wives, Terminal Man, perhaps even Coma. The prose is scruffy—a translation intentionally thick on the tongue, making, on the page, a rug of coarse hemp that prickles the intellect. The characters, carefully drawn, are near-simpletons; another aspect of the structure of exclusion, they allow no conventional handles—try to grab one, to "understand" one, and it evaporates or breaks away in your hand. The story might be allegory, but on inspection the fat that is rendered is commonplace: isolation, impossibility of communication, inevitable failure of psychiatry, hopeless struggle of the individual against the forces of something-or-other, and, be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.

Yet here, at home in the lethargic, caterwumpus world of the read, something is left—a residue, a powder flecked with black, warm in the palm. The work blocks both traditional and post-modern exegesis, but we are not paralyzed. We can notice that the fiction is quark-like, impenetrable; study the joints, the modulations of the surface, the size of the object, the shadow it throws; poke it with tools, not to lay it open, but to see if it bounces, slides, or rolls, or if it moves at all. It is slim critical purchase, but authentic, the experience of the reading act—a residue of mental nods, grimaces, hoots, of grins and groans and frowns, of thoughts-errant hand signals, acknowledgments of shared and unshared experience, a residue of patches of boredom and the pleasures of words. Like the food of a surprisingly good meal, these words are to be taken, savored, and swallowed; their taste is meaning, real meaning in the real world, outside the text. And if this is an unfashionable way to read compared with that which, while not admitting as much, focuses almost wholly on the critic, it seems immensely more productive and satisfying.

In Asleep In the Sun Bioy Casares offers a plan of escape—temporary, of course; he intends to re-boggle our minds by not boggling them in the first place, and he succeeds wonderfully. He comes at us with blood in his eye, a glistening blade glistening between his pearly teeth. For a moment we are frightened, but soon enough we learn that the knife is made of painted rubber, and that pressed into our sides it does not make pain, it tickles. Now we see that the teeth, too, are rubber, and we begin to laugh, desperately, because we have been forced to laugh with the author, to know that the text is only itself. In a flash, the use of our black-flecked powder comes suddenly clear: it is to dust into the nearest critic's eye, in the hope of opening it. (pp. 76-7)

F. Jeanneret, "A Self-Solving Riddle," in Review (copyright © 1978 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), No. 23, pp. 76-7.

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Bioy Casares, Adolfo (Vol. 4)

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