Adolfo Bioy Casares

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Haskel Frankel (review date 15 November 1964)

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SOURCE: "Stories from Three Worlds," in The New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1964, pp. 62-3.

[An American theater critic, Frankel has worked for the Saturday Evening Post, National Observer, and the New York Times. He is also a screenwriter and has collaborated on books with such noted entertainers as Uta Hagen and Milton Berle. In the following excerpt, he describes the short fiction in The Invention of Morel, and Other Stories as imaginative though hindered by reliance on a single narrative technique.]

[The Invention of Morel, and Other Stories by Adolfo Bioy Casares contains] the novella, The Invention of Morel (which won the 1941 Primer Premio Municipal Award in Buenos Aires) and … six short stories originally collected in a volume entitled La Trama Celeste. Here is an interesting mind at work, a mind involved with science, philosophy and psychology. His stories are adventures, albeit slow moving, in which time and space are mere mists through which he easily passes. The stories often verge on science-fiction, occasionally are tinged with the occult.

In the novella, the narrator-diarist tells of his experience on an island populated by a group—and especially one woman with whom he falls in love—who do not seem aware of him as he moves among them. They are fully-dimensioned projections of the cameras of the inventor Morel, who recorded a week's visit by the group to the island, years before the narrator's arrival. Morel's indestructible machines repeat that week over and over for all time. Eventually the narrator attempts to join his love in the projected reality.

In one of the short stories, "The Celestial Plot," Casares offers the existence of "infinite identical worlds, infinite worlds with slight variations, infinite different worlds" as a pilot takes off from one Buenos Aires and arrives at another. In "The Other Labyrinth," a man of the 20th century dies in the 17th century and "proves that successive time is a mere illusion of men and that we live in an eternity where everything is simultaneous."

It is plot, which reveals itself like a trip through a maze, which dominates this author's work. Though the stories are fully populated, the characters are secondary. Casares is not much concerned with the who, what and why of his people; they exist for him as needed guides to lead the reader through cerebral adventures.

That ultimately one leaves Casares without a feeling of enrichment is not his fault—but rather that of his publisher, who has done him the disservice of combining these six short stories and the novella into one volume. It is too much of a good thing. If the reader is at first fascinated by the way he "unpeels" a story, that same reader will be bored long before the book is finished.

Six of the seven stories are told by a first-person narrator whose method of story-telling makes him seem the same person over and over. The reader comes away not remembering how imaginative a talent Casares possesses but how small a range of expression he seems to have. I am certain he deserves a better fate than to be thought of as a tenor with one glorious note.

Introduction

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Adolfo Bioy Casares 1914–

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Martín Sacastru and Javier Miranda; joint pseudonyms with Jorge Luis Borges include H[onorio] Bustos Domecq, B. Lynch Davis, and B. Suárez Lynch) Argentine novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Bioy Casares's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 8, and 13.

Chiefly regarded for highly...

(This entire section contains 1254 words.)

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imaginative tales, Bioy Casares blends elements of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery writing to comment on social and political conditions in Argentina as well as broader themes concerning love, identity, perception, and human nature. His complex and at times surreal plots frequently incorporate such elements and devices of fantastic fiction as time travel, invisibility, extrasensory perception, oneiric images, and metamorphosis. Frequently compared to fellow Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges, a long-time friend and collaborator, Bioy Casares is recognized as one of Argentina's—and the Spanish-speaking world's—best and most innovative writers.

Biographical Information

Bioy Casares was born in Buenos Aires to wealthy parents. His father, a published memoirist, frequently read gaucho epics to Bioy Casares when he was a boy, and at an early age he began to compose stories and poetry that reveal a fascination with the supernatural. Bioy Casares's first published work, Prológo (1929; Prologue), appeared when he was only 15; edited by his father, the volume was published at his parents' expense. One of the most significant events of Bioy Casares's life was meeting Jorge Luis Borges at the home of Victoria Ocampo, a fiction writer and publisher of the literary magazine Sur. Despite their age difference—Borges was fifteen years older than Bioy Casares—the meeting initiated what would become a life-long friendship and professional partnership. Borges's encouragement led Bioy Casares to transfer from the study of law to philosophy and literature and, ultimately, to choose writing as a career. Rejecting the then-prevalent historical approach to literary criticism, the pair founded a magazine of avant-garde criticism called Destiempo (Out of Time) in 1936. While the periodical did not remain in circulation long, it led to Bioy Casares and Borges's collaboration on a variety of other projects, including anthologies of Argentine fantastic fiction, detective stories, and their favorite gaucho poetry; a volume of quotes and epigrams by popular writers from classical to modern times; and such popular works as Seis problemas para Don IsidroParodi (1942; Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi) and Crónicas de Bustos Domecq (1967; Chronicles of Bustos Domecq). Discussing the nature of their relationship, Borges has stated: "[Bioy Casares and I] met in 1930 or 1931, when he was seventeen and I was just past thirty. It is always taken for granted in these cases that the older man is the master and the younger his disciple. This may have been true at the outset, but several years later, when we began to work together, Bioy was really and secretly the master." Bioy Casares's first major work of fiction, La invención de Morel (The Invention of Morel), was published to critical acclaim in 1940. That same year he married Silvina Ocampo, with whom he later collaborated on several projects, including the detective novel Los que aman, odian (1946). A prolific writer and a major figure in his homeland and abroad, Bioy Casares has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the 1941 Premio Municipal de la Cuidad de Buenos Aires for The Invention of Morel, the 1969 Premio Nacional for El gran serafin (1967), and the 1986 Premio Internacional Literario IILA (Rome) for the short story collections Historias fantásticas (1972) and Historias de amor (1972). Bioy Casares continues to work and reside in Buenos Aires.

Major Works

Bioy Casares's interest in the relationship between dreams, fantasy, and reality appears in his most famous work, The Invention of Morel. Largely influenced by H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau (1876), the novella is set on a nearly deserted island and concerns a man who falls in love with what is eventually revealed to be a holographic image of a woman. Employing Bioy Casares's trademark techniques of concise dialogue, brief sentences, and an omniscient narrator who comments on events about which the protagonist is unaware, The Invention of Morel is considered a satirical examination of the nature of love and the role of the artist in contemporary society. In Plan de evasión (1945; A Plan for Escape), which is likewise set on a island, Enrique Nevers attempts to observe the activities of the French governor stationed on nearby Devil's Island prison. This highly metaphoric and metafictional novella centers on Nevers's changing perceptions and the disparity between what he knows and what is actually taking place; the governor, in fact, is overseeing a surgical experiment that produces permanent synesthesia in prisoners on the island. Bioy Casares's focus on appearances and reality is heightened by his use of an unreliable—and potentially insane—narrator and an epistolary structure. Surgery that yields personality changes and the use of letters as a narrative device are also central to Dormir al sol (1973; Asleep in the Sun). In other works, such as the novel Diario de la guerra del cerdo (1969; Diary of the War of the Pig) and the short story collection Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, Bioy Casares includes a focus on Argentine politics and society as subplots to the major drama. Commenting on the treatment of the elderly in the twentieth century, Diary of the War of the Pig is set in Argentina in the near future and concerns the massacre of senior citizens by gangs of adolescents. Inspired in part by actual events of World War II, the eponymous protagonist of Bioy Casares and Borges's Six Problems solves crimes from a prison cell, having been framed for a murder committed by a police clerk. Incorporating elements of traditional and nontraditional detective fiction, Six Problems is known as a highly experimental text dealing with issues of referentiality and signification. Chronicles of Bustos Domecq was also written with Borges and has been described by Clarence Brown as "sheer nonsensical hilarity." The collection features vignettes and essays on a variety of fictitious writers and artists, and is dedicated to such great modernist icons as Pablo Picasso, Charles-Edouard Le Courbusier, and James Joyce. Love, magic, obsession, and deception are central to two of Bioy Casares's other novels: the mystery El sueño de los heroes (1954; The Dream of Heroes), which has been noted for its allusions to the myth of Oedipus; and the mystical and disjointed La aventura de un fotógrafo en La Plata (1985; The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata).

Critical Reception

Publishers of Bioy Casares's collaborative works with Borges have tended to emphasize Borges's authorship, and much of the critical regard paid to these works and, by extension, to Bioy Casares in general is related to Borges's renown. Bioy Casares's incorporation of themes and motifs found in the works of H. G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, G. K. Chesterton, and Edgar Allan Poe have also overshadowed his success at times. Recent studies of Bioy Casares's fiction, however, praise his inventive plots, sardonic humor, and concise language. The Invention of Morel, for example, is generally considered a minor masterpiece and an exemplary model of fantastic fiction, and Bioy Casares continues to be lauded for his use of surrealism and the postmodernist focus of his work on issues of textuality, spatiality, identity, and perception. As T. J. Lewis has noted: "Although Bioy Casares may not have achieved the worldwide significance of his compatriot Jorge Luis Borges, he is one of the best of Argentina's writers."

Solomon H. Tilles (review date December 1965)

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SOURCE: A review of The Invention of Morel, and Other Stories (from "La trama celeste"), in Hispania, Vol. XLVIII, No. 4, December, 1965, p. 944.

[An American educator, Tilles is the author of two textbooks, Voces y vistas: Active Spanish for Beginners (1970) and Puntos de vista: Voces de España e Hispano-America (1971). In the following excerpt, he discusses The Invention of Morel, and Other Stories as a work evincing imagination, but laments the structural and thematic similarities of the tales in the collection.]

[The Invention of Morel and Other Stories (from "La trama celeste")] is a very welcome addition to the growing list of Spanish American literature in translation, and particularly so because it will serve as proof that not all Spanish American fiction is sociological in nature. The Argentine Bioy Casares, like his famous mentor Jorge Luis Borges, seeks the material for his works in the unexplored corners of the human brain and the relationships between it and the universe. In this broad sense he belongs to the relatively small but very powerful modern current which includes such imaginative writers as Borges, Juan José Arreola, Jenaro Prieto, Pedro Prado, and Juan Marín, to cite a random few.

Borges, in the introduction, aptly calls this a work of "reasoned imagination." The collection is "imaginative" because its plot situations are founded on the interpolation of a scientific or occult principle in human terms. In this they are reminiscent of the spiritual-psychological wing of modern science fiction. The human situation, typically in the form of the memoirs of one of the participants or witnesses to the event, is developed from this base in accord with a rigid logic worthy of Sherlock Holmes. The completely discursive prose style, which is even more reminiscent of the positivism of Conan Doyle, is particularly effective because it lends veracity to what would otherwise be an implausible premise.

The novella, The Invention of Morel (first published in 1940), purports to be the memoir of the main character, a fugitive hiding on what he believes to be a deserted island. His situation is immediately complicated by the arrival of a group of unknown people. The entire work then is devoted to his continuously frustrated efforts to enter their awareness. Among themselves, they appear to function normally in every way, yet though he employs every sensory means of communication (voice, sight, etc.), they remain completely oblivious to his presence. The situation is made even more acute by his falling in love with one of them. We finally learn that the mutual isolation is not existential in nature but an illusion; all but the narrator are the three dimensional projection, in all five senses, of a machine designed by Dr. Morel. In the end the narrator succeeds in editing himself into the projection, thereby joining the eternal monthly cycle of the group, which continues to remain oblivious to his presence. Here indeed is the cosmic joke of which Borges too is so fond!

The remaining six stories, from La trama celeste, (first published in 1948) are uneven in quality. "The Perjury of the Snow" is the weakest of the lot because its occult premise serves no other purpose than to complicate the plot. Like The Invention of Morel, four of the six stories involve, in one form or another, the transmission, either through space or time, of the human brain or its creations. The collection as a whole suffers from too much similarity of technique, structure and intellectual motivation.

Principal Works

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Prólogo [Prologue] (short stories and essays) 1929
Diecisiete disparos contra lo porvenir [Seventeen Shots against the Future] [as Martín Sacastru] (short stories) 1933
Caos (short stories) 1934
La nueva tormenta; o, La vide múltiple de Juan Ruteno (short fiction) 1935
Antología de la literatura fantástica [The Book of Fantasy] [editor with Silvina Ocampo and Jorge Luis Borges] (anthology) 1940; enlarged edition, 1965
La invención de Morel [The Invention of Morel] (novella) 1940
Antología poética argentina [editor with Silvina Ocampo and Jorge Luis Borges] (anthology) 1941
Seis problemas para Don Isidro Parodi [Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi] [with Jorge Luis Borges under joint pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq] (short stories) 1942
El perjurio de la nieve [The Perjury of Snow] (short stories) 1944
Plan de evasión [A Plan for Escape] (novella) 1945
Dos fantasías memorables [with Jorge Luis Borges under the joint pseudonym of Bustos Domecq] (short stories) 1946
Los que aman, odian [with Silvina Ocampo] (novel) 1946
Un modelo para la muerte [with Jorge Luis Borges under the joint pseudonym of B. Suárez Lynch] (short stories) 1946
La trama celeste (short stories) 1948
El sueño de los heroes [The Dream of Heroes] (novel) 1954
Historia prodigiosa (short stories) 1956; enlarged edition, 1961
Guirnalda con amores: Cuentos (short stories and aphorisms) 1959
El lado de la sombra (short stories) 1962
Crónicas de Bustos Domecq [Chronicles of Bustos Domecq] [with Jorge Luis Borges] (sketches) 1967
El gran serafín (short stories) 1967
La otra aventura (criticism and nonfiction) 1968
Diario de la guerra del cerdo [Diary of the War of the Pig] (novel) 1969
Invasion [with Jorge Luis Borges and Hugo Santiago] (screenplay) 1969
Cuentos breves y extraordinarios [Extraordinary Tales] [editor with Jorge Luis Borges] (anthology) 1971
Historias de amor (short stories) 1972
Historias fantásticas (short stories) 1972
Dormir al sol [Asleep in the Sun] (novel) 1973
Les autres [with Jorge Luis Borges and Hugo Santiago] (screenplay) 1974
Nuevos cuentos de Bustos Domecq [with Jorge Luis Borges] (short stories) 1977
El héroe de las mujeres (short stories) 1978
La aventura de un fotógrafo en La Plata [The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata] (novel) 1985
Historias desaforadas (short stories) 1987
Una muñeca rusa [A Russian Doll, and Other Stories] (short stories) 1991
Memorias: Infancia, adolescencia y cómo se hace un escritor (memoirs) 1994
Selected Stories (short stories) 1994

∗Translations of La trama celeste and La invención de Morel were published together as The Invention of Morel, and Other Stories from "La trama celeste" in 1964.

Martin Levin (review date 28 January 1973)

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SOURCE: A review of Diary of the War of the Pig, in The New York Times Book Review, January 28, 1973, p. 34.

[In the following review, Levin favorably comments on Diary of the War of the Pig.]

[In Diary of the War of the Pig a senior citizen] of Buenos Aires, Isidro Vidal, realizes one day that his old friends are being massacred. One by one, the companions of his nightly card game are clubbed to death, shot, pitched off the bleachers of a football stadium, flung into bonfires. Nor is the slaughter restricted to Isidro's cafe cronies alone. An old peoples' home is bombed, and the elderly everywhere are waylaid.

What links the violence is that it is committed on the old by the young. The motive? Well you might ask. A physician in the novel explains that the young feel a neurotic "repulsion" toward the old. A youth suggests that killing the elderly is a way of expunging the past. The idea is circulated that "old people are greedy, selfish, materialistic, and eternally grumbling, real hogs." And one Golden-Ager concludes that the young don't need "good reasons" to murder the old. "Just the ones they happen to have are enough."

Mr. Casares, a popular Argentinian writer and a collaborator of Luis Borges, takes an existential rather than a moral attitude. Unlike Lord of the Files, which is a soluble parable, this hypnotic novel conjures up a Kafka-like nightmare each reader may interpret as he likes: an affirmation of life, of bestiality or of love. It's all there, bubbling in rich profusion.

Alfred J. Mac Adam (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: "Adolfo Bioy Casares: Satire and Self-portrait," and "Adolfo Bioy Casares: The Lying Compass," in Modern Latin American Narratives: The Dreams of Reason, The University of Chicago Press, 1977, pp. 29-36, pp. 37-43.

[In the following excerpt, Mac Adam discusses The Invention of More] and A Plan for Escape as examinations into the nature of metaphor and the relationship between text, author, and audience.]

Bioy Casares in Morel creates a series of linked metaphors to describe the transformation of a man into an artist and, finally, the artist into art. Like Machado, Bioy uses the first-person narrator, but unlike the Brazilian, he delineates more sharply the "textual" nature of his work by defining it as a diary. What we are reading is a remainder, a leftover, and by emphasizing this dead or inert side of any work of art, its existence as the object of attention, Bioy declares its alien nature. The reader can never have direct contact with the narrator: he is not speaking to us or confessing his sins to God in our presence. Like Sartre's La Nausée, Morel is itself a kind of cadaver. The "new" Roquentin exists beyond the text (and the life) he has left behind, and, in the same way, we are encouraged to follow his example. Bioy has no overt ideological message in his text; there is no hortatory aspect to his satire; and yet, it is clear that he is making an esthetic statement. He is interested in expressing what it is that the artist becomes when he commits himself to his work.

To demonstrate his point, Bioy revitalizes the story of the man who goes to a desert island. Borges himself notes that H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau is alluded to in Bioy's title; we might add that such a reference would automatically conjure up Swift, Defoe, Stevenson (also mentioned by Borges), Verne, Dante, and a host of others. One island text suggests another because they all deal with extraordinary circumstances, a hiatus in "normal" affairs. Even true stories about island visits contain the element of adventure that stimulates our appetite for the exotic, which, even when real, is somehow beyond literary realism. No matter what the text is, the sea we cross divides us from the world of our dreams. The sea may be real, but it is also our subconscious; and for that reason, no voyage to an island can be absolutely free from symbolic or metaphoric traits. Ordinary tourist advertising realized this long ago and continues to play on our desire for adventure.

Bioy's story is simple. A man fleeing from political persecution seeks refuge on an island supposed to be the epicenter of a fatal disease. Once on the island he begins to notice strange things: the seasons seem to accelerate, and then, with no warning, people appear out of nowhere. He writes to leave testimony about the climatic change, but his diary changes as he grows increasingly interested in the strange visitors. This interest becomes critical when he falls in love with Faustine, one of the women in the company. He learns that to them he is invisible, although he only learns why when he discovers that they are not really people but images projected by cameras operated by the tides. They have bulk, need no screen, and will last as long as the machines function. Desperate, the unnamed diarist decides to interpolate himself into the film (an act which kills all who are photographed) so that anyone who comes to the island will think he is part of the original.

The protagonist's life consists of a series of spatial reductions. First he shares a political and social life with others, then he becomes a fugitive, constantly in motion. On the island his possibilities for movement are limited. He has fled society and history; all he has left is his own mind, the island, and the various texts he projects and the diary he writes. The withdrawal from the world (for no matter what reason) is a metaphor for the writer who withdraws from the world to compose his text. The voyage to the island is that withdrawal, just as the blank page is the island which will be "populated" by words.

The reader, again the writer's mirror twin, recapitulates the writer's self-exile when he withdraws from the world to read the text, which is his island. The portrait of Saint Ambrose that Augustine gives in the Confessions (book 6, chapter 3) constitutes a perfect image of this act: Augustine describes the saint reading silently, so absorbed in his reading that he does not notice the presence of other people in the room. The reader, like the narrator, is alone on an island filled with people.

Our relationship with the text is as complex as that of the narrator with the images he finds on the island. He cannot reconcile himself to the idea that they are not real (his last words are a plea for someone to make Faustine truly aware of his existence) just as we might be tempted to affix a personality and a psychology to the narrator himself. We must realize that such an act would betray both the text and our roles as readers. The lesson Bioy implants in his text is the concept of art as suicide, an act mirrored in the suicide the unwitting reader commits when he takes fictions for realities: to create a text means to create an artist, and to do that it is necessary to "kill" a man. Morel is elegiac in that it celebrates the death of a man who has achieved immortality, the ironic immortality of art which requires the death of a man. Like [Borges's] "Borges and I," although less ironic because it is not toying with the idea of autobiography, the mode whereby the self is immortalized by being transformed into a fiction, Morel is concerned with the distinctions between the artist as man and man as artist. It is no less involved with our identities as individuals and our identities as readers. We must also give up something, "die" a bit, before we are reborn in the act of interpretation, the act by which we liberate ourselves from the text, deforming it into our own image. A failure to interpret is the situation described in Borges's "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" [Ficciones (1935–1944), 1944], where all fictions are subsumed into the insidious and false encyclopedia because no one treats the fiction as a fiction.

Both Machado's and Bioy's texts invite interpretation, but they also demand one sort of interpretation instead of another. The fact that the "real" narrator is always separated from us by a linguistic void is never attenuated in these books by the creation of sentimental links between us and him. We are made to realize that what is speaking to us is a text and not a person, that if there ever was a person behind these words he is irretrievably lost. The narratives themselves are metaphors for communication, since they are composed without the presence of any known listeners, again in direct contrast to Augustine's ideal listener…. It is the nature of first person narratives always to be "about" something, even if that subject is forever absent, replaced by words, that is, by metaphors….

In Morel, the verbal artifact is ironically juxtaposed to another absence, Morel's film. The film literally swallows up the narrator, who can look at himself in it in the same way someone who has written his autobiography can read about himself. There is of course a difference: the narrator has deliberately inserted himself in someone else's creation, hoping that his intrusion will pass unnoticed by newcomers. In any case, the elegiac note is again sounded, and the dying man sees himself transformed into a work of art, although that work of art is itself bizarre. Morel, not an artist but a sentimental scientist, creates a tranche de vie, a direct copy of life. In explaining to his friends what he has done, he states: "My abuse consists in having photographed you without permission. Of course mine is not a common photographic method; it is my latest invention. We shall live in that photograph forever. Imagine a stage on which our life during these last seven days will be acted out completely." The machine neither edits nor selects; it simply captures whatever images it can. It is the narrator who imposes his will on the film when he creates a new reality by interpolating himself. He does what the reader should not: he enters a world with which he can have no real contact.

Paradoxically, however, the text, like the film, requires the reader to "make something" of it. Why should this invitation to interpret be part of the text instead of part of the reader? How do we know Morel is a metaphorical text? There is no answer except to point out the elements of the text itself: the island voyage, the decision to write, the relationship between the narrator and the woman in the film (a variation of the Romantic belle dame sans merci theme, where she comes to stand for the text itself in its complete otherness), and, of course, Borges's preface [to The Invention of Morel], which prejudices the reader. These same elements may nevertheless remain insignificant to another reader. Unlike Renaissance literature, where mythology, symbolic names, and rhyme signalled to the reader what sort of reading he was to do, these texts leave everything to the reader's instincts. Perhaps the examination of another text by Bioy Casares, Plan de evasión (1945), may help to establish some of the landmarks in this perpetually shifting metaphoric literature.

..…

Bioy's Plan de evasión (1945) is more clearly a case of metaphoric writing, of satire, than Morel, Morel is deliberately nonallusive, except for its title and one or two other incidental references to painters or authors; but Plan is shot through with literary allusions and references to cultural matters in general. It is as though Bioy were attempting to tantalize the reader into drawing connections between his and other texts which would ultimately prove either misleading or useless. This technique recalls Borges, whose myriad references are a plague to all his readers; and both authors may have the same goal in mind: to proffer the expectation of meaning to the reader and withdraw it before it can ever become a reality.

Bioy creates metaphorical texts, but he carefully leaves open the concept of referent. The text becomes something like a historical event in that it can have any number of meanings depending on the context into which it is inserted. Indeed, this simultaneous inscrutability and disponibilité underlines the close relationship between all kinds of extended narratives and the writing of chronicles. Critics like Lukács, who for reasons of symmetry want the novel (and, we assume, other narrative forms) to be the counterpart in the bourgeois era of the epic in an earlier age, destroy the value of genre study. The idea that the novel is our epic is much too "neat" to be accurate, especially because it fulfills the critic's idealized view of modern history and not the actual state of esthetic affairs. Texts like those of Machado, Bioy, or Cabrera Infante do not strive (and fail) to be totalities; they are deliberately incomplete, encouraging the reader to participate to the fullest in the creative process, at no small risk to both parties. We know Plan is "about" something, but we will never know what.

Plan is, ostensibly, the prejudiced presentation of the letters of Enrique Nevers, who had been sent to Cayenne in 1913 by his hostile uncle, Antoine Brissac. The uncle's goal seems to be either to condemn Nevers or, to say the least, discredit him. In this the uncle is not unlike Bento in Dom Casmurro when he speaks about his wife, but in this text the uncle is an actor only in the sense that it is he who presents the letters to the reader. This is a grotesque elaboration of the "editor" device used in Morel and would seem to be a reminiscence of the complicated mass of editing and translating involved in Don Quijote. In fact, the very drama of the text, Nevers's discovery that the warden of the penal colony on Devil's Island has been altering the perception of his inmates so they will think they are living on individual island paradises, is virtually "lost" in the editorial fluctuations.

The text's form mirrors its basic principle: what we see is not what is but what our senses and our brain tell us we see. Again, the esthetic ramifications of such hypotheses are myriad. They transcend the Renaissance topic of appearance and reality precisely because they suggest that appearance is reality. The only possible desengaño in a situation like this is to realize that there is no message, no secret hidden under the surface of things, that the surface is all. But even this cannot halt the process of interpretation, which does not pretend to alter the text's meaning so much as to situate it in contexts where other possibilities are affixed to it.

The idea of the island explored so intensely in Morel is restated here: what the warden, Castel, does for his prisoners, who are already on an island, is to create for them another island; he does this in a spirit of charity, science working for the benefit of man. Naturally, what he creates are monsters, creatures whose "dérèglement de tous les sens" is a physical truth. The irony of Rimbaud's desideratum in this context, the irony of a synesthesia more absolute than any ever dreamed of by either the symbolists or I. A. Richards, is that it is not achieved through words but through surgery—at least in the most literal reading of the text. But what happens here, as in Morel, demands interpretation. To come to any island is to leave the world behind; it is a transfer from the macro- to the microcosm, from the public world of the conscious, the world with which the ego interacts, to the private world of the subconscious, comparable to the world in which, in Freudian terms, the ego interacts with the id and the superego.

If we establish equivalences, if we see the text as an island, the writer's as he composes it and the reader's as he deciphers it, then other possibilities materialize. In Morel the narrator undergoes a metamorphosis and, like Proteus, becomes an immortal. If metamorphosis is the ruling idea, the dominant metaphor in Morel, we may say that derangement is the guiding principle in Plan, particularly literary derangement. If Morel is "about" how a man becomes an artist and how another man becomes a reader, Plan is concerned with the effects on the public of its encounter with a work of art. In this sense, it may be seen as an extrapolation of the encounter the narrator of Morel has with the images: until he finds out what they really are, he thinks he is mad. This is exactly what the reader of Plan experiences; he knows that the uncle-editor is biased and that the text is therefore twisted to conform with his understanding of his nephew's sins; but just what it is that lies behind the nephew's letters, his relationship with certain family papers, with a girl (Irene), with his cousin Xavier is left deliberately ambiguous. All we know is that Enrique Nevers is either guilty or innocent of a certain crime (we never learn what it is), is either loved or not by Irene, is either mad or sane, and is either dead or alive by the end of the narrative. Such an abundance of clarity is likely to dazzle almost any reader.

This is the point. The text is a series of dead ends, both in its plot and in its allusions. All of the elements seem to be relevant to the story as a totality, but that totality never emerges. This discord between the whole and its parts may be exemplified by the references to Rimbaud which appear throughout the text. Early in the book the narrator-uncle reports, "Those days [Nevers] spent in the capital of the penal colony seemed to him a season in hell," to which an indulgent editor adds a gratuitous footnote, "une saison en enfer." A little later the narrator refers to two ships, "one Sunday the Schelcher, the next the Rimbaud." Then, much later, Nevers reads in notes left by Castel, "A noir, E blanc, I rouge … is not an absurd affirmation; it is an improvised answer." There may be more references or allusions, and some of the above are repeated, but these are the most obvious.

But what is the relationship between Rimbaud and Plan? To call a stay in a disagreeable place "une saison en enfer" is to be pedantic and trite, so we may conclude that the reference is not intended to impress us, especially with the addition of the French original in a footnote. Perhaps its only purpose is to introduce Rimbaud as a type, the "poète maudit," and to make the reader think about his techniques. This second idea is somewhat tenuous, especially if we recall that in Une saison en enfer Rimbaud refutes the association of vowels and colors he makes in the earlier "Voyelles," from Poésies:

J'inventai la couleur des voyelles!—A noir, E blanc, I rouge, O bleu, U vert.—Je réglai la forme et le mouvement de chaque consonne, et, avec des rhythmes instinctifs, je me flattai d'inventer un verbe poétique accessible, un jour ou l'autre, à tous les sens.

This ironic passage might lead us back to the "Voyelles," but there too we are ultimately baffled. As Castel's reference to the poem suggests, it is not Rimbaud, as stylist or as "poète maudit," who is at stake but the concept of sensation or the mind's organization and interpretation of sensation. It does not seem terribly important for an understanding of Plan to link the ship Rimbaud to Rimbaud's "Bateau ivre," although one must wonder why Bioy insists on referring to the French poet. It may be because Enrique Nevers is himself a poet, but again, this is certainly a circuitous association. It depends on the reader's recognition of some link between Nevers and Rimbaud, of the allusions to Rimbaud, and the reader's ability to connect only one aspect (synesthesia, let us say) of Rimbaud's verse with the matters dealt with in Plan.

This unnecessary complication is characteristic of all external references in Plan and seems to say to the reader that he will never be able to trace the text back to its origins, whatever they are. Naturally, even its consistency in this is inconsistent. In one of the rare conversations between Nevers and Castel, it is revealed that Nevers is reading Plutarch's essay on Isis and Osiris. When Castel reproaches him for wasting time on such antiquated trash, Nevers replies, "I'm interested in this book. It deals with symbols." The book not only deals with symbols but also investigates the differences between proper and improper readings of myths; in short, it deals with problems of interpretation. It is this sort of allusion which sheds light on Plan, not the references to Rimbaud or to nineteenth-century investigators of hypnotism or to Goethe's book on colors. Allusions such as the one to Plutarch or scenes like the one in which it is revealed that the character Dreyfus is called Dreyfus because of his admiration for the historical Dreyfus and for no other reason, clear matters up to some extent. From these we learn that what is happening may not be important in itself, but may refer to something important: the name Dreyfus is a symbol; the man who bears it is unimportant. This same character idealizes Zola, because Zola defended the real Dreyfus, and Victor Hugo, because his name sounds like the name of an early governor of the colony, Victor Hugues. (This name is doubly confusing for this reader since Victor Hugues is a character in a work by Alejo Carpentier, El siglo de las luces.) That is, the associations made within the text, as well as the associations the reader makes by himself, are all material which contributes in one way or another to a reading of the text; they are designed to vitiate the concept of the "correct" reading.

Interpretation here is a kind of "guilt by association." If something sounds like something else, Hugo-Hugues, or if it is connected with something else by means of repetition, Dreyfus-Dreyfus, the reader is tempted to make something of the association. The pitfall in the creation or deciphering of metaphors is to assume that they do in fact have a single, discoverable meaning, and it is on this misconception Bioy Casares pounces. When the text says, "On the dock, waiting for me, was a dark Jew, a certain Dreyfus," we automatically associate him with the real Dreyfus, who was alive at the time of the narrative (1913). Bioy depends on our association of the two names with the same man, and he does it in order to frustrate our expectations.

This invitation to misread is referred to in the text by the word camouflage. When Nevers scrutinizes Devil's Island carefully, he discovers "the ominous truth," it is camouflaged. This leads him to a series of conjectures until at the end of the book it is explained that the buildings, in which the men operated on by Castel are housed, are painted (inside and out) in such a way that they look to a normal person as if they are camouflaged. The men within see a seascape and tropical islands instead of patches of color. But what is most important is the complete absence of anything beneath that surface: there is nothing "hidden" in this text, just as Castel camouflaged nothing when he painted the walls.

Those who read Plan thinking it a rite of passage are sadly disillusioned when they finish. All seems resolved in the experiments with sensation; at least, almost all. The problem of the fate of the protagonist is left unresolved; he vanishes. The text too will vanish after the reader finishes reading the last word, the last piece of a letter compiled by the fictitious uncle-editor. What he has just experienced is nothing more or less than a confrontation with a totally metaphoric text whose subject is metaphor. Everything in Plan stands for something else, but just what that something is is never explained. It is not important that it is left a mystery because this is just what is supposed to happen. How better to explore the nature of metaphor than to create a colossal metaphor? The symbolist strategy of the recreated sensation or premeditated effect is an obvious ploy here (another gesture toward Rimbaud perhaps), except that this is an entirely cerebral situation, one linked with words and words alone.

Bioy Casares's metaphoric representation of the artist and art in self-reflecting fictions was certainly unique in the context of Latin American literature in the 1940s, and the abstruseness of the texts may account for the dearth of critical material on them. Authors who investigate many of the same problems, Julio Cortázar and Severo Sarduy, who are both part of the "Boom" of the 60s, have received much more attention. Cortázar's principal inquiry into the complex relationship between artist and text, Rayuela, is much more mechanical in its approach to the problem. Cortázar himself seems much more concerned with constructing dialogues or monologues in which ideas about literature are expressed than in presenting his thoughts in a completely metaphoric fashion. This makes him seem a much more timid experimenter than Bioy, despite the fact that Rayuela proposes to attack traditional forms of literary discourse by disordering reading sequence.

The parallels between the works of Severo Sarduy and those of Bioy are striking in spite of the fact that Sarduy and Bioy have radically different intellectual formations. If Bioy's roots lead back to Borges's notion of narrative as he expresses it in "Narrative Art and Magic" and in the preface to Morel, Sarduy's may be traced through the pages of Tel Quel, Roland Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, Heidegger, and, ultimately, Jakobson and Saussure. It is a bizarre coincidence that Jakobson's adaptation of Saussure, his association of diachrony with narrative realism, and synchrony with poetic metaphor, should be a parallel to Borges's adaptation of Frazer's two kinds of magic (mentioned by Jakobson), magic worked through contiguity and magic worked through analogy. Borges's invectives against literary realism in favor of metaphoric writing, and Jakobson's objective observation of the differences between these modes of writing are also fortuitously parallel. The result in both cases was the composition, by Bioy and Sarduy, of texts which are highly metaphorical, texts which are in fact metaphors. It is true that Sarduy does not use Bioy's island-and-invention schema, and he departs even more radically from Bioy's superficially comprehensible narratives (they might be taken for science fiction), but the texts are nevertheless similar: they are works that can only be understood as metaphors on metaphor, metaliterary texts designed to show what literature is.

Further Reading

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Biography

Bioy-Casares, Adolfo. "Chronology." Review, No. 15 (Fall 1975): 35-9.

Brief, humorous listing of events from Bioy Casares's life through 1975. He also cites various books and authors that influenced him at each stage of his life.

Criticism

Polk, James. "Silly and Misguided about Love." The New York Times Book Review (6 November 1994): 37.

Favorable assessment of Selected Stories, noting Bioy Casares's focus on machismo, male-female relationships, and the "jarring of social and ethical norms."

Updike, John. "Hyperreality: 'In Borges's Wake'." In his Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism, pp. 685-93. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Comments on elements of mystery and intimations of the fantastic in Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata, which Updike argues is a parody of "traditional novels." This article originally appeared in the 5 February 1990 edition of The New Yorker.

Peter S. Prescott (review date 27 November 1978)

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SOURCE: "In the Soul Trade," in Newsweek, Vol. XCII, No. 22, November 27, 1978, p. 108.

[Prescott is an American critic, educator, and prominent journalist. His Soundings: Encounters with Contemporary Books (1972) examines several books published in the mid-1960s through early 1970s. In the following review, he offers a highly negative assessment of Asleep in the Sun.]

[Asleep in the Sun is] a further impediment to our understanding of Latin American civilization. Adolfo Bioy Casares, a prominent Argentine novelist and sometime collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges, has written what I can only describe as a fussy horror story with a science-fiction twist at the end. That he has allegorical ambitions is evident, but his precise intention is (to Northern eyes, at least) unfathomable, and the resulting muddle is less interesting than it might be.

Bioy Casares doesn't help matters by choosing a hackneyed form of narration: his story is told by an inmate of a lunatic asylum. Lucio is a humble man, bedeviled by his relatives and redeemed only by his love for his wife, Diana, who like most of us is mildly neurotic. A man of infinite pliability, Lucio allows himself to be persuaded to commit Diana to an asylum. She returns cured, seemingly the perfect wife, yet Lucio is still troubled. Diana is not only a better woman, she is a different woman; when Lucio looks deeply into her lovely eyes he cannot find the person he once knew. Diana's ominous psychiatrist tells Lucio that the problem is his; Lucio's own imperfections make him incompatible with his perfected spouse. As if to press his point, the doctor abducts Lucio, promising to do for him what he did for Diana, and Lucio is left to scribble his narrative on smuggled sheets of paper.

If the story so far sounds compact, I can only protest that the author takes a long, embroidered time arriving at the point where he begins to be interesting. Lucio is such a helpless ninny, and his conversations so unremittingly dull, that by the time the drama comes in a fine flurry of foolishness I found it hard to care. The doctor, it seems, has been engaged in experiments in metempsychosis: he transfers sick souls from human bodies to dog bodies and replaces them with healthy souls from deteriorating human bodies. And what shall we make of this? That we imperfect creatures cannot love perfection? That a totalitarian state will not shrink from remodeling humanity to its taste? Damned if I know; I only wish that Bioy Casares had written a story that was sufficiently tense, or sufficiently intriguing, to provoke concern from his readers. The Island of Dr. Moreau this is not, nor even The Stepford Wives.

T. J. Lewis (review date Winter 1980)

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SOURCE: A review of Asleep in the Sun, in World Literature Today, Vol. 54, No. 1, Winter, 1980, p. 83.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis comments favorably on Asleep in the Sun.]

Adolfo Bioy Casares first came to the attention of the English-reading public as a collaborator with Jorge Luis Borges in such works as Extraordinary Tales and Chronicles of Bustos Domecq. Since that time—the early 1970s—he has risen to prominence as a literary figure apart from Borges. His importance, however, does not nearly equal that of Borges, although he should not for that reason be passed over without consideration.

Asleep in the Sun, Bioy Casares's fifth novel published in Spanish (1973), begins as a story of bourgeois domestic mediocrity but soon turns into an account of a bizarre form of psychiatric treatment. The wife of the protagonist Bordenave returns from Dr. Reger Samaniego's Phrenopathic Institute so altered in personality—so "normal" and compliant—that of her former characteristics the only ones recognizable to her husband are the physical ones. At first, he is delighted to have her back, but when he realizes that it is not really his wife but another personality inhabiting her body he becomes so disturbed and desperate that he himself seeks treatment from Samaniego. This leads to the discovery that Samaniego has learned how to transplant human souls and that once a person has entered the Institute he will not leave without undergoing a transplantation.

The narrative up to the last four pages turns out to be Bordenave's letter to a friend recounting all this and requesting help in getting him released from the Institute. The friend, however, finds several excuses for not looking into this patently fantastic affair. And there the novel ends.

Although Bioy Casares may not have achieved the world-wide significance of his compatriot Borges, he is one of the best of Argentina's writers. And Asleep in the Sun is one of the best of his novels, and one of the most popular among Argentines.

Ronald Christ (review date March 1980)

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SOURCE: "Acts of Translation," in Partisan Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 3, March, 1980, pp. 476-81.

[An American educator and critic, Christ is the author of The Narrow Act: Borges' Art of Allusion (1969) and has contributed to the critical collections The Cardinal Points of Borges (1971) and Prose for Borges (1972). In addition, he and Gregory Kolovakos have translated into English two works by Peruvian novelist and short story writer Mario Vargas Llosa. In the following excerpt, Christ comments on the complex narrative structure of A Plan for Escape.]

In contrast to [a] "hot" text, which outrages our sensibilities and aesthetics, Bioy-Casares's "cool" novel, A Plan for Escape, politely refuses to disturb us as it grows ever inward with a complexity that is the evident nature of its narrative…. A Plan for Escape confuses us with a slim mystery that is monomanically single, ostentatiously planned….

Bioy-Casares is a close friend of Borges and the two have collaborated on many fictions, including film treatments. Bioy-Casares is clearly the lesser writer, yet one of his novellas, The Invention of Morel, is the basis for one of Borges's most important aesthetic manifestos. In his preface to that book, Borges suggested a theory of plot construction which he developed in his essay on narrative and magic. The theory is quite simply a denial of psychology as a basis for fiction because psychology admits of all behaviors and explanations; instead, the writer is urged to make plots that function with the deliberate cause and effect, at a distance, of the magic whereby a pin stuck in [a] doll in one place kills someone in another. This aesthetic of what Borges refers to as "inlaid" details has largely been ignored [in the United States] because The Invention of Morel has been ignored. Nevertheless, this theory is the basis for any clear understanding of the revolutionary force of Borges's writings and for the elegant formalism of both his and Bioy-Casares's fictions, which Borges has called perfect fulfillments of the theory—in implicit rejection of [Miguel Asturias] and all writers like him.

Both Morel and A Plan for Escape are plotted in the tight manner of mystery stories and both of them depend on willful aberrations of the senses for their mystery. (Significantly, Rimbaud is alluded to in A Plan for Escape.) Working in line with Dr. Moreau's experiments in Wells's story, a secondary character in each novella (Morel in one, Castel in the other) devises ways to alter man's perceptions of the world and, thus, to alter that world itself. Both novellas are science fictions, born of Berkeley's esse est percipi by way of H. G. Wells and clearly reflect Borges's thematic presentations of time and space. What makes them notable, however, is the convoluted method of presenting the mystery so that everything in Plan, for example, is called into question, not least of all the reader's perception of what "really" happened.

The plot of Plan is simple enough: a young man, Henri Nevers, is exiled for a period to an island that makes up the Devil's Island complex, apparently because of some misdemeanor in the family business. Nevers longs to get away in order to join his fiancée in Paris, and his narrative takes the form of letters to his uncle who rather unsympathetically and coolly edits them into the text we read. What's more, the people Nevers talks to don't reveal themselves clearly and, besides, he's ill—all of which makes his perception of what is going on as well as our perception of him and it unverifiable. The more Nevers tries to understand what the strange Castel is doing, the more evidence he translates into explanation, the less he really understands. The fact that Castel, as we ultimately learn, is performing radical surgery—appropriately bloodless and discretely unspecified in the text—on men's sensory apparatus in order to make their nutshell prison seem an unbounded world simply confirms Bioy's repeated indication that while we can only read the world through the translation of our senses, those senses are unreliable in rendering that world.

Sophisticated, brittle, witty, and allusive, Bioy's novel has been robbed of some of the shock it must have had when it was originally published in 1945 during the Nazi atrocities—which it suggests by the most delicate and distanced means: rather like a technician handling radioactive isotopes with elaborately articulated forceps through a protective barrier. The content of his book is made safe for us, sterilized as it were, by the complicated technique, and in its remoteness, the experience of reading A Plan for Escape is something like the experience of reading Hawthorne's stories; but Bioy could not write of his tales, as Hawthorne could write of his, that they "have none of the abstruseness of idea, or obscurity of expression, which mark the written communication of a solitary mind with itself. They never need translation." Bioy's does seem a solitary mind in communication with itself, and the translation his fiction requires may be what we have come to expect of the act of reading in the time since Hawthorne's hypothetical censure.

M. E. Cossio (essay date Otoño 1980–Invierno 1981)

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SOURCE: "A Parody on Literariness: Seis problemas para Don Isidro Parodi," in Dispositio, Vols. V-VI, Nos. 15-16, Otoño, 1980–Invierno, 1981, pp. 143-53.

[In the essay below, Cossio claims that Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi parodies literary convention and the reading and writing processes on several levels. Cossio also examines how this work is influenced by other literary texts and historical events and figures.]

In 1942, H. Bustos Domecq was born in Argentina and immediately published his first book, Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi. Far from being supernatural, this amazing happening was the natural result of the united effort of two well known writers already engaged in the discovery of a "brave new world": Tlön. In order to find it, both Adolfo Bioy Casares and Jorge Luis Borges investigated whether "The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia" had or did not have the pages on "Uqbar." After such a detection related by the latter in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" they collaborated in the "revelation" (creation?) of a fecund "polymath" (cryptographer) called Honorio Bustos Domecq whose biography appears in the first two pages of his own book, as the transcription of "la silueta de la educadora, señorita Adelma Badoglio." Through it, the reader becomes acquainted with Domecq and learns that he was "in fact" born in Pujato (Province of Santa Fe) in 1893, and that he had accomplished several literary deeds. One of these, his reading in the "Centro Balear" of his "Oda a la muerte de su padre" by Jorge Manrique, is worthy of mention, since such a feat clearly shows the kind of author the reader is dealing with: a writer who always tells the truth, not his truth but the others', a plagiarist.

In an interview with Victoria Ocampo, Borges explained where the name Bustos Domecq came from: "Creamos de algún modo entre los dos un tercer personaje, Bustos Domecq—Domecq era el nombre de su bisabuelo, Bustos el de un bisabuelo cordobés, mío—y lo que ocurrió después es que las obras de Bustos Domecq no se parecen ni a lo que Bioy escribe por su cuenta ni a lo que yo escribo por mi cuenta. Ese personaje existe, de algún modo. Pero sólo existe cuando estamos los dos conversando." Not only do these words elucidate the origin of the name and the intermittent existence of the character, but they also point out the dialogical structure of the text under study. It starts with the sentence "We transcribe…." The use of the pronoun of the first person plural is ambiguous, since it can be understood as a merely rhetorical device used by the pseudo-author instead of the "I" or as a direct statement made, at this moment and only here, by the two actual authors united in the "we." Yet, the we is not a being but a written represented signifier, whose meaning lies in the writers and readers' discourse which keeps only the trace of their presence—their way of writing (of reading). On the other hand, "to transcribe" means to write down something that has already been written. This "already written" consists in Domecq's biography and bibliography given through the sketch of Miss Badoglio. Thus, from the very beginning, a dialogue of a dual nature is set up: it is carried on between the present text and that of the educator, and between writer(s) and reader(s). The latter will never know who is writing because there is not a subject or a "real" referent behind the text.

Bustos Domecq, the result of an act of talking (of a dialogue), is a chain of signifiers that, moving from one place (Bioy's) to another (Borges'), becomes the representation of speech in writing. As a signifier (sign-vehicle), this proper name stands for two real writers as well as for the fictional ones who appear in the text; as a signified (cultural-unit), it is the paradigm of the detective: Parodi/Parody (in Spanish, Parodi/Parodia). Thus the actual authors can no longer be identified as subjects (Selves?) but as the written signs which represent them in the mode of a signified absence—Bustos Domecq. This name is simultaneously a pseudonym (pen name), a pseudo-author (a parody of ownership), a character (narrator), a text ("a bio-graphy," "a writing without [actual] referent") and the first cipher (as both a concealment of meaning and a nonentity) of the riddle that Seis problemas poses to its reader(s). Such a riddle, however, cannot be solved till the questions it consists of are formulated. I attempt to deal with the problems of deciphering and interpreting that this formulation raises by analyzing the characters, the arrangement of each one of the stories, and the organization of the text as a whole.

The impersonal and omniscient narrator introduces the characters who go to Parodi's cell, records the dates of their visits, and reports Parodi's thoughts and attitude: "El 5 de septiembre, al atardecer, un visitante con brazal y paraguas entró en la celda 273. Habló en seguida; habló con funeraria vivacidad; pero don Isidro notó que estaba preocupado." Those characters who call on Parodi are oppressed by the problem of a crime. Whether innocent or guilty, they give the detective an account of the events in which they have been involved, acting as narrators for their own sake, their desire to be extricated; whereas Parodi, the imprisoned detective, tells his stories (the story of the crime) to them for the sake of truth. An exchange of narratives and a transformation take place in each problem: the sender of the first narration becomes the receiver of the "real" story sent by Parodi, who is a born storyteller.

According to Walter Benjamin, the storyteller is either a man "who has come from afar" or one "who knows the local tales and traditions" ["The Storyteller," in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, edited by Hannah Arendt, 1969]. Parodi is both. Having worked as a barber, he heard a lot; being outside of worldly time and space as a prisoner, he has been able to draw experience from his boredom ("the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience"). He is a good listener of tales and retells them showing "orientation toward practical interest," "having counsel for his listeners," and respecting the criminal when he is of a "sturdy nature." This is evidenced, in "Las previsiones de Sangiácomo," by the following commendation: "A Sangiácomo viejo lo agrandó el odio. Se formó un plan que no se le ocurre ni a Mitre. Como trabajo fino y de aguante, hay que sacarle el sombrero." Like a traditional storyteller, the detective begins his stories with "a presentation of the circumstances in which he himself has learned what is to follow," interweaving his own experiences and insights with the events of the crimes: "Los de la policía, que son muy noveleros, no descubrieron nada … Pero yo, de tanto estar a galpón, me he puesto muy histórico y me gusta recordar esos tiempos cuando el hombre es joven y todavía no lo han mandado a la cárcel y no le faltan tres nacionales para darse un gusto."

Unlike Parodi, the visiting narrators report events that perplex them. Although they narrate what they have witnessed, still they do it from their own biased and peculiar standpoint. In their narrations, they themselves are the heroes, the protagonists, while the others are merely secondary figures. Another transformation follows when after having told their stories they listen to Parodi's. Just as their function changes from that of sender to that of receiver, so does their role shift from that of hero to that of dupe; and, conversely, the marginal figures become the leading characters—protagonists or antagonists—of the story of the crime as told by Parodi. Unmasking and fitting them all in the actual role they played in the criminal drama, the detective unfolds the "right" story, which is a summary of the "wrong" one, a reconstruction in the present of what "really" happened in the past. Hence most of the tales are constituted by two scenes: in the first one, the enigma is formulated (by the narrators) and, in the second, disclosed (by Parodi).

Two of the problems, however, are composed of more scenes and may, at first sight, seem to follow a different pattern. Textually divided into five parts, "El dios de los toros" formally consists of the presentation of a false enigma (snare in the first part and delay in the second), the formulation of the true enigma (narration of the crime in the third part and of the happenings surrounding it in the fourth), and the solution (disclosure in the fifth part). On the other hand, "Las previsiones de Sangiácomo" contains two enigmas instead of only one. Although it is textually split into six parts, it is formally composed of the formulation of the first enigma (narration of Pumita's death in the first part and of the events prior to her death in the second), the formulation of the second one (Ricardo's autobiography in the third part and, in the fourth, the narration of his suicide and the reading of the letter he left to his father, "Sangiácomo viejo"), and the revelation of the mystery one year after its decipherment was accomplished (the relationship between the two enigmas in the sixth part). Just as the other tales dramatize the pattern of formulation and disclosure in two scenes, so do these two make use of it in spite of their textual divisions.

Since the fifth part of "Las previsiones de Sangiácomo" is a delay set by the discourse for the reader and for Montenegro, the receiver of Parodi's revelation, I would like then to pause here for a moment and indicate that this is the only tale in which the (impersonal) narrator not only introduces the characters but appears also as the writer (author/narrator) of the stories. At the end of the second part he explains, in parentheses, how the conversation carried on in Villa Castellammare on the eve of Pumita's death was recounted to Parodi: "(Con bastante fidelidad, Carlos Anglada transmitió a Parodi esta conversación.)" Also, in the fifth part, the narrator briefly notifies the reader that the detective received the visits of the physician and the accountant of Sangiácomo and that their dialogues were long and confidential. This last adjective serves the narrator as a justification for not informing the reader about the content of those conversations—a justification reinforced at the end of the story by Montenegro's summary of what had happened in the year after the mystery was solved. The solution was not revealed because the criminologist, knowing from those conversations that Sangiácomo was on his deathbed, did not want to embitter his last months on earth with lawyers, judges, and policemen. Thus the vindication is not only textual, at the level of the sentence, but also ethical, at the level of semantics.

This way of writing (of reading) demands that the grouping of the characters be made on the basis of the specific action they perform in the narrative. The characters can then be set apart by their function into the following groups: (1) the narrators subdivided into the impersonal narrator (Domecq?), who "writes" the others' narrations, and the identified narrators (proper names), who "tell" the stories to Parodi; (2) the protagonists whose criminal plans and performances are not clear in the narrators' stories but become so together with their role (identity) in Parodi's; (3) the antagonists whose roles and schemes are stated for the first time in Parodi's recounting; (4) the detective whose role is as ambiguous as his name. Parodi, on the one hand, is the traditional detective, the one who puts in order the chronology of the happenings revealing the true identity of the characters; on the other hand, as his name metonymically indicates, he is a parody of the conventional sleuthhound—he is a prisoner. Accused of a crime he did not commit and unable to prove his innocence because of two adverse circumstances (to have owned a barbershop in "el barrio Sur" and to have rented a room to a police clerk who, not wanting to pay the rent he owed Parodi, testified against him), Parodi was then condemned to stay for twenty-one years in prison, living in "the proverbial cell 273." This phrase is repeated so many times that it calls for a special type of interpretation—a symbolic one.

In symbolism, the number 2 signifies conflict or ignorance which gives birth to wisdom; the number 7 indicates expression of conflict or judgment, dream voices, sound, and that which leads all things to their end; the number 3 means solution of conflict or judgment, man organizes the present, foresees the future, and benefits from the experience of the past. Furthermore, the three numbers add up to 12, which is symbolic of cosmic order and salvation. This figure corresponds to the signs of the Zodiac to which are linked the notions of space and time as well as the wheel or circle. Divided by 2, 12 gives 6, which corresponds to the cardinal directions and to the cessation of movement; hence 6 is associated with trial and effort. Curiously enough, six problems are brought to and solved by Parodi. The numerical composition has existed since antiquity, and this text (to some extent at least) follows it. Taking for granted and in its due worth this interpretation, each one of the numbers of his cell represents Parodi: 2 stands for his youth as a "compadrito," 7 stands for his maturation as an imprisoned detective, and 3 for his maturity as a "criollo viejo," as a storyteller. These numbers all together symbolize the mythical time and space, the wheel, in which he lives. In that paradigmatic cell 273, Parodi resides and solves the others' conflicts, not his own. His cell is the place where all the texts (characters and discourses) are united, interlaced or intercrossed. It is the center in which truth is found. But paradoxically, the place of truth is inhabited by a character who is there (and has to be there) because of a lie. Like a Lacanian (but laconic) psychoanalyst, Parodi discovers through the patient's words the true facts that have been repressed; like a semiotician, he decodes the meaning of the pseudocryptic messages (or lies) sent to him by the others, since "every time there is a lie there is signification" [Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, 1976]. Thus Parodi exemplifies the antithesis—truth and lie—that governs the whole text.

In the text, two different codes are at stake: the ironic code (the mixture of many discourses), the characters' farrago, and the historical code, Parodi's possible (though not verisimilar) stories. These codes share with the titles and the dedications of the stories (one of the invariants of this text) the form of a language articulated in denotation (titles) and connotation (dedications). While the titles are descriptive utterances, the dedications are modal utterances. Such a distinction presents two levels of the narrative; the combinatorial operation carried out by them articulates meaning, the possibility of transcoding. The dedications are signifiers, proper names which connote but do not describe, establishing connections outside the hindrance of time; they always refer to another code, to other texts, to the "already written," indicating that the meaning of the stories as discourse (message) has to be found outside the text itself. The titles, on the contrary, head the story which will be told in a logical (irreversible) order; they point up the chronological significance of the enigma—its disclosure is the closure of meaning—relating the beginning (of the story) to the end. Thus, on the one hand, there is an enigma, the narration of it, and the detection: the traditional form of the detective story; and on the other, there is the enunciation of an enigma which is not narrated; it consists in a cultural reference. As such, this enigma calls for another kind of detection, that of literary research.

The first story, "Las doce figuras del mundo," is dedicated to José S. Alvarez. Known chiefly as "Fray Mocho," Alvarez wrote many books portraying the "reality" of his time: Buenos Aires and the mores of its inhabitants circa 1890. Two of his books, Memorias de un vigilante and Mundo lunfardo, describe the habits and language of the national and foreign rogues. Certainly these descriptions have some bearing on Bustos Domecq's text. For one thing, it is not difficult to find in the narrator's characterization of Parodi the echo of Fray Mocho's description of the "compadrito" in Mundo lunfardo. For another, in the Spanish mixed with barbarisms that Domecq's characters use and his narrator writes, there seems to be no difficulty in finding vestiges of the forms of expression (the idiom of Buenos Aires during the immigration wave) that characterize Fray Mocho and his society as recorded in his books. Just as his texts elucidate Parodi's identity, the language (parole) of Domecq's characters, and the narrator's way of writing (style); so does his peculiar biography—a former police functionary turned into a writer who not only used many pseudonyms but also changed his own name from Ciriaco to Sixto for reasons of "euphony"—illuminate hidden levels of meaning in Domecq's act of dedication. For to dedicate the first problem to such an undefined personage is to connote the theme (understood as a question the text poses) all of the problems present, that of identity: where does identity lie?

"Las noches de Goliadkin" is dedicated to the "Buen Ladrón." Crucified with Christ on Calvary along with another, this "Good Thief" repented, like Goliadkin, of his misdeeds before dying. While Goliadkin is the actant of the story, the "Good Thief" is the object of the narrative; that is, the former, the thief in Montenegro's narration, acquires, at the end, the "value" of good through Parodi's recounting of the right story: "El joven, mareado por tanta suerte, tuvo una debilidad—cualquiera la tiene—y se alzó con el brillante … Resolvió dejarse matar y perder el brillante para salvarlo." The "Good Thief," a historical figure, is a subject who has already realized the performance that Goliadkin accomplishes here. Thus this character obtains with his death the quality of being good, the identity of the "Good Thief" whose story is a narrative structure prior to its manifestation: "Las noches de Goliadkin."

"El dios de los toros" is dedicated to Alexander Pope. This poet translated the Iliad and the Odyssey; also he wrote a mock-heroic banter on the foibles of fashionable society, The Rape of the Lock, and a mock-epic, The Dunciad, ridiculing pretentiousness and pedantry. Likewise Formento, the criminal of this story, writes mock-books, sneering at Anglada's, as Parodi explains to the latter: "Quien iba a decirle a uno que don Formento, mozo marica y fúnebre si los hay, supiera reirse tan bien de un zonzo. Todos sus libros son un titeo: usted se manda los Himnos para millonarios, y el mocito, que es respetuoso, las Odas para gerentes…." Furthermore, Formento is trying to reach the mass reader through a popular translation of La soirée avec M. Teste, entitling it La serata con don Cacumen (doubtlessly, a literal and very euphonical translation!). Thus Pope's works make understandable the personality of Formento, the narrator's irony, and the tone of Domecq's whole text—all of them done in Pope's manner.

"Las previsiones de Sangiácomo" is dedicated to "Mahoma." The prophet's life is a commentary on and exposition of the Koran; similarly, Sangiácomo's life is the explanation of the story of the crime. As Mohammed's hegira is the point of departure of the chronology of Islam and a turning point in his life, so Sangiácomo's migration from Italy to Argentina changes his social status and indicates the starting point of this story as Parodi explains: "Dios habla por la boca de los sonsos: en esa fecha y en ese lugar empieza realmente le historia." If the Koran sent to Mohammed supersedes the other prophets' messages, Sangiácomo's evil plan obliterates the highest one—destiny: "Planeó toda la vida de Ricardo: destinó los primeros veinte años a la felicidad, los veinte ulitimos a la ruina. Aunque parezca fábula, nada casual hubo en esa vida." Such a design, pertaining more to a prophet than to a criminal, makes Sangiácomo a forecaster comparable then to Mohammed.

"La víctima de Tadeo Limardo" is dedicated to Franz Kafka. Just as Kafka's life was guided by the desire for self-punishment, so was Limardo's. His inner wish to be hurt and humiliated evinces a parallelism with Kafka's character and characters: "Limardo logró al fin su propósito … Había venido de lejos; meses y meses Había mendigado el deshonor y la afrenta, para darse valor para el suicidio, porque la muerte es lo que anhelaba."

The last problem, "La prolongada busca de Tai An," is dedicated to Ernest Bramah. Ernest Bramah (Smith) wrote Max Carrado's serials, The Wallet of Kai-Lung and Kai-Lung's Golden Hours introducing a Chinese character with his peculiar way of talking "in the English tongue." Bramah's Chinese character is, like Domecq, an author/narrator. In one of his stories, Kai-Lung confesses to be guilty of unwished plagiarism in the following way:

It was with a hopeless sense of illness of ease that this unhappy one reached the day on which the printed leaves already alluded to would make known their deliberate opinion of his writing, the extremity of his hope being that some would at least credit him with honourable motives, and perhaps acknowledge that if the inspired Lo Kuang Chang had never been born the entire matter might have been brought to a very different conclusion.

What Bramah's character, Kai-Lung, quoted above says is representative of the ontological problem of the parallel lives and works (unwished plagiarism) that Domecq's dedications bring about. These connections and correspondences are mysterious, since they point to a cyclical time or to magical correlations which are not clearly stated but only suggested through the literary allusions: the dedications. They hint that not only the criminal follows a pattern already accomplished by somebody else in another context, but also that Seis problemas is a pastiche, as it is ostensibly shown to be in the last story. Because of the deliberate imitation of or reference to previous works and writers, this text lends itself to establish paradigmatic associations between its own version of artistic design and other existent versions, between the identity of its fictional characters and the real writers alluded to. In so doing, the text erases time since the narration does not unfold historically but refers back to an original mystery—identity. Time is annulled. Parodi's recounting of the story does not exhaust its meaning because of the temporal gap between the tale-telling and the story-writing implied by the dedications. Then, again, there are two different narratives: the detective one, which needs no appeal to anything outside itself to be understood, and which ceases to have significance at the time when its outcome is known; and the narrative which is, paradoxically, not narrated but adverted, which cannot be explained by a logical sequence of the happenings but by a mythical (cyclical) time, and which does not stop the process of signification. Following the pattern of the detective story, Parodi's tales attribute identity; however, the concept itself is refuted by the other narrative that sends the narration back to a zone where there is not fixed time or space: mystery is always there. Thus Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi is a paradigm of paradigmatic narratives, a text that joints together two opposite terms and maintains them in play: mystery and reason, eternity and historicism, identity and biography, individuality and likeness, originality and repetition.

In spite of its title, Domecq's text contains more than six problems and is a problem for its readers. It is composed of six stories, an introduction (transcription), and a prologue written by Gervasio Montenegro, one of Domecq's own characters. This means that the division between author and character is artificial. The threshold which separates the writer from the written may, therefore, be precarious, since it is here constituted by a writing. Writing is the (real?) stuff that composes both of them and, being an eternal process, sets up a circularity in which no one occupies a privileged position. Yet, in this art of writing, in this text, it is not so much a question of destroying privileges as of making fun of them. Everything and everybody are presented in such a humorous way that all anguish, whether metaphysical or ontological, disappears leaving its place to a rotund outburst of laughter. Thus this text is, first of all, a parody of the conventional detective stories, though, it follows the same pattern. In her book of detective fiction [The Development of the Detective Novel, 1968], A. E. Murch describes it as follows:

But many distinctive features that had originated in the nineteenth century still persisted—planning the clues and the solution before the rest of the story; giving the explanation in the form of a dialogue between a clever character and one who is less perceptive; presenting the story from the viewpoint of several different characters, of the victim himself, or even from that of the murderer; and particularly the convention of "fair play" between writer and reader.

All these features appear in Domecq's text. There, they are subject to mockery by means of the cracks, the obscenity of themes and language, the topical allusions, the frequent intrusion of the author (through the footnotes), and the exposure of the vices and nonsense of society. If this shows the satiric overtones of the text, the fact that its detective is a prisoner evinces its purpose: to make fun of the tradition, of the literary conventions, by a reductio ad absurdum, a "burla burlando" as Montenegro says in his prologue.

Secondly, this text parodies all sorts of discourse. In the narrative two languages are intertwined: the cultivated or bookish and the uncultivated or vernacular. The former is "spoken" by the characters who are highbrow writers, who, nonetheless, make continuous cultural mistakes such as attributing Gil Blas to Santillana instead of to its actual author Lesage, and who constantly drivel; for instance, they congratulate themselves for having found Parodi in, as if it could have been otherwise, or they compliment the imprisoned detective for having chosen to live in seclusion: "Usted, más sabio, ha elegido bien: la reclusión, la vida metódica, la falta de excitantes." The latter, the vernacular language, is "spoken" by the "compadrito" Savastano, who speaks in lunfardo. Parodi, a "compadrito" before his imprisonment and now an old criollo, knows both the vernacular and the bookish dialects; he mingles them when he wants to mock his distinguished visitors: "Pucha que la carne se vende bien en Avellaneda. Ese trabajo enflaquece a más de uno; a usted lo engorda," he says to Montenegro. Similarly, the narrator utilizes in his "writing" either one or the other according to the characters he introduces. By bringing them up through the description of the clothes they are wearing and using one of the words they usually utter, the narrator parodies the characters and their discourses beforehand; afterwards, they will do it all by themselves. For instance, he introduces Montenegro, a prig who always exercises his French, in this way: "Un caballero, de saco gris, pantalón de fantasía, guantes claros y bastón con empuñadura en cabeza de perro, descendió con una elegancia algo suranée y entró con paso firme, por los jardines." By consisting only of one sentence stuffed with many predicates, the narrator's description is a parody of any serious literary one.

Thirdly, Seis problemas parodies the world of the detective stories where the mystery is always unravelled. In the problems brought to Parodi, the solved mystery turns out to be a reference to another that cannot be brought to a conclusion (Parodi's own problem) or that cannot be elucidated—the strange and enigmatic parallelism between one's life and another's—so that the denouement of each problem is twofold: rational and ontological. Besides, the text begins with Montenegro's prologue in which he lays bare the principle of construction of Domecq's problems: "el planteo enigmático y la solución iluminadora." If we recall that Montenegro is the character who poses the second problem and who appears in the next ones (besides the fifth) as Parodi's helper or, according to his words, as the "true" detective, it is not difficult to realize that from the start the whole text is ironic and parodic through and through. Its cyclical organization supported by the appearance of the same characters not only in the stories but also in the prologue shows that the text is built on fictitiousness, spuriousness. Unlike the rational and truthful detective story, which sets itself to prove to the reader that mystery is an illusion, that there is always a rational, "real" explanation, Domecq's text, ending with the "true" magician's remark about the war ("Muchos hombres están muriendo ahora en el mundo para defender esa creencia"), sends the reader to the "reality" outside the text, to the world of chaos and regulated crime, when he has not yet left the world of order and reason, that of the detective story. The reader is then caught in between two realities, both of which are contrived and paradoxical.

Fourthly, this text is a parody of history. The footnotes that appear in the text are unrealistic; either they do not have a "real" referent (they are written by the pseudoauthor or by his characters), or the referent is false insofar as having died in 1349 he could not have sent a note in 1942: "Entia non sunt multiplicanad praeter necessitate (Note remitida por el doctor Guillermo Occam)." The only thing that refers the text to reality is the dates at the end of the prologue and of the problems. The "real" is written there in italics: "Pujato, 21 de Octubre de 1942." The dates insert fiction in space and time; read in context, they correspond to the chronology of the discourse. The first story was written in December 27, 1941; the prologue, in November 20, 1942; and the text was published in December 10, 1942. Accomplished in a year, the act of writing moved in a circular path, becoming a cyclical process whose first element follows the last. The end of the writing is, in fact, the beginning of the text. As such, the narrative inverts time. Just as writing is a logico-temporal process, so is reading. But the process is here reversed: we start reading what was written last.

Fifthly, Domecq's text parodies the reader's reality and role. He is not reading one text but three. The first text is the one that Montenegro addresses to the reader; this text represents the literal level of the work, its detective nature. The second text is the one that the author/narrator dedicates, addresses to other writers or historical figures (absent readers); this is the semantic text, the hidden argument. In the first text, the dedications precede the narration, subhead the story which will be narrated; while in the second, the same dedications, pertaining to elements that have to do with the whole text, are pervasive but somehow independent. These dedications are allegorical messages, since they have a concealed meaning that transcends the literal one of the stories. The third text is the transcription written by "we." Obviously, it is impossible to demonstrate who is its author and who is its reader. This third text is an assumed one made up of the copy of lineaments, a prelude based on a short motive: the fictitious author. These three texts form Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi whose structure is dialogical: each sender is also a receiver. The we, who sends the first message, is the one who receives the last one: we, the readers. We ourselves, senders and receivers, are as fantastic and fictitious as Domecq because we have also been written. Since we started speaking without knowing the end of the utterance in which we had engaged, we have to accept the task of finishing it, of constructing a second code, a meaningful language, elaborated on the basis of the given one: the "already written." We have then to continue the dialogue by deciphering that first code. Thus the act of reading is preceded by an act of writing, and to write is nothing more than to transcribe, to copy—endless game, infinite tautology.

Sixth and last, by denying the possibility of any privileged position, of any original point of departure, Domecq's text posits itself as that which cannot be detected through rational means or explained through a logical discourse. Once the conveyance of identity has been denied to us, is it still possible to believe that we can possess meaning? Indeed Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi no more parodies any critical (sleuthlike?) undertaking—let alone my own analysis—than it laughs at the countless repetition of the "already said."

John Sturrock (review date 29 March 1981)

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SOURCE: "Argentine Detective and English Jockey," in The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1981, pp. 3, 29.

[Sturrock is the author of Paper Tigers: The Ideal Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges (1977). In the following review, he describes Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi as an entertaining example of detective fiction.]

It is a brave moment in the literary annals of a nation when it gives birth to its first indigenous private eye. Until it does, local devotees of the murder story must endure the indignity—to say nothing of the expense—of having their sleuths shipped in from abroad and then perfunctorily translated into the vernacular, where they figure as alien bloodhounds nosing along even more alien trails. Murder may know no frontiers, but is the same true of detection? How much does the born-and-bred Argentinian make of Agatha Christie or Erle Stanley Gardner, as the quaint Miss Marple hikes geneteelly around the English shires, or the stainless Perry Mason outsmarts the District Attorney in a California courtroom? Why, confound it, can Argentinian whodunitomanes not be provided with an Argentinian detective solving good Argentinian crimes?

Well, they can, and here we have him: Don Isidro Parodi, dreamt up in a patriotic hour by two sly and staunchly cosmopolitan Buenos Aires writers, Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares, lifelong students both of Anglo-American crime fiction and with a rare grasp of its essentials. They did not at once put their names to these caustic tales, which appeared as the work of a composite author called H. Bustos Domecq. But their cover was blown long ago, and it is the names of Borges and Bioy-Casares which now crown the cover of [Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi], with that of Borges three times the size of Bioy-Casares, which is unfair, since they wrote the stories as partners.

A detective with the name of Parodi, invented by two jocular writers whose second language is English, promises some sort of literary jape, and that is what these "Six Problems" very amusingly are. Don Isidro is the parody of all fictional detectives who ever set eye to magnifying glass, unique among even that weirdly diverse company for being a jailbird. He has been framed, it goes without saying, after some political skullduggery at election time, but sent down nonetheless on a 21-year stretch for homicide. Incarceration has made a new man of him. Before being locked up, this awesome rationalist and cryptographer of his native city's black secrets had been nothing more sensational than a barber. But now Parodi is the last word in detective brilliance who can unravel the knottiest mystery without even getting up from his stool in the corner. He is pure brainpower, sedentary and infallible: a consulting divinity.

Because he is prevented from going out to the problems, the problems must be brought in to him, to Cell 273 of the penitentiary he graces. There he is called on by a succession of gaudily expansive local characters who have some-how been enmeshed in crimes of violence as bogus and picturesque as themselves. Don Isidro has to sit there and take it, as his garrulous clientele recount their obscure tales. Of firsthand evidence there is none; all he has to go on is what he is told, and if one of the actors in the drama cannot tell the whole tale, others can be relied on to break in on Parodi's seclusion and add their mite. The ethnic brew is a rich one: there are Italians, Basques, Russians, Chinese, the lot; and no two tale-bearers talk quite alike. Diversity is all. The crimes themselves tend to the melodramatic and to the patently unoriginal; the most diverting of the six problems, "The Nights of Goliadkin," is a fairly preposterous retake of the already preposterous Murder on the Orient Express, and if I knew the relevant literature better I could perhaps identify the models for others of these pastiches.

Parodi's solutions to the mysteries are ruthlessly final. Unlike his interlocutors, he is a man of few and sober words; all the overacting and characterful speech-making that have earlier been inflicted on him are now avenged in the brevity of his exegesis. Crimes remarkable for their exuberance and their highly artistic stage-management are shown by this stark geometer of the passions to have been in truth mean and mercenary. Parodi, in short, deflates: his is the solo voice of truth following the chorus of bad fiction.

It is good that these Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi should be known in English, nearly 40 years after they were written. Non-Argentinian readers will have trouble with all the obvious digs and allusions in them, which one would need to be formidably well up on the local culture of Buenos Aires to appreciate. But they are lively and engaging items, and the translations, by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, are first-rate.

Alan Cheuse (review date 5 May 1981)

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SOURCE: "Confused and Accused: Poe-etic Borges," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 5, 1981, p. 5.

[Cheuse is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following mixed review, he maintains that Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi holds little interest for a general audience and is of greatest value to the Borges scholar.]

For the self-selected few, here is vintage Borges from the cellars of E. P. Dutton, part of a plan to publish in English translation all of the major Borges. Nearly 40 years old, [Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi] contains the first collaborative effort between Borges and his fellow Argentinian Adolfo Bioy-Casares, but only recently has Borges' official translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, worked the material into English.

The book consists of a mock-foreword by Gervasio Montenegro, a member of the fictional Argentine Academy of Letters whom Borges fans in the U.S. will recognize as a figure in later satires by the Borges-Bioy Casares collaboration; then come six send-ups of the ratiocinative tale as invented by Edgar Allan Poe, and finally a brief mock-life of the imaginary author to whom these tales were originally ascribed, the Argentinian educator and man of letters, H. Bustos Domecq. Four of the tales have already appeared in U.S. journals and three have been dramatized for radio broadcast on the BBC.

Don Isidro Parodi sits in cell 237 of a Buenos Aires prison, a Poe-esque Buddha. In each story confused and sometimes accused murderers and victims come to him with tangled stories, delivered in hope of clarity and explanation, or even expiation. In the first, for example, a confused and accused Argentinian named Molinari comes for help in sorting out the details surrounding the death of an Arab mystic; in the second, a priceless jewel smuggled into Latin America on the person of a Russian immigrant becomes the motive for a slaying—the "tall, distinguished, bland" and "romantic" Gervasio Montenegro himself may be accused; we see intricate mysteries unraveled by the unparalleled logic of the incarcerated Don Isidro.

The others follow the same pattern, a Poe-etical scheme that reads like the comic inversion of such marvelous Borges stories as "The Garden of the Forking Paths," which the master of 20th-Century short fiction was writing around the same time. This rarified volume is for the completist or literary historian more than anyone else. Such folk will most probably already have read it in Spanish.

John Spurling (review date 12 June 1981)

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SOURCE: "The Prison-Cell Detective," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4080, June 12, 1981, p. 672.

[Born in Kenya, Spurling is playwright and critic. In the following excerpt, he provides a negative assessment of Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi.]

Borges first met Adolfo Bioy-Casares in 1930, when Bioy was sixteen and Borges, who had already published three books of poems, three books of essays and a biography, thirty-one. Borges has called his friendship with Bioy "one of the chief events of my life" and added with characteristic modesty:

when we began to work together, Bioy was really and secretly the master…. Opposing my taste for the pathetic, the sententious, and the baroque, Bioy made me feel that quietness and restraint are more desirable.

Bioy appears under his own name in the early story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"—one of Borges's crucial transitions between writing essays and fiction—as the friend with whom the narrator discovers the existence of the mysterious land of Uqbar. Soon afterwards the two friends collaborated on a set of detective stories which was published in 1942 as Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by H. Bustos Domecq; and they used this pseudonym again for further collaborative stories which appeared only in magazines or were privately printed.

Six Problems contains precious little evidence of Bioy's taste for quietness and restraint, unless it is in the character of Parodi himself, an ex-barber serving a long prison sentence for a murder he didn't commit and forced to listen to the elaborate Browningesque monologues of a series of excitable visitors to his cell. Parodi is the ne plus ultra of the intellectual sleuth, his actions more or less confined to brewing himself a cup of maté and reading newspapers, his characteristics to being "sententious and fat", with a shaved head and "unusually wise eyes", and his speech to occasional questions along the way and a brisk unravelling of the mystery at the end of each story. Whether or not these unravellings or gists of what actually happened reflect Bioy's influence on Borges, they now read as the most Borgesian parts of the book, comparable in method, though not in resonance, to the stories in The Garden of Forking Paths, first published a year before Six Problems but incorporated in 1944 into Ficciones (Borges's bibliography is nearly as labyrinthine as his plots). As Borges wrote in his prologue to The Garden of Forking Paths, "the composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance … A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary". But in Six Problems Parodi's slim résumés are preceded by the prolix explanations of those involved in the crime and it is the predominance of these other voices, these extra, deliberately ridiculous and unreliable narrators, which makes the book both laborious and extravagant.

The original idea for Six Problems seems to have been Bioy's. At any rate Borges has him propounding it at the beginning of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius":

Bioy Casares had dined with me that night and talked to us at length about a great scheme for writing a novel in the first person, using a narrator who omitted or corrupted what happened and who ran into various contradictions, so that only a handful of readers, a very small handful, would be able to decipher the horrible or banal reality behind the novel.

With the addition of the prison-cell detective to stand in for the small handful of alert readers, the formula is complete and must have looked promising, given that either of the collaborators had a gift for dramatic monologue. On the evidence of this book, neither had, and although Bioy may have made better attempts elsewhere (I have not read his solo works), Borges has steered clear of characterized monologue in all his later work; indeed he has tended to avoid characterization altogether. His characters do not aspire to be individuals with a sense of interior life but types (the traitor, the Jew, the theologian, the gaucho) or entries in encyclopaedias (Herbert Ashe, Dr Brodie).

The monologuists in Six Problems are types—the leading actor, the man of letters, the society lady, the small-time crook, etc—with a satirical dimension. They are meant, as well as unwittingly corrupting the truth of what has happened, to point up certain absurdities in pre-war Argentinian society. It is hard for an English reader forty years later to assess their accuracy, but they come across as overdone, absurd at two removes, as if the authors had satirized conventional Aunt Sallies instead of the actual people around them….

[The stories in Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi] are strictly for a very small handful of readers, the Borges freaks. As detective stories they are too far-fetched, as satire too clumsy, and as literature too trivial.

Suzanne Jill Levine (essay date Spring-Summer 1981)

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SOURCE: "Science versus the Library in The Island of Dr. Moreau, La invención de Morel [The Invention of Morel], and Plan de evasión [A Plan for Escape]," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. IX, No. 18, Spring-Summer, 1981, pp. 17-26.

[A prolific translator of Latin American literature, Levine has translated works by such authors as Manuel Puig, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Julio Cortazar, Severo Sarduy, and Carlos Fuentes. She is the translator of two works by Bioy Casares, The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata and Asleep in the Sun. In the following essay, she characterizes H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel and A Plan for Escape as literature revealing "the text's progressive awareness … of its own textuality." Levine contends that this self-reflexivity is most evident in the attitudes of Bioy Casares's and Wells's characters toward books and literature.]

This paper is part of a lengthy chapter of my dissertation which deals with Bioy Casares' novellas, La invención de Morel [The Invention of Morel] (1940) and Plan de evasión [A Plan for Escape] (1945), as parodic reductions or mirrors of H. G. Wells' "scientific romance" The Island of Dr. Moreau. This chapter discusses Bioy and his companion-in-letters, Borges, as readers of Wells and of a whole tradition of utopic literature which encompasses works of Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Voltaire, Shakespeare, and last but not least, Sir Thomas More. Besides analyzing the echoes of Wells and company in the theme, plot, and "characters" of Bioy's novels, I also attempted, in this [essay], to trace the spiralling repetitions and variations of certain narrative devices such as "the first-person account of extraordinary events."

It is not difficult to discover, in La invención de Morel and in Plan de evasión, that the scientific content of the experiments carried out in these novels are used as metaphors of a textual experiment. Morel's machine, "scientifically" explained by Morel himself, while prophetic of a scientific possibility, is, as Alfred MacAdam has observed, [in "Satire and Self-Portrait," in Modern Latin American Narratives: The Dreams of Reason, 1977] a metaphor of the work of art. In Plan, a similar deception is involved. Castel, governor of the penal colony on an apocryphal Devil's Island and mad scientist in his spare time, takes synesthesia, a psychological and esthetic phenomenon, to unheard-of surgical consequences, making use of scientific theories of William James and Sir Francis Galton. Again, the synesthetic experience of the men in the prison cells works as a metaphor of the experience of the reader of the text, Plan: he sees signifiers—words—and interprets them; his interpretation is an illusion. There is no possible way of reaching for an absolute reality beyond the text, because the text, the signifiers, are the only reality within his reach.

Again, Dr. Moreau's experiment, the acceleration of Darwin's laws of evolution through surgery and behavioral conditioning, is, in this case, a metaphor of not a literary reality but a moral truism: man is biologically an animal disguised in a thin layer of training and of biological difference. As Dr. Moreau pontificates:

Very much, indeed, of what we call moral education is such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct; pugnacity is trained into courageous self-sacrifice, and suppressed sexuality into religious emotion. And the great difference between man and monkey is the larynx … [The Island of Dr. Moreau]

This "message" is expressed most strongly by the book's apocalyptic close: when Prendick, the hero of the story, finally returns to civilization, he cannot stand the nearness of man in whose gestures he sees the sickening echoes of the beast men, among whom he had been forced to live during his last months on the island. Prendick isolates himself in the country (far from the "animal"-ridden city). Here we can see echoes of Part IV of Gulliver's Travels in which Gulliver prefers life among the horses to life with people. Prendick's last words are:

I have withdrawn myself from the confusion of cities and multitudes, and spend my days surrounded by wise books, bright windows, in this life of ours lit by the shining souls of men … whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope. I hope, or I could not live. And so, in hope and solitude, my story ends.

It isn't only the metaphoric intention of the scientific experiments in Wells, and more evidently so in Bioy, that make their works more fiction than science. There are also the intrusions of books, and even of the library, which "interfere" with the scientific content. In Bioy's texts, we know that this bookish interference is self-consciously signalled. In Wells, the presence of the book, though not a self-conscious signal, is an inevitable reality—as indeed it is in all literature. For example, when Dr. Moreau "explains" his experiment to the horrified Prendick, he places his "surgical" methods in a "historical" perspective:

A similar operation is the transfusion of blood, with which subject indeed I began. These are all familiar cases. Less so, and probably far more extensive, were the operations of those medieval practitioners who made dwarfs and beggar cripples and show-monsters; some vestiges of whose art still remain in the preliminary manipulation of the young mountebank or contortionist. Victor Hugo gives an account of them in L'Homme qui rit … But perhaps my meaning grows plain now. You begin to see that it is a possible thing to transplant tissue from one part of an animal to another, or from one animal to another, to alter its chemical reactions and methods of growth, to modify the articulations of its limbs, and indeed to change it in its most intimate structure?

And yet this extraordinary branch of knowledge has never been sought as an end, and systematically by modern investigators, until I took it up! Some such things have been hit upon in the last resort of surgery; most of the kindred evidence that will recur to your mind has been demonstrated, as it were, by accident—by tyrants, by criminals, by the breeders of horses and dogs, by all kinds of untrained clumsy-handed men working for their own immediate ends. I was the first man to take up this question armed with knowledge of the laws of growth.

Yet one would imagine it must have been practised in secret before. Such creatures as the Siamese Twins … And in the vaults of the Inquisition. No doubt their chief aim was artistic torture, but some, at least, of the inquisitors must have had a touch of scientific curiosity …

In the midst of a discourse of vivisection, in which scientific words like "grafting," "physiology," and "chemical" are used, Moreau cites as a historical source, Victor Hugo's L'Homme qui rit [The Man Who Laughs]. And, he also refers to vivisectors as "artistic" torturers who practice an "extraordinary branch of knowledge." Both in his sources and his explanations, Moreau's scientific discourse is invaded by the language of art and of literature.

The mention of Hugo is another of the many cross-references which would appear to establish the relationship between Bioy's text Plan, and Dr. Moreau. In Plan, not only is the mention of Hugo synonymous with a mockery of traditional literature, but also a possible salute to the Hugo who appears in Wells, as the fictional source at the basis of Moreau's scientific experiment.

Moreau's "scientific" explanation is Wells' derision of science's pretense to be whole and coherent. It is a mumbo jumbo of scientific ideas mixed in with sadistic obsessions about "artistic torture," and Faustian urges of taking God's creation into his own hands, a college of Darwin and Victor Hugo. Indeed, Moreau's explanation is not far from the Beast-Men's chant of the Law, a mumbo jumbo of religion and fear which they sing to try to keep themselves from reverting to beastly habits. Moreau criticizes the chant because it is only evidence of their imprisonment in their animality:

There's something they call the Law. Sing hymns about "all thine."… But I can see through it all, see into their very souls, and see there nothing but the souls of beasts, beasts that perish—anger, and the lusts to live and gratify themselves … It only mocks me …

If Moreau is mocked by the "Law," a poor simulacrum of civilized thought, he is mocked by his own discourse. It was, after all, Dr. Moreau who implanted certain "fixed ideas" in the heads of the Beast-Men—ideas about what they could and could not do—on which they base their chant. Indeed, the statement, "It only mocks me," is a possible indication of self-commentary intended by the text. Moreau's science is revealed as myth, and superseded by the fiction of the text. Levi-Strauss' concept of the scientist as myth is already recognized, perhaps not so unconsciously, by the scientist-writer, H. G. Wells. This concept has been described by Jacques Derrida:

The engineer, whom Levi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur [tinkerer], should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth. A subject who would supposedly be the absolute origin of his own discourse and would supposedly construct it "out of nothing," "out of whole cloth," would be the creator of the verbe itself. The notion of the engineer who had supposedly broken with all forms of bricolage [tinkering] is therefore a theological idea; and since Levi-Strauss tells us that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur. ["Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," in The Structuralist Controversy, 1972]

Moreau, like Wells, the writer-bricoleur who brings together Darwin and Hugo to create a text of science and fiction—a Frankenstein stitched-together text—is the scientist-bricoleur who brings to life the metaphor of this patchwork activity, the piecing together of parts of animals to create a Frankenstein breed of men. The myth of the scientist, so secure in the fantasies of Jules Verne, is exploded in Dr. Moreau.

Bioy Casares, in his "reworkings" of the Island of Dr. Moreau, brings to the foreground this exposure of science as myth. Wells at least considered that he was using Darwin's theories as a real pretext to develop a philosophical "message." Bioy, on the other hand, is aware that his starting point is the text that is made from other texts, from Moreau, from a whole tradition of utopian-island works. If Moreau's explanations are mumbo jumbo, then Morel's and Castel's explanations are even more apocryphal and fragmentary.

But perhaps one of the most effective images in Wells and in Bioy which reveals the text's progressive awareness (from Wells to Bioy) of its own textuality, is the intrusion of the library upon the scientific adventure. At the beginning of Prendick's adventure on the island of Dr. Moreau, the doctor attempts to distract Prendick from discovering the true nature of the experiment. One of his diversionary tactics is to point Prendick's attention to something else:

He called my attention to a convenient deckchair before the window, and to an array of old books, chiefly, I found, surgical works and editions of the Latin and Greek classics—languages I cannot read with any comfort—on a shelf near the hammock.

The first protagonist of Morel makes a similar discovery when he first enters the building called the "museum" on the island:

In one room there is a large but incomplete collection of books, consisting of novels, poetry, drama. The only exception was a small volume (Bélidor, Travaux: De Moulin Perse, Paris, 1737), which I found on a green-marble shelf … I wanted to read it because I was intrigued by the name Bélidor, and I wondered whether the Mulin Perse would help me understand the mill I saw in the lowlands of this island.

And in Plan, Nevers makes a similar discovery during his early explorations of Castel's domain:

In Castel's library there were books on medicine, on psychology, and some nineteenth-century novels; there were few classics. Nevers was not interested in medicine. The only benefit he got out of Tropical Diseases Made Easy was a pleasant but ephemeral prestige among the servants in his house …

The similarities and differences between the model, Wells' text, and its two parodies, are telling. Dr. Moreau's library, "an array of old books," is really just a selection of useful scientific books, dealing specifically with surgery, which would be guides for his experiments in vivisection, and for more "philosophical" reading, he has some Greek and Latin classics. Their presence too is in keeping with Moreau's "classicism." That is, in his explanation to Prendick, he claims that his ultimate goal is a truly Platonic quest for an ideal, within the principles of Stoicism—the indifference to Pleasure and Pain which justifies his cruel surgery. Moreau carries his surgery to a classically poetic extreme by creating a Satyr-Man, or, as Prendick comments: "The Satyr was a gleam of classical memory on the part of Moreau …" Prendick, a biologist, not a literary man, admits with gentlemanly irony that he is not up to Greek and Latin, though he attempts to read Horace.

On the other hand, Morel, not pretending to have its basis in a scientific reality like Wells' romance, but rather which is inscribed within a science fiction, Moreau, contains "bibliotecas inagotables"—that immediately suggest to the Borgesian reader the infinite library of Babel. This library is a parodic reversal of Moreau's not only because of its size, but also its content which is almost all fiction and no science, except for a book titled Le Moulin Perse [The Persian Mill]. As the Morel narrator later explains, it is a book about tides which must have helped Morel figure out how to run his machine by tidal energy—the "molino" [mill] on the island exists for that purpose. The book, whose apparent author is someone named Bernardo Forest de Belidor, is an "invention" of Bioy's—indeed, it would seem an attempt to confuse the reader with the double association to the Moulin Rouge [Red Hill], and Montesquieu's Les lettres persannes [Persian letters].

In the Morel library, the protagonist seems to echo Prendick's complaint about the presence, the intrusion of literary works. He is not a scientist like Prendick, but as he is writing an Elogio de Malthus [Tribute to Malthus], his interests would seem to be more scientific than literary. For him, Morel's library is "deficiente" because it doesn't contain scientific works, and indeed, he grabs the only "scientific" work there. Later, as spectator and then actor in Morel's movie, he complains that the lack of scientific information may lead him, in his ignorance, to threaten the immortality of the machine. But Morel's library, like Moreau's, is an index of the book's intention: Morel's science is mere pretext; it is its fiction, and not its science, that "immortalizes" it.

Castel's library, which is in many ways more similar to Moreau's than Morel's, contains an element of more complete reversal of the Moreau library. Like the latter, it contains an array of scientific books which would relate to Castel's experiment. Unlike Moreau's, but like Morel's more literary library, it contains novels. Nevers, a more "literary" type than Prendick and than the Morel diarist, seems to be in an intermediate position between Prendick and Nevers. Though not a scientist, he seems more interested in science than literature. He specifies that they are nineteenth century novels. He also seems to express disappointment at the lack of classical literary texts, in opposition to both Prendick, who is almost uncomfortable in their presence, and the Morel diarist who also disapproves of the abundance of literary books.

Indeed, whereas the Morel diarist reads Le Moulin Perse throughout his adventure—it is true, more to be able to deal with his immediate situation than for pure scientific interest—Nevers, who brought with him and read briefly the medical book only because of a morbid fear of catching a tropical disease, spends his reading time with the classic text of Plutarch on symbols, The Treatise of Isis and Osiris.

Nevers consistently avoids scientific "useful" matters; his own personal library that he brings with him consists mainly of the books of Jules Verne. His lack of knowledge of scientific matters is emphasized by the fact that in order to discuss prison matters at the Frinziné party, he resorts desperately to the Larousse. [The critic adds in a footnote: "Resorting to the Larousse (or the Encyclopedia Britannica) is what Bioy does in real life; thus this comic episode at the house of the Frinziné's has certain autobiographical echoes. Indeed, Nevers' bumbling speech on prisons at the Frinziné house is perhaps a repercussion of a bungled public performance that Bioy attempted in his youth. During his student days he was asked by a professor to give a speech in Paris, from memory and in French, for his class. He insisted that he was not good at public speaking, but the professor persisted. Bioy's father quickly copied the speech out of the Encyclopedia Larousse, and Bioy failed miserably to remember his lines…. The apparently frivolous joke about Nevers' getting his information from the Larousse involves a constant theme in Borges as well: the use of apocryphal or second-hand erudition, i.e., another form in which the veracity of the text is undermined. The Frinzinés—who represent a colonial cultural mileu that could be a mirror of Argentinian society—are another sign of apocryphal or false knowledge, since while pretending to know about poetry, they admire such a third-rate poet as Ghil. Although Nevers' mocks them, his knowledge and sensibility is just as apocryphal: his main source is the Larousse, his favorite poet: also René Ghil."] Nevers' cousin Xavier tries to encourage Nevers to do some solid research writing during his stay on the islands, aware of Nevers' poetizing Bohemian tendencies. And Castel criticizes Nevers' wasting his time on Plutarch, and in general denigrates the study of the classics when one should be more involved with the "progress" of modern culture. This is clearly Castel's message when he starts a conversation with Nevers by asking the young man:

"What are you reading?"

"Plutarch." It was useless to pretend.

"Why are you wasting time? Culture must not be confused with the study of elementary men," pronounced the puppet voice.

"Students of philosophy still pour over Plato's dialogues, and the most demanding readers laugh again and again at Molière's jokes about doctors. The future is black."

"Black, camouflaged," said Nevers shrewdly.

There was a silence. Cut out of weakness, Nevers continued, "This book interests me. It deals with symbols."

"With symbols? Perhaps. But don't you think that in eighteen hundred years the subject might have been enriched?"

The total belief in scientific progress, already disturbed by the pessimism of Wells in Moreau, is certainly undermined here by Nevers' burlesque attitude toward the demogogic words and puppet-like image of Castel, the scientist.

While all three novels are inscribed within the topos of the library, it becomes obvious that not only are Morel and Plan more self-consciously so, but that Plan is the more "bookish" of the two. This has already been pointed out in terms of the fact that Plan has many more allusions than Morel, and also is inscribed within the text of Morel, which makes Plan's textual texture more dense. This difference between Plan and Morel is also verified by the comparative treatment of the library. While the Morel diarist, like Prendick, rejects the literary texts in the library, Nevers does the opposite by fleeing, escaping, from the scientific, and into the literary.

Another indication of the fact that these three novels are enclosed within the library is that their characters, apart from being readers, are writers. Indeed, so is More's Utopia traveler, and Defoe's islander, which again emphasizes the textuality of the whole utopian tradition.

In Moreau, Prendick, after all, has left his nephew a "narrative." Prendick talks about the writing of his "chronicle":

There is much that sticks in my memory that I could write, things that I would cheerfully give my right hand to forget. But they do not help the telling of the story.

Here Prendick is revealing that he is not merely noting down facts, but he is, in a sense, editing the story, according to how he, the writer, thinks it should best be told.

The topos of the writer becomes, logically, more dominant in Bioy's self-commentative texts. At the beginning of both Morel and Plan we discover that the chief characters are writing works of a factual nature, in the case of Morel, a Defensa ante sobrevivientes [Apology for Survivors] and an Elogio de Malthus [Tribute to Malthus], and in the case of Plan, an Addenda a la Monografia sobre los juilcios de Oléron [Addenda to the Monograph on the Judgements of Oléron]. Though Malthus' prophecy of overpopulation and Les jugements d'Oléron—an anonymous maritime code—are historical referents, these "documentary" projects of both protagonists are as fictional as the adventure they narrate. They are fictional because—as they are never written—they exist only in the text, and because their appearance in the text is a result of their relation to its fictional theme. That is, in Morel, Malthus is mentioned in counterpoint with Morel's invention which is, after all, an antidote to overpopulation since it insures immortality without the need of procreation. The mention of the maritime code relates to Plan in that the legality of Nevers' actions as a naval officer and Castel's as governor are among the many elements in question within the complex plot of Plan.

However, even in the use of these documentary referents as commentaries on the text, Plan, again, is the more self-commentative: the fact that Nevers is writing addenda to a monograph on a document is a kind of joke on the act of writing which is about writing about writing. This burlesque commentary is further compounded when Castel reveals that one of his reasons for wanting Nevers as a collaborator is that he thinks Nevers is the "author de Los juicios de Oléron [author of The Judgements of Oléron]." This clownish mistake on Castel's part is not a simple joke; if, indeed, Bioy's books are about writing which is about writing, they are about writing as a continuous process that transcends the individual "author." In Les judgements d'Oléron, it is the text that matters, not the author, who could be one or many, i.e., a collaboration, like the many works written by "Bustos Domecq." The pseudo-concepts of the original and of authorship are surely being mocked here.

What is perhaps most significant about the historical projects of the Morel diarist, and of Nevers, is that, as Prendick leaves history behind when he ventures upon Moreau's island, they leave behind these documents, and sacrifice themselves, as writers, to fiction. Or as the Morel diarist writes:

Although I have been making entries in this diary at regular intervals, I have not had a chance to work on the books that I hope to write as a kind of justification for my shadowy life on this earth. And yet these lines will serve as a precaution, for they will stay the same even if my ideas change.

Though not a dabbler in metaphors and poetry like Nevers, the Morel diarist, like Nevers, communicates to the reader "I am a writer." He will be immortalized by fiction, not History. Nevers, too, ceases to mention his Addenda and becomes more involved in writing his account. The diarist and Nevers bring to the written page the "inventions" of Morel and Castel whose names unite the science fiction of Wells and the expressionist fiction of Kafka.

Elizabeth Muther (review date 25 August 1981)

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SOURCE: "Early Borges: Leveling Social Criticism through Satire," in The Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1981, p. 18.

[In the following review, Muther highlights the inherent social commentary of Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi and discusses the nature of Bioy Cassares's professional relationship with Jorge Luis Borges.]

Soon after the outbreak of World War II the Germans chose to sink one of their own maimed warships near Montevideo Harbor, Uruguay, rather than face the British fleet on the open ocean. Just across the river in Argentina they knew they had friends to whom they could flee. In late 1939 the Argentines, ruled by a military coalition, were distinctly pro-Nazi.

But a year later an arcane, though unreserved, attack on the pro-German nationalists appeared on the front page of a prominent Argentine magazine. Its author, Jorge Luis Borges—who would first draw the eyes of international critics to Hispanic America after the fall of Peron and then inspire a second "boom" generation of Latin writers in the 1960s—had, up to that point, seemed utterly apolitical.

Borges asserted in El Hogar that these Nazi sympathizers had no love for German culture, but were merely borrowing influence and power to advance their own ends. He wryly suggested that the term "Germanophile" had been misapplied in Argentina. The fantasy on false etymologies he used to make this political statement is characteristically oblique, but effective.

Two years later Borges would again find a way to level sharp and effective social criticism from several steps removed. With friend and coauthor Adolfo Bioy-Casares, Borges was to write a satiric series of detective stories, Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, being issued now for the first time in English. The pseudonym they chose for this extravagant publication was H. Bustos Domecq.

On the most superficial level, this highly charged collaboration—far more arch than the work of either author—appears devoid of political content. Its hero, private detective Don Isidro Parodi, practices his art from the least likely of places, a prison: the authors have made his work excruciatingly difficult to assure that the solutions will not reflect the banal stuff of everyday experience, but rather pure intellection and genius. His clients are caricatured, colorful Argentines and strange foreigners who parade through his chilly, slimy cell, one after another.

Gervasio Montenegro, for example, also the fictive author of the comically bombastic "Foreword" to the text, visits Parodi in "The Nights of Goliadkin." He tells a wild tale of a transcontinental train journey in which he is the uncomprehending dupe in an international drama involving a repentant criminal and a gang of diamond thieves. Only Parodi—because of his judgments of his visitor's character—can sort out the bewildering mass of details offered up to him.

Satire—and political commentary—however, are never far from the dazzling and highly stylized surfaces of these six stories. Less satisfying as mysteries than as works of verbal gamesmanship, they treat the pretensions of the Argentine literary establishment, the gullibility of provincials in face of exploitive foreigners, the cruelty and pettiness of families taking revenge upon their own members, the falsity of class distinctions, and the insane dependence of Argentine citizens upon an untrustworthy, flabby government. And this list is not complete: Some of the satiric master strokes are keyed to uniquely local, contemporary events, not necessarily of interest to present-day readers.

Why is Parodi in jail? Fourteen years earlier, at the time of a low-life murder, he had unfortunately been landlord to a police clerk who owed him a year's back rent: A clear case of police corruption, but the poor Parodi was defenseless.

His situation makes the perfect frame for these satiric stories, which exploit a tremendous range of comic, parodic, tragi-comic and melodramatic devices to effect their complicated ends.

The language of Parodi's desperate guests—thick street slang or pompous Italianate jargon—reflects the amusement the collaborators found in their inventions.

Borges and Bioy-Casares met in 1930 or '31 when Borges was 30 and his friend only 17. They immediately became close friends: Borges was best man at Bioy's wedding, an event they celebrated by composing a comic telegram of announcement in a language they invented together, made up of English, Italian, and Spanish words.

Their collaboration—which produced several full-length satiric works published under pseudonyms, as well as poetry anthologies, articles, forewords and annotations, detective stories, and tales of the fantastic—is truly unique in literary history. Somehow, as Borges explained in his "Autobiographical Essay" (included in The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933–69), the two friends were able to abandon both competition and self-consciousness to allow a third voice [to] emerge, which "Took over and ruled, became unlike ourselves, with his own whims, his own puns, and elaborate style of writing."

Published in 1942, Six Problems appeared at the early stages of Borges's experimentation with fiction. Up to the late 1930s, he had conceived of himself as a poet and an essayist. He credits Bioys-Casares, not with leading him into fiction, but with moderating his taste for the "pathetic, the sententious, and the baroque," and teaching him the virtues of quietness and restraint in tone.

Not that these qualities are predominant in Six Problems. Coming at the beginning of one of Borges's most productive decades, these stories reflect the character of his structured narratives, works which subordinate character to dramatic rules and procedures. Borges' and Bioy-Casares's choice of a detective genre was not arbitrary. Don Isidro's logic, which cuts right through quotidian events, is a metaphor for intellectual and creative activity as a whole. While sometimes frustrating because of a babbling of voices, a confusion of types and characters, and impossible, involuted plots and inside allusions, these extravagant tales predict something about the nature of Borges's work through the 1940s.

The same imagination which later created what Bioy-Casares would call a new genre of short story somewhere between the essay and fiction is at work in these tales. They put mystery to the noble service of satire and parody.

Nicholas Rankin (review date 27 August 1982)

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SOURCE: "On the Inflationary Fringe," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4143, August 27, 1982, p. 920.

[In the following review, Rankin provides a positive assessment of Chronicles of Bustos Domecq, describing the collection as "conservative satire."]

In "The Sartorial Revolution (I)" [in Chronicles of Bustos Domecq] Eduardo S. Bradford, dandy of the Necochea seaside promenade from 1923 to 1931, is revealed as an impoverished fake. His millionaire's hat, horn-rimmed glasses, moustache, collar, necktie, watch chain, white suit with set of imported buttons, gloves, handkerchiefs and boots have been painted on to his body. Even the malacca cane. It is Argentina that parades its banality beneath the Emperor of Europe's cultural clothing in Chronicles of Bustos Domecq, twenty satirical sketches by Borges and his friend and collaborator Bioy Casares.

The two men met through Ocampo's Sur magazine around 1931; they shared the same passion for books. Their early collaborations included a commercial brochure for Bulgarian foodstuffs, written in a week at a Pardó estancia, and an anthology of Fantastic Literature, compiled while they were annotating Sir Thomas Browne. They wrote comic detective stories under noms de plume: H. Bustos Domecq penned Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi (1942) and many of the characters from that book recur in the Chestertonian spoof A Model for Death (1946) by B. Suarez Lynch (not yet translated).

Originally written as pieces of journalism, the Chronicles were collected in 1967 into a book dedicated to Picasso, Joyce and Le Corbusier with an introduction by one Gervasio Montenegro, who recommends it as an "indispensable vademecum" to "the depths of the novel, the lyric, the essay, conceptualism, architecture, sculpture, the theater and the whole gamut of audio-visual media". An important index compiled by the "author" himself rounds the book off.

The Chronicles mark the apotheosis of H. Bustos Domecq from pseudonym to persona. The author of Now I Can Read! (City of Rosario School Board), once referred to in a Parodi mystery as "that man from Santa Fe who got a story published and then it turned out it had already been written by Villiers de L'Isle Adam", is now a champion hack on the pretentious fringes of Buenos Aires. Eight of the Chronicles are literary jaunts through the cosmopolitan groves of Parnassus. Ramon Bonavena's nouveau roman "North-Northeast" features the northeastern quadrant of his table, where a 2B pencil is brilliantly described in "only twenty-nine pages". For F. J. C. Loomis, the title is the work: "The text of Pallet, for example, consists solely of the word 'pallet'." Words mean what Santiago Ginsberg wants them to, but Tulio Herrera's art scrupulously eschews them—along with sentences, characters, scenes, etc. Review a book? Hilario Lambkin Formento reproduces the blurb on the jacket, and ends by copying whole volumes.

The sketches are not all whimsical ideas taken to grotesque extremes, for something of Argentina glares through them. There is more truth than humour in the rise of mediocrity being chronicled in a language rich in orotund bombast, from the land where inflation became part of the economy only long after it was a birthright, a state of mind. Ironies turn into prophecies, or perhaps it is just that a blind man's vision is less deceived by age. "A Brand-New Approach" is about historical revisionism; Bustos Domecq asks "Does a military defeat suit a nation of patriots?" and replies "Certainly not." So-called "pure" history has become an act of faith, or honest revenge. "Mexico has thus recovered, in print, the oil-wells of Texas, and we here in the Argentine … have recovered the South polar cap and its inalienable archipelago."

H. Bustos Domecq began in the timelessly dated world of whodunnits, and Chronicles has mysteries that cannot be revealed here. The reader must find alone the secret of G. A. Baralt's shoes ("The Brotherhood Movement"), the thing in Chubut sheep-rancher don Guillermo Blake's shed ("The Immortals") and why the last game of soccer was played in Buenos Aires on June 24, 1937 ("Esse est Percipi")….

Chronicles of Bustos Domecq is conservative satire, the humor ingles of funny names and the avant-garde rendered absurd. Characters such as the architect Hotchkiss de Estephano, gastronome Ishmael Querido and the sinister Dr Narbondo could almost appear in the newspaper columns of Beachcomber or Peter Simple. Pot-boiling, of course, but even the diversionary sketch-books of a master are interesting. "Addicts" of Borges's "jokes and puzzles" (the phrase is V. S. Naipaul's) will find irresistible fun in this book.

Maribel Tamargo (essay date Fall 1982)

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SOURCE: "Plan de evasión: The Loss of Referentiality," in Hispanic Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall, 1982, pp. 105-11.

[In the following essay, Tamargo contends that A Plan for Escape evades interpretation by withholding the evidence necessary for a single, definitive reading.]

Developing in a tradition in which the very activity of writing is posed as a problem, the contemporary novel offers interesting possibilities regarding the relationship between the text and the reality it describes. The discourse in these texts is not constructed on the appropriation of a referent outside itself; instead it presents itself as the production of its possibilities, limits and forms of articulation. This is what Stephen Heath, in his book on the "nouveau roman," defines as "a shift of emphasis in the novel from a monologistic 'realism' to … the practice of writing." Heath later explains the "practice of writing" in this way:

Its foundation is a profound experience of language and form and the demonstration of that experience in the writing of the novel which, transgressed, is no longer repetition and self-effacement but work and self-presentation as text. Its "realism" is not the mirroring of some reality but an attention to the forms of the intelligibility in which the real is produced, a dramatization of possibilities of language, forms of articulation, limitations of its own horizon. [The Nouveau Roman, 1972]

Bioy Casares' discourse inscribes itself in this tradition, a tradition in which the novel recognizes its autonomy from "reality" and thus, develops parallel to it, without pretending to capture or repeat it. The novel is no longer the repetition on a mirror but rather the repetition through a mirror. It is useful here to cite a passage from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass which describes Alice as she goes through the mirror:

Then she began looking about, and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible. For instance, the pictures on the wall next to the fire seemed to be all alive and the very clock on the chimney piece (you know you can only see the back of it in the Looking Glass) had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.

The text's "autonomy" from reality does not imply that it is not the reconstruction of something. For example, Plan de evasión, the novel I will deal with in this essay, is the reconstruction (since the events have already taken place and are being recounted) of Enrique Nevers' adventures on Devil's Island. But this reconstruction cannot be compared to the one which a mirror presents, that is to say a reconstruction that hides its mechanisms. Plan de evasión's discourse reconstructs Nevers' story in such a way that the rules of functioning are made manifest. It is for this reason that it is very difficult to imagine a naive reading of this text, since the novel's self-reflexive gesture points to what Roland Barthes has called [in his 1972 Critical Essays] a "structuralist activity":

The goal of all structuralist activity, whether reflexive or poetic, is to reconstruct an "object" in such a way as to manifest thereby the rules of functioning (the "functions") of this object.

Let me now take a closer look at the text of Plan de Evasión. The novel is narrated by Antoine, the uncle of Enrique Nevers. Antoine receives his nephew's letters and pretends to give the reader an objective look at what has taken place. He often quotes directly from the letters and then proceeds to comment in his own words. The sections of Enrique's letters which we are allowed to read directly present him as a paranoic man who is searching for the truth of a mystery he believes exists on the island. His fears never seem to have justification. As a matter of fact, they are never justified by the explanation he gives. Thus, the reader himself becomes suspicious.

On the other hand, Antoine also explains that, through his discourse, he wants to arrive at true events. One of the ways he tries to be objective in his narration is by acting as a chronicler, that is, by including documentation, for example, the text of Castel's experiments. Dr. Castel, the governor of Devil's Island, is developing a series of experiments through which he tries to better the situation of his prisoners. Through a complicated operation he modifies the sensory system of the prisoners so that they perceive their cells as islands where they gain their freedom. Antoine's intention of objectivity is nevertheless betrayed. He states that he wants to help Nevers, but soon after he makes comments that are obviously damaging to his nephew. The following remark is an example: "Debería saber que es el signo de una idiosincracia que lo distingue, tal vez en la historia de la psicología morbosa."

The dialogue between these two narrators, Enrique Nevers' letters and Antoine's apparent chronicle, integrates the novel. This chronicle has, besides Castel's text, another document: the letter which Xavier Brissac (Enrique's cousin who comes to Devil's Island once Enrique disappears) writes to Antoine. After making several comments that complicate the plot, Xavier Brissac includes a very suggestive paragraph that implicates Antoine in still another complot, underlining once again his unreliability. Brissac writes that he does not hate Nevers, as Antoine insinuates, and that he doesn't want to accuse Antoine:

No esperes que perdone al autor de esta infamia. Sé que no eres tú. Sé que repetiste lo que te han dicho. Sé, también, que descubriré a quien lo dijo: no eran muchos los que me oyeron hablar.

The possibilities of Plan de evasión lie in the tension produced by this plurality of "tramas" in which none is privileged. The two narrators are in search of the true story, the real story, but they both betray themselves, introducing a doubt about their reliablity. They both seem to be hiding something, but that something never appears and the text folds back upon itself, calling attention to its own production, its own readability. It has been pointed out that in this text everything is made relative by the presence of the lie. This lie is not present as the opposite of truth, which would be its affirmation, but rather it presents itself as an empty lie, a lie which does not point to a truth but rather to the process of lying.

We have now seen how this text deconstructs the reconstruction that seems to be its intention. This is accomplished through the superposition and interweaving of different versions which are all rendered relative precisely because of the presence of the other versions. In this way it performs what I have called a "structuralist activity."

The mechanism I have studied with respect to the plurality of "tramas" repeats itself in the use of quotations or of names that refer to historical figures or literary characters. To quote or to use a proper name that points to something outside of the text, that is, to give a symbolic value to a name, is to give depth to the discourse. These references seem to be there in order to give clues to the reader as to how he should interpret the text; that is, they seem to be pointing toward a truth, the true story, or at least the correct version of the story. But they don't point anywhere except at themselves and their own mechanisms.

There are numerous references to this type in the text and any reading of the novel must take them into account. The island where Enrique's adventures take place is none other than Devil's Island in the year 1913. In it he finds a prisoner who goes by the name of Dreyfus. The association is almost too plain. But the relationship with the historical Dreyfus is no more than a confusion, actually a misnaming. The only reason this man is called Dreyfus (we are told this by Antoine who has received the information from Nevers) is because he often talks about Dreyfus even though he does not know anything about the historical figure. This misnaming is made very obvious later on in the novel when Enrique meets another prisoner of the island, a man called Bernheim. Bernheim will tell Enrique: "Yo soy una llaga en la conciencia de Francia" and Enrique replies to Dreyfus: "Entonces a él, y no a usted, habría que llamarlo Dreyfus." Bernheim himself is another reference that misleads the reader. He reminds the reader of the French doctor of the same name who wrote a book entitled Nature and Uses of Hypnotism. The association with hypnotic powers makes Bernheim a very suspicious character since he always seems to be planning something, and follows Nevers around in what the latter interprets as an intention of telling him something that he does not want to hear. Antoine writes: "En la noche del 22 no podía dormir. Insomne, atribuyo importancia a la revelación que no quiso oìrle a Bernheim." In spite of all this Bernheim will not be privileged, that is to say he will function within the text, he will carry the associations attributed to him but they will never be confirmed.

Literary references are also frequent: Rimbaud, Verlaine and Rene Ghill and from the Symbolist movement; a significant quote from William Blake translated into Spanish: "¿Cómo sabes que el pájaro que cruza el aire no es un inmenso mundo de voluptuosidades, vedado a tus cinco sentidos?"; Nevers reads Plutarch's Tratado de Isis y Osiris because: "Este libro me interesa. Trata de símbolos"; the detective plot is mentioned with regard to the Misterio del cuarto amarillo; and finally there is a comparison between Castel and "un anciano debilísimo, con planes para volar la Opera Cómica." As we can see, all these references reinforce the positions of our narrators (and also of the reader) as "decifradores de enigmas," as searchers for a hidden truth. But this mystery, this truth, escapes the text, denies itself, that is, denies its possibility to exist within the text. Nevers will be permitted to say "cualquier cosa es símbolo de cualquier cosa" and Castel will explain in agreement with Blake's quote:

Nuestro mundo es una síntesis que dan los sentidos, el microscopio da otra. Si cambiaran los sentidos cambiaría la imagen. Podemos describir el mundo como un conjunto de símbolos capaces de expresar cualquier cosa.

Rather than symbols, these allusions should be called ciphers, underlining their emptiness. The referent is not important as an end but as a process. What is important is its formulation, its articulation, its functioning. This is not to deny that these references allude to something. They are effective within the text's mechanism precisely because they are obvious references to something specific. It is when these ciphers present themselves, negate themselves and make themselves unreliable, that the reader perceives the game of which he is a part. He perceives the rules of functioning and ceases to be concerned about the content, about the referent of these empty signs. We could now say that Bioy's discourse is a discourse of surface, it takes place on the surface, it lacks depth. It is not the mask of something else that is under it, but rather it is the mask itself.

Thus, the reading of Plan de evasión provokes a frustration which is necessarily the effect of a text that eludes being the representation of anything other than itself. Through a play with certain (empty) allusions, which appear to have the intention of revealing truth, yet at the same time undermine such an intention; and by the constant presence of the possible lie, we see that what actually is uncovered is a mechanism in movement. This same effect is produced with respect to the camouflages that Nevers discovers on the island: "la nefasta verdad se reveló: la isla del Diablo estaba camouflada." In reaction to this discovery Nevers writes to his uncle:

¿Qué significa esto?… ¿Que es un perseguido el gobernador? ¿Un loco? ¿O significa la guerra?… Todavía no he visto a Castel, no pude interpelarlo sobre estos camouflages, no pude oír sus mentiras.

The camouflage is repeated in the cells of the prisoners with whom Castel is doing his experiments. Antoine writes about Nevers' first encounter with the cells: "Confusamente vio en las paredes manchas coloradas, azules, amarillas. Era el famoso 'camouflage' interior." Plan de evasión is a series of camouflages. First, with respect to its symbols, since even possibilities that are eliminated suggest others and, therefore, go on indefinitely, second, with respect to the different versions which are all called into question, and finally with respect to the camouflaged island itself. Nevers, therefore, is faced with a camouflage of a camouflage, while the reader is faced with an open text. Open because it ends with the word "Etcétera" suggesting the existence of certain information that has not been included. Open, also, because it articulates the reader himself in the complot, implicating him and thus not allowing him to solve the mystery, not allowing him to close the text. The question might now be formulated as to whose plan to escape this is: Nevers', Castel's, the novel's? Nevers himself, when speaking to two prisoners of the island, asks the same question: "¿Castel los preparaba para una evasión?" It is not until the end of the novel, however, that the reader finds out that the escape is accomplished precisely by placing the prisoners in the cells that Castel has constructed:

Una de las celdas es interior. Si tuviera que encerrarme en una de ellas—escribe Nevers—elegiría esa. Por lo menos estaría libre del caliente horror de los espejos. Alude, con su habitual dramatismo, a los grandes y baratos espejos que hay en las otras celdas. Cubren, del lado de adentro, todas las paredes que dan al patio.

In his manuscript Castel explains, in more detail, his experiments with human senses:

Si hubiera un cambio en los movimientos de los átomos este lirio sería, quizá, el golpe de agua que derrumba la represa, o una manada de jirafas, o la gloria del atardecer. Un cambio en el ajuste de mis sentidos haría, quizá, de los cuatro muros de esta celda la sombra del manzano del primer huerto.

The camouflaged cells, then, are actually liberty for the prisoners locked within. They are cells covered by mirrors on their interior walls—unfoldings. They are closed space but at the same time opened space because of the possibility of escape. They are a metaphor of the paradox of representation that makes the text possible:

Nuestro mundo es una síntesis que dan los sentidos, el microscopio da otra. Si cambiaran los sentidos cambiaría la imagen. Podemos describir el mundo como un conjunto de símbolos capaces de expresar cualquier cosa; con sólo alterar la graduación de nuestros sentidos, leeremos otra palabra en ese alfabeto natural.

Plan de evasión is a constant changing of the senses, which in this way, avoids the privileged version of the univocal referent.

It is apparent that in the same way that the camouflage of the cells hides nothing, the camouflage of the island does not reveal anything beneath its surface. This repeats Jean-Louis Baudry's comments [in "Ecriture, fiction, ideologie," in Thèorie de'ensemble, 1968,] about the mask as a surface that invites us to believe in a level that hides nothing but itself. Through the reading of the play between the "tramas," and through the mechanism of quoting, Plan de evasión functions as a mask and produces itself on the surface of the text.

What then is the plan to escape? As we can now see, a hint of the answer to this question appears to be revealed in the state of the island's prisons. Just as the camouflaged cells meant freedom for those prisoners enclosed within them, so too, the text gains freedom from the prison of referentiality when it limits itself to the surface, despite the invitation to examine beneath the camouflage of multiple levels. It is in this way that the text gains freedom, for there is no longer any necessity for it to mean anything more than its own production.

Margaret L. Snook (essay date 10-12 February 1983)

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SOURCE: "Spatiality in the Novel: Theoretical and Formal Considerations in La invención de Morel," in La Chispa '83: Selected Proceedings, edited by Gilbert Paolini, Tulane University, 1983, pp. 255-62.

[Snook is an educator. In the following essay, originally presented at the fourth annual Louisiana Conference on Hispanic Languages and Literatures at Tulane University in February 1983, she explains the uses of spatiality in The Invention of Morel, demonstrating the novella's metafictional quality.]

La invención de Morel, written by Bioy Casares in 1940, demonstrates a modern awareness of the functions of spatial properties in the apprehension and depiction of form and a preoccupation with the application of spatial techniques to the novel. This complex interest in spatiality is manifested on three levels in the text: on the linguistic level, through the expressive function of the narrator's discourse which reveals a notable spatial consciousness; on the thematic level, through the narrator's theoretical commentaries and judgmental assertions on the nature of art and narrative; and finally, on the structural level, through the pictorial arrangement of the material. This article will consider all three levels of spatial awareness, beginning with the spatial orientation evidenced by the narrator in his patterns of expression.

La invención de Morel is written in the form of a diary by an anonymous fugitive from justice, a writer by profession, who seeks to escape the Venezuelan authorities by hiding on a mysterious Pacific Island. Due to his preoccupation with confinement and freedom, the narrator reacts keenly to space and is very cognizant of such spatial concepts as distance, depth, polarity, perspective or angle of vision and enclosure. This concern is revealed in the initial entries of the narrator's diary, which delineate the imaginary boundaries drawn between his living space and that of the strange, anachronic island inhabitants he observes from afar. Furthermore, the description of the interior of the museo, the building which houses the island inhabitants, contains specific dimensional details that highlight the opposition between freedom and confinement. While the use of measurements that fix limits enhances the image of reduced and restricted space, the use of massive or monumental proportions and repetitive numerical references conveys the illusion of infinity by suggesting a transcendency beyond normal spatial boundaries or countless duplication of objects. The illusion of infinity is also suggested by the multipling object, such as the mirror, which blurs spatial limits by reproducing seemingly endless reflections of the original:

Las ventanas, con sus vidrios azules, alcanzarían al piso alto de mi casa natal. Cuatro cálices de alabastro, en que podrían esconderse cuatro medias docenas de hombres, irradian luz eléctrica.

Entré en una cámara poliédrica—parecida a unos refugios contra bombardeos, que vi en el cinematógrafo—con las paredes recubiertas por chapas de dos tipos—unas de un material como el corcho, otras de mármol—simétricamente distribuídas. Di un paso: por arcadas de piedra, en ocho direcciones, vi repetirse, como en espejos, ocho veces la misma cámara. [La invención de Morel]

The contrastive pattern of dimensional demarcation evident in the descriptive details that recreate the interior of the museo reveals from the outset the narrator's spatial orientation to his world and his narrative act. At the same time, his fascination with optical effects that suggest infinity reveals his inner desire to find an avenue of escape from the spatial restrictions that can limit the possibilities of man's existence.

The narrator's strong spatial orientation to his world, resulting in part from his role as observer, is also emphasized through other means, notably the frequent use of adverbs of location (i.e., cerca, hacia) and the use of the verbs which trace the directional movement of the characters (i.e., subir, bajar, acercarse) or depict some restricted, circumscribed movement in space. Other frequently used verbs, ver and mirar, call attention to the narrator's characteristic activities as witness and perceiver:

Me rodearon los mismos pasos, de cerca y de lejos.

..…

Exagero: miro con alguna fascinación—hace tanto que no veo gente—a estos abominables intrusos; pero sería imposible mirarlos a todas horas….

The narrator's spatial awareness is further exhibited in his tendency to describe or fix his location in relationship to that of other characters or objects, thus establishing different planes in space equivalent to foreground and background as well as the different architectonic categories of inner and outer space. Markers of ordination, such as the prepositions desde and detrás, underscore the narrator's peripheral presence and his role as observer.

His relative position in space also assumes a psychological symbolic importance, for the narrator equates superiority with a high degree of physical elevation. Thus it is significant to note the text's repeated references to the islander's advantageous location on the hill top and the narrator's precarious position in the coastal marshes. The narrator's initial encounter with Faustine, one of the island inhabitants, is also deemed a disaster because she views him from a higher plane in space:

Lo arruiné todo: ella miraba el atardecer y bruscamente surgi detrás de unas piedras. Bruscamente e hirsuto, y visto desde abajo, debi de aparecer con mis atributos de espanto acrecentados.

When the narrator plans his next encounter with Faustine, he decides to appear from the rocks above her so as to create a more favorable impression:

Entonces, para postergar el momento de hablarle, descubrí una antigua ley psicológica. Me convenía hablar desde un lugar alto, que permitiera mirar desde arriba. Esta mayor elevación material contrarrestaría, en parte, mis inferioridades.

The narrator also seeks to capture the illusory effects produced by relative position in space. The elongation or distortion in size of the island inhabitants, for example, may be attributed in part to the fact that the narrator views them from below, and they consequently appear to tower above him: "Los intrusos están en lo alto de la colina y para quien los espía desde aquí son como gigantes fugaces."

Thus far, we have seen how the narrator's role as fugitive and outside observer has affected his reaction to space and his awareness of the functions of certain spatial properties in the apprehension of form. This level of spatial awareness was rendered primarily on the linguistic level through the use of certain patterns of expression. However, the narrator's role as writer also affects his spatial concepts and explains his artistic interest in the functions of spatial properties in the creation and perception of pictorial and narrative forms. This level of spatial awareness is conveyed through the narrator's descriptive discourse which includes theoretical commentaries and judgemental assertions that address implicitly the issue of virtual spatiality or the relationship between painting, sculpture, and literature.

The best example of the narrator's awareness of the spatial characteristic of art and narrative can be found in a key episode of the novel in which he creates a portrait out of flowers. He depicts a scene in which he is kneeling before a woman who represents Faustine.

Later, the narrator discovers that Faustine and the other mysterious island inhabitants are three-dimensional images created by the scientist Morel in an attempt to achieve immortality for himself and his friends. Unfortunately, the photographic process which produces the life-like holographic images destroys living tissue, thereby causing the death of all those photographed. The narrator, consequently, is in love with the image of a woman who has died long before his arrival on the island.

Although a writer, the narrator attempts to communicate the story of his love to the oblivious Faustine primarily through visual means, combining pictorial elements with poetic narrative. Thus he conveys his meaning through techniques borrowed from the plastic arts: color, shape, posture, and, above all, dimension. The narrator depicts Faustine's spiritual superiority and importance through size, creating her figure three times larger than his own: "Estoy de perfil, arrodillado. Soy diminuto (un tercio del tamaño de la mujer) y verde, hecho de hojas."

This technique evokes the medieval sculpture system of symbolic scale according to which Christ was depicted as larger than other figures in order to convey his spiritual transcendency.

The use of the number three in the scale of dimensional proportions attributed to Faustine's image further underscores the narrator's conceptual indebtedness to sculpture as it creates an analogical link with the sculptured gods in the dining room of the museo, which are, according to the narrator, "tres veces más grandes que un hombre."

The narrator encounters difficulty from the beginning in completing his floral project as it is impossible for him to capture the visual illusion of depth or write the lengthy inscription originally chosen because of the limitations imposed by his floral medium:

Imaginativamente no cuesta más una mujer sentada, con las manos enlazadas sobre una rodilla, que una mujer de pie; hecha de flores, la primera es casi imposible.

..…

He modificado la inscripción. La primera me salió demasiado larga para hacerla con flores.

The narrator's comments on the garden scene allude to the artist's need to consider the inherent spatial and temporal properties of his medium before determining the direction of his work. The development of a story, which implies progressive movement in time, cannot be completely conveyed through visual means; hence the narrator's need of the inscription. On the other hand, the verbal image of narrative, perceived in time as a succession of words, lacks the mimetic potential of the visual image which is perceived in its entirely in one moment of time. For this reason, the narrator favors the pictorial approach for his purpose. Despite its limited success, the narrator's pictorial experiment does explore the problems of representation in art and the difficulties that arise when spatial techniques are utilized with narrative intent.

Subsequent observations, which implicitly compare the narrator's literary and visual portrayals of Faustine to the image created by Morel, suggest that the narrator, either as writer or artist, cannot successfully reproduce with the two dimensional written or pictorial scene the three dimensional reality captured by Morel's sculpturesque images: "Un hombre solitario no puede hacer máquinas ni fijar visiones, salvo en la forma trunca de escribirlas o dibujarlas, para otros, más afortunados."

The narrator's consciousness of spatial functions in the perception of art forms is also evident in his comments on the effects of aesthetic distance which he conceives as the product of the relational planes between perceiver and object of perception. The degree to which the viewer stands apart from or is immersed in the work of art influences his perspective and comprehension of that object, as the narrator's remarks on his garden scene clearly indicate: "Desde el trabajo no podía preverse la obra concluída; sería un desordenado conjunto de flores o una mujer, indistintamente."

The narrator's observations, which implicitly consider the artist's and writer's similar concern with problems of perspective, distance, and dimensionality in character portrayal, present, on the theoretical level, the question of virtual spatiality, that is, the relationship of written scene to painting and characterization to sculpture. However, the novel's interest in virtual spatiality is also reflected on the compositional or formal level and is manifested most notably in the use of the frame narrative or structure of recession. The manuscript written by the scientist Morel, in which he explains his invention, is enclosed within the diary of the narrator. The narrator acts as editor commenting on Morel's style and content. The narrator's diary, in turn, is enclosed within the critical edition of the fictitious editor who duplicates the narrator's role as critic by commenting on the content of the narrator's story.

The organization of La invención de Morel on three discourse levels or strata, each of which produces an inverted reflection of the preceding narrative segment, underscores the text's pictorial arrangement of plot. With such a technique, the spatial aspect of each narrative segment is emphasized "as it becomes the background or recessed element of a larger narrative" [according to Joseph Kestner, in his The Spatiality of the Novel, 1978].

While demonstrating the novel's painterly interest in the simultaneous existence of an image on different planes in space, the structure of recession also reflects the work's concern with the nature of reality. The pictorial structure of the frame narrative is especially effective in portraying the novel's hypothesis of the coexistence of parallel worlds which duplicate one another. This hypothesis is apparent at the conclusion of the novel when the narrator discovers Morel's invention and decides to create his own disc which he superimposes on the original disc created by Morel. The act of enclosure whereby the narrator encompasses Morel's world of images within his own is then duplicated by the narrator's written act of enclosure when he places Morel's writings within the pages of his diary.

The awareness of spatial form, evidenced in the development of the external structure of enclosure, is also present in the internal ordering of the novel's events. Although written in the form of a diary, considerations other than those which are strictly temporal influenced the process of linkage between entries. The first two entries, for example, begin with the fictional present of the narrator and then revert back to earlier events which constitute expositional material. This expositional material is reintroduced and developed in the last chapter or entry so that the conclusion of the sujet coincides with the beginning of the story. Although this process has a psychological justification, we are more interested in the formal implications. The delayed and dispersed disclosure of expositional material breaks the novel's linear pattern of progressive development and contradicts the precept of one directional, irreversional flow of time. Instead, the cyclic nature of time, with its emphasis on the simultaneity of past, present, and future, is conveyed through the arrangement of the material.

Repeated references to recurrent patterns in nature, such as the change of seasons, the movement of the tides, and the cycle of day and night, reinforce the spatial image of the circle and contribute to the reader's synchronic comprehension of the novel's internal structure as a circular configuration. The omission of the dates for the diary entries or the absence of numbers for the chapters that constitute the narrator's story, underscore the novel's attempt to blur the sequential order of events and to emphasize the timeless world into which the narrator and Morel have been placed.

The fragmentary development of plot, which interrupts the continuity of flow, and the repetition of similar details, events, and lines of discourse, which cause the reader to lose track of chronological forward moving time, further obscure the progressive function of the chapter or entry. By thus concealing its temporal construct, such factors enhance the novel's spatial secondary illusion.

The novel's continuity of flow is also obscured or interrupted by the technique of reflexive reference which causes the reader to look back and reinterpret previous scenes rather than proceed forward. Such an interreferential technique, preemeninently spatial, is typical of the detective or mystery story on which the narrative strategy of La invención de Morel is based. As a result of this deductive approach, the reader duplicates the process of discovery in which the narrator-detective is engaged by formulating diverse hypotheses and modifying them as additional data is gathered. This reversibility in the act of comprehension is a property usually associated with the spatial arts and is a technical feature which helps produce the spatial secondary illusion of the novel.

The narrator's frequent contradictions and vacillations and the mutually exclusive hypotheses advanced by the narrator and editor also serve to retard or obscure the progressive function and cause-effect sequence of the chapters or entries. By thus denying the existence of any one privileged voice or point of view, the text becomes [according to Maribel Tamargo, in "La invención de Morel: Lectura y Lectores," Revista Iberoamericana 96-7 (1976)] a field of allusion lacking a center and a clear directional flow of events; all that transpires is produced "como el efecto de la articulación de ciertos elementos."

The tendency to efface sequential order and to link together nonconsecutive events, evidenced on the level of the episode, chapter, or scene, is also manifested in smaller structural units on the syntactical level. Most notably, the narrator demonstrates a marked propensity toward the use of parenthetical expressions, which lead to the juxtapositioning of two different time periods in the same sentence. [In a footnote, the critic adds: "This technique affords another sample of the narrator's fascination with the visual and written act of enclosure."] Ordinarily, the author utilizes these parenthetical digressions to extend into the fictional present time of the narration past emotional oscillations.

In conclusion, this brief study of La invención de Morel has focused its attention on the novel's interest in the role of spatiality in the temporal medium of literature. This interest was seen demonstrated on the linguistic level, through the expressive function of the narrator's descriptive discourse, on the thematic level through the text's critical commentaries on art and fiction, and on the formal level through the use of the structure of enclosure. Together, these textual components convey a message to the reader about the nature of narrative and the functions of spatiality in the art of writing.

Suzanne Jill Levine (essay date Spring 1983)

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SOURCE: "Parody Island: Two Novels by Bioy Casares," in Hispanic Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 43-9.

[In the following essay, Levine asserts that The Invention of Morel and A Plan for Escape comment on the nature of literature by parodying and synthesizing "a whole tradition of utopic works." Levine particularly notes the novellas' ties to H. G. Wells's dystopic work The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896).]

Parody in the new Latin American novel has become a central theme in Hispanic criticism, and one of the first writers to theorize on this subject was Cuban novelist Severo Sarduy. In an essay-parody on Manuel Puig's Boquitas pintadas in which (in the spirit of Don Quijote, Part II) Puig's provincial Argentine women gossip about the sophisticated Parisian transvestites of Sarduy's Cobra, Sarduy defines a concept of parody which goes beyond that of "burlesque imitation" ["Notas a las Notas … A propósito de Manuel Puig," in Revista Iberoamericana, Nos. 76-7 (July-December 1971)]. His point of departure is the cathartic theory of carnivalesque laughter in Mikhail Bakhtin's study Rabelais and His World in which the symbolic spectacle of carnival, a syncretic and universal folkloric tradition, parodies the values and hierarchies of everyday life, in the double sense that carnival both destroys and renews, mocks and pays homage to man's existence. Bakhtin studies the carnivalesque function of literature in Rabelais, but also refers to the Greek satires as well as Don Quijote as models of carnivalesque parody which share in common the same literary mechanisms, i.e. the fusion of genres, the grafting of different types and levels of discourse, and the abolition of narrative autonomy.

Sarduy notes, in the same essay, that Jorge Luis Borges and Bioy Casares, in their Bustos Domecq take-off on the detective genre, Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi (1942), use parody in the carnivalesque sense suggested by Bakhtin: they mock the local color and excessive intricacy of archteypical detective novels, but also glorify and renew the tired genre with their own inventions.

In a discussion on the baroque and neo-baroque [in América Latina en su literatura, 1972], Sarduy goes beyond Bakhtin to point out that parody, in the sense that it is self-conscious revelation of one's sources, is a baroque device that appears in much of contemporary Latin American literature: the baroque text (and he doesn't limit his commentary on the baroque to literature but extends it to the plastic arts, architecture, etc.) is that which allows the reader to discover, to decipher an ever-present sub-text, of which the visible text is always a reflection, a commentary, a re-working or a "memory."

Bioy Casares' two island novels, La invención de Morel (1940) (this novel inspired Robbe-Grillet's script of Alain Resnais' movie Last Year at Marienbad) and Plan de evasión (1945), a more caricaturesque, overtly self-reflexive version of a utopic island adventure, are pioneering works in this rebirth of the baroque in Latin American fiction not only because they reflect each other in this wider sense of parody as commentary on the nature of literature as a process of destruction and re-creation, but also because they synthesize a whole tradition of utopic works beginning, at least, with Plato's Republic and Greek bucolic poetry and culminating perhaps in Victorian science fiction.

It is not new that, in the self-revelatory literature being produced by Borges, Bioy Casares and other twentieth-century American writers, their writing is self-reflexive, since Theocritus' idylls, More's Utopia, and H. G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau were also. (As Borges shows in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (Ficciones, 1941) all writing is inevitably self-reflexive, contained in a reality that differs from, though somehow mirrors, flesh and blood reality. In the filigree of Theocritus' poems, the reader can glimpse epic poetry, mythological legends; in Utopia, Plato's Republic, in Wells' "scientific romance," Jules Verne's Mysterious Island, or Robinson Crusoe, or Gulliver's Travels.) What is new, or neo-baroque, is that contemporary writers not only use models but that they expose them, they write explicitly about this reality of artifice. And Plan de evasión (A Plan for Escape) is certainly an apotheosis of the text as produced by many texts not only because it reflects, in its strategies and allusions, the texts previously mentioned and many others (Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Kafka's Penal Colony, Julien Green's Voyageur Sur la Terre, James' Turn of the Screw, not to mention underlying occidental and oriental myths and legends), but because it exists as a mirror-text of La invención de Morel, a fantastic adventure centered around a love obsession, very much in the spirit of the Surrealist amour fou. Borgesian fantastic fiction, a Frankensteinian fusion of science fiction, detective story and philosophical essay, to which Bioy Casares has added the archetypal love story, is quintessentially carnivalesque in that it cannibalizes all literatures, high and low, Western and Eastern.

I will limit myself here to revealing in some detail what Borges has signalled, in his preface to Morel, as the obvious text which Morel remembers (as well as Plan, I shall add) which is the already-mentioned The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) by H. G. Wells. (To follow all the allusions threading through Morel and Plan is an infinite voyage, [which I have undertaken in part, elsewhere.])

The Island of Doctor Moreau recounts the adventure of Edward Prendick, shipwrecked in the Pacific and picked up by a schooner which happens to be shipping animals to an island (uncharted, of course). On this ship Prendick meets Montgomery, a renegade medical student who, because of some unspecified disgrace (remember this is a Victorian setting), has fled England and is now the assistant of an eccentric scientist, Moreau, who is running a "biological station" of sorts. When they reach Moreau's island, Prendick is left stranded by the unfriendly captain who dislikes Moreau and his strange shipments. The rest of the short book deals with Prendick's gradual discovery of the atrocious nature of Moreau's experiments, the terrifying outcome of these experiments, and Prendick's miraculous salvation from the island. Moreau, as we know, attempts to transform beasts into men and women, by means of surgery that is cruelly performed without anesthesia. Moreau is a kind of Faustian Darwin, and one of the moral (or metaphysical) lessons that Wells' reader is supposed to extract is that man is inevitably and tragically a beast yearning to transcend his mortal prison of flesh and blood (be it through science or religion) but doomed.

Obviously, the parallels between Moreau and Morel go beyond a graphic modification of "au" to "l," even beyond the theme of a scientific invention that is produced on an "unchartered" (i.e. nonexistent except in the text) island in the Pacific. Like Montgomery, the protagonist-narrator of Morel is a renegade from society who is forced, for unspecified reasons (the convenient device of vagueness in "scientific" fantasies, a device already present in More's Utopia), to take refuge on a vaguely-identified Pacific island. Like Prendick, he is isolated because he is stranded on an island which the world either ignores or distrusts. The narrator of Morel also discovers gradually an atrocious "reality" which involves an unheard-of process of transformation: mad scientist-artist Morel kills human beings (who happen to be his friends) and himself in order to transform them into three-dimensional movie images (How prophetic fiction writers can be: the holograph had not yet been invented!). Morel's purpose: to live in eternity with Faustine, the woman he loves but who is indifferent to him. The nameless narrator also falls in love with the distant Faustine and, once he discovers the fantastic machine, decides to sacrifice life and transform himself into an eternal image as well. Morel, a novel overtly about the romantic sacrifice of life for love, and art, through the metaphor of fantastic transfigurations, is also a metamorphosis of Moreau, a novel about metamorphoses. The scientific content in both is really a "pre-text."

At this superficial level of plot it is not difficult to recognize Plan as a further stage in this series of changes. While mad Dr. Castel's name (a salute to Kafka's Castle perhaps) does not echo Moreau's as Morel's does, Castel's experiment is, in many ways, more reminiscent of Moreau's. Like the latter's, Castel's involves surgery: Castel, the governor of a penal colony on an apocryphal Devil's Island, is performing a kind of post-symbolist synesthetic surgery on the prisoners, changing their powers of perception so that when they look upon their cell walls they will perceive a paradise island. Nevers, the innocent bystander, (forced by his family because of some unspecified disgrace, (again!) to accept a military assignment on Devil's Island) is yet another avatar of the unwilling outsider who gradually discovers (and becomes involved) in the "awful truth" of a science fiction experiment. When Nevers first encounters Castel he sees him surrounded by a flock of animals and finds out later that Castel did his first operations on animals. At this point, Bioy Casares does more than allude to Moreau; he openly exhibits his "source"; that is, the narrator, Nevers' Uncle Antoine, basing his story on Nevers' letters, writes: "Tal vez Castel fuese una especie de doctor Moreau. Le costaba creer, sin embargo, que la realidad se pareciera a una novela fantástica." No apparent ambiguity here: the Moreau alluded to in Morel is spelled out clearly in the more parodic text Plan.

However, just as the above quotation is ironic—it is a novel, Plan, and not "reality" which resembles a "fantastic novel" (Moreau)—so are the references to Moreau in Morel and Plan tricks that the writer is playing on the reader. The mention of Doctor Moreau in Plan suggests one plot to the reader when the "plot" is actually another (just as, indeed, Bioy Casares' novels are not transparent transmitters of messages but metaphoric elaborations on the solitary, self-reflexive nature of perception and of writing). Morel and Plan continue to tease the reader even after the "truth" is discovered because we never really know if it is true (too many unreliable narrators as intermediaries); indeed, particularly in the case of Plan, an open-ended labyrinth, the final fate of the protagonist is never known.

Specific signs of parody of Wells' text abound in Plan. When Nevers finally meets Castel's mysterious assistant and "collaborator," a young man named De Brinon (actual name of a French Nazi collaborator), a kind of comic synthesis of Montgomery and M'ling, Nevers describes De Brinon's voice as follows:

Dice Nevers que tuvo la impresión de que la distancia que lo separaba de De Brinon había desaparecido y que la voz—atrozmente—sonaba a su lado. Dice que llama voz al sonido que oyó porque, aparentemente, De Brinon es un hombre; pero que oyó el berrido de una oveja. Añade que parecía una voz de ventrílocuo imitando a una oveja y que De Brinon casi no abría la boca al hablar. (Plan)

Again, in ths slapstick version of terror, the echo of Dr. Moreau rings clear: the fact that De Brinon sounds like an animal though he is a man, suggests Dr. Moreau's conversion of beasts into men whose original nature is not eradicated but is insidiously visible, between the lines, so to speak. But at the same time the echo turns out to be a false clue not only because of the discovery of the "true" nature of Castel's experiments, but because of Bioy's ironic, comic way of revealing Nevers' "impression" which contrasts with Wells' authentically suspenseful narration of Prendick's impression when he first sees M'ling aboard the schooner: "I … had a disconnected impression of a dark face with extraordinary eyes close to mine, but that I thought was a nightmare, until I met it again." And when he meets it again: "In some indefinable way the black face thus flashed upon me shocked me profoundly. It was a singularly deformed one. The facial part projected, forming something dimly suggestive of a muzzle" (Moreau). Wells' tone is one of insidious horror, and what is suggested here—M'ling's beastly nature—is later confirmed.

On the other hand, Nevers' nightmarish encounter with De Brinon is described with comical, ambiguous distance, especially Nevers' first view of De Brinon which immediately precedes the unexpected bellow:

Allí estaba De Brinon. Nevers no tuvo un momento de duda. Era la primera vez que veía a ese joven atlético, de cara despierta y franca, de mirada inteligente, que se reclinaba, abstraído, sobre un enfermo. Ese joven tenía que ser De Brinon. (Plan)

After this comforting view of De Brinon as an intelligent-looking youth, comes the shocking contrast of the demented voice, comic not only because of the abrupt juxtaposition but because of Nevers' incoherent description of a sheep's voice as a bellow (instead of baaing).

Whereas in Wells there is a rational sequence of events leading from first suspicions to final discoveries, in Bioy Casares, the logic is that of the White Knight in Through the Looking-Glass, or of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, i.e. dream logic. Unlike M'ling, whose beastliness becomes gradually apparent, the handsome De Brinon is abruptly reduced to a strange animalistic, disembodied voice: the extraordinary suddenly invades everyday reality. But while this extraordinary factor could appear to be explained by Moreau, i.e. the text between the lines, it isn't: Nevers thinks there is something beastly about De Brinon but also remarks that he could be "mentally retarded" (Plan). The absolute truth about De Brinon as about everything else can never be ascertained. Infinite uncertainty is what the reader of contemporary fantastic fiction is left with.

The shipwreck incident is a cliché of the island adventure without which the three plots would be incomplete but again, though the adventure of the Morel protagonist is closer to Prendick's in that both are stranded on an island while Nevers is officially dispatched to one, there are greater anecdotal similarities between Moreau and Plan. The shipwreck tale of one of the prisoners on Devil's Island, called the Priest, is, in many of its details, a reduction, a condensed version and thus a parodic commentary of Edward Prendick's adventure. Like Prendick, the Priest, when his "ship wrecked", was in the only boat that was not picked up until many days later, after many privations; just as Prendick's dinghy loses sight of the others, so does the Priest's. In Prendick's case, the water soon runs out and the men start going mad: indeed, madness drives two of them to kill each other, as madness probably drives the Priest to kill off his companions. Prendick himself feels threatened by madness and laughs insanely when his companions fall into the water, a laugh, he says, that "caught me like a thing from without" (Moreau). The Priest (an ironic name, of course) remains crazed after his ordeal, and sees only hallucinations and monsters, all of which leads to disastrous consequences when he is operated on by Dr. Castel.

The slight suggestion in Moreau that Prendick's story may not be credible because the whole thing may have been a hallucination (he mentions seeing M'ling's face as if in a nightmare) becomes a labyrinth of doubts in Morel and Plan, where not only minor characters like the Priest are crazy but where there are many doubts as to the sanity or credibility of the protagonists, all unreliable narrators. Here again, if one explanation of Prendick's experience on the island is that it was all a hallucination, then the Priest's island drama, a parody of Prendick's, is infinitely more "unreal".

The echoes of Moreau in Morel, and even more pronounced in Morel's mirror-text, Plan, are false leads which are true leads. While Morel and Plan deal with different "experiments" (having more to do with art than with science), the fact that both of Bioy Casares' novels suggest that their "source" could be another book rather than an empirical reality, points to an ultimate "truth," to a textual reality. And Morel and Plan are parodies not so much in the sense that they are renewing the science fiction genre, as perhaps Bustos Domecq has done for the detective genre, but in the sense that they are commenting on the "nature" of all literature: Texts represent not a presence but an absence; the referent is always, already out of reach.

Elsewhere I have examined a useful strategy in utopic island adventures, the already-mentioned first-person narrative, and how what in Robinson Crusoe guaranteed an illusion of authenticity in the early eighteenth century, in Morel and Plan emphasizes the very literariness, the very artificiality of the account of an extraordinary adventure.

But here it will have to suffice to say that the concept of parody, in the wider sense of commentary, of creation as re-creation, not only illuminates the mode of Bioy Casares' two novels but of many of the more original works of Latin American literature today.

Wendy B. Faris (review date Autumn 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of Historias desaforadas, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 4, Autumn, 1987, p. 606.

[Faris is an American educator, critic, and author. In the following review of Historias desaforadas, Faris comments on the collection's "melancholy tone of nostalgia and resignation."]

The ten stories of Historias desaforadas provide a good introduction to the work of Bioy Casares, an early master of magical realism, better known to the world at large as the collaborator of Borges. Most of the stories inhabit that literary locus of magical realism, the domain of liminality, in which characters or states of being exist on the fringes of society or normality and thus lead us off the beaten track into unexplored or undiscovered countries of the imagination. In order to do this convincingly, they often begin, as do the stories of Borges or Cortázar or Fuentes, in the casual midst of rigorously everyday reality. Events frequently dovetail as if by magic into one another: a translation job pays a narrator the exact sum he needs to buy a particular car; a house that another narrator comes upon in an alpine snowstorm contains just the man he has been looking for. They are all, in their different ways, in the title words of one story, "unexpected voyage[s]," filled with amazing coincidences. Appropriately enough, then, they concern strange and endearing characters, like a "despotic but upright" old colonel who doesn't believe in the statistics the narrator cites to him to prove Argentina's decline, claiming that the reason they all tell the same story is that they copy each other.

Within the eerie atmosphere and magical events, delicate psychological details lament and accept human frailties and disappointments: "Vanity is rather vulgar," for example, and "Every person is irreplaceable." A melancholy tone of nostalgia and resignation, but not despair, pervades many of the stories, a gentle, worldly, benevolent fatigue familiar to us from Borges's tales; and like the latter, they are almost always told in the first person.

I always wish collections of short stories would include the original dates of publication; Historias desaforadas, like most others, does not.

Valentine Cunningham (review date 22 November 1987)

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SOURCE: "Ghosts of Vietnam," in The Observer, November 22, 1987, p. 25.

[In the following excerpt, Cunningham lauds the mix of myth and local color in The Dream of Heroes.]

[A] brand of haunted American maleness preoccupies Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Dream of Heroes. Casares's people are residents of Buenos Aires, bar-flies, football fanatics, addicts of cards, booze and betting on the races, the kind of men who settle differences with bottles and knives, awesomely tangled in the values of gaucho and tango. Central among them is mechanic Emilio Gauna whose fancied horse comes good at Carnival time in 1927 and who treats his chums to a great binge during which there take place some very odd and only hazily recalled encounters with an intriguingly masked girl.

Gauna marries an actress, daughter of a sorcerer, and eases up on nights out with the lads. But he remains troubled by that strangely soured Carnival experience. And in 1930, lucky once more at Carnival, he re-enacts the earlier happenings to plumb the mystery of the masked girl.

The great Borges himself much admired this staccato, cinematic fiction of Argentinian self-fashioning (it first appeared in 1954) and you can see why. The real streets, neighbourhoods, cinemas, trams and taverns of Buenos Aires, a modernist cosmopolis in which Ibsen is being thrillingly acted for bohemian connoisseurs, merge cunningly into a spooky replay of Orpheus and Eurydice, a magic lantern business of prophecy and curse and archaically hellish fatalism aboard the enigmatic streetcars of South American male desire. It's a very fetching mix indeed, canny and labyrinthine—and only 33 years late in English translation.

Mary Morris (review date 13 November 1988)

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SOURCE: "He Went for the Thrills," in The New York Times Book Review, November 13, 1988, p. 22.

[An American author and critic, Morris has published novels, short stories, and travel pieces. In the following mixed review, she asserts that the theme of fate in The Dream of Heroes is more befitting a short story or parable than a novel.]

In The Dream of Heroes, Taboada—secret protector and father-in-law of Emilio Gauna—speaks these dying words, intended for his son-in-law: "I should like to explain to him that there is generosity in happiness and selfishness in adventure." Written in 1954, and translated now for the first time, this is a novel about the choice which is most often the domain of men, especially in Latin culture, between domestic contentment and unbridied thrills. In the case of Emilio Gauna it is the tension in his life between bliss with Clara, the woman he loves, and an obsessive desire to know what happened to him on the third night of the Carnival in buenos Aires in 1927.

Adolfo Bioy Casares was both friend of and collaborator with Jorge Luis Borges. Borges referred to him as "really and secretly the master." Like Borges, Mr. Bioy Casares is interested in the secrets and mysteries, the labyrinths and philosophical perplexities of life. In The Dream of Heroes, under the guise of an adventure-mystery novel—complete with Carnival, masked women, dark woods, inexplicable events and alcoholic stupors—Mr. Bioy Casares recounts a kind of metaphysical fairy tale in which the hero, caught between good and evil, enters upon a doomed search for self.

On the third night of the Carnival something happened to Emilio Gauna. He was out drinking with his wild, raucous friends when he encountered a masked woman. Hours later, he awakened on the shores of a lake, disoriented and terror-stricken. What happened to him that night remains his single preoccupation and the central plot line of the novel. No matter what turns his life takes, including falling in love and marrying Clara, Taboada's daughter, Gauna cannot rest until he finds out who was the masked woman and what happened to him that night near the lake. Like Oedipus, Gauna has a date with destiny; like Oedipus it is his own thirst for knowledge that drives him to his fate.

On its surface this is a detective novel, that genre which Borges praised many times—including in the preface to Mr. Bioy Casares' 1940 collection of short stories, The Invention of Morel—as preferable to the "plotless" psychological novels of such writers as Balzac, Proust or the 19th-century Russian novelists. As in all detective novels, we have here a suspicion of wrongdoing, a search and ultimately a crime. On another level, despite its anti-psychological bent, the novel is also about a kind of fixated stage of development. Emilio is unable to relinquish his selfish, adolescent thirst for adventure in exchange for mature, adult happiness with Clara. And finally in philosophical terms, as with the metaphysical tales of Borges, there is the journey into the labyrinth of self—the theme here being that the thing you are seeking is the thing you have; in seeking it you destroy it, along with yourself.

The Dream of Heroes was written 30 years ago, well before the boom in Latin American literature when the great novels of writers such as García Márquez, Donoso, Fuentes and Vargas Llosa were written. Rather than being a kind of precursor of the magical realism their works represent, it has greater affinity with the French nouveau roman, particularly the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Indeed it is a kind of cross between a Borges story and a Robbe-Grillet novel.

As such the novel lacks what we have come to expect from Latin American writers—a rich complexity of character and event, a deep connection to a place and a certain power of language. At the same time it does not have the narrative conciseness, the sharp writing and the assured voice one finds in the stories of Borges, as well as in Mr. Bioy Casares' own short stories in The Invention of Morel.

In particular, Emilio Gauna, the hero, falls flat. What moves him is unclear. It is as if he had no life before the third night of the Carnival. While this might work in a short story, it feels here as if we are missing some of the pieces. For example, we know he is an orphan, but we know nothing about his parents or their death. We wonder why, when he meets and falls in love with Clara, the masked woman does not recede into memory. We also wonder why Clara, who holds the key, doesn't just reveal the secret to him and thereby save the man she loves.

The answer is because it's a story about destiny and fate and inevitability. In this sense it reminded me of that wonderful Sufi tale about meeting death in the market place. And as a tale it might have succeeded. But as a novel, it needs more to carry it along, particularly in the middle sections when life with Clara takes precedence over what happened at the Carnival.

Instead this novel reads more like the description it gives of Love Never Dies, a film Emilio goes to see: "It was a long saga of romantic love that continued beyond the grave with beautiful young girls and noble, disinterested young men…. There were exaggeratedly good characters and exaggeratedly wicked ones and a sort of frenzy of misfortune." The good, such as Clara, are too good to be engaging and the evil too obvious to be surprising, and Emilio Gauna is more an allegorical hero with a tragic flaw than a flesh-and-blood character with human complexity. His trail of misfortunes seems more the stuff of pat fairy tales than that extended dream we have come to call the novel.

Lawrence Thornton (review date 11 December 1988)

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SOURCE: "Novels Borges Never Wrote," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 11, 1988, pp. 1, 6.

[An American novelist who received many literary awards for his first novel, Imagining Argentina (1987), Thornton is also the author of Unbodied Hope: Narcissism and the Modern Novel (1984). In the following review, he judges The Dream of Heroes impressive and highly influenced by Jorge Luis Borges, while finding Diary of the War of the Pig only partially developed.]

Most people would agree that Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez are the major practitioners of magic realism, but even though they work the same generic terrain, their methods are markedly different.

García Márquez's world of flesh and blood is filled with characters possessing supernatural powers. Objects are transformed in crescendos of images or materialize out of nowhere, as is the case with the galleon in the jungle of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

His powerful themes grow out of closely observed human behavior over the breadth of his weighty novels.

Borges, on the other hand, is more austere, focusing on philosophical concerns in short stories built around a postulate that attracted his exegetical mind. García Márquez is devoted to elaborate, almost Baroque narrative tapestries, Borges to foreshortened summaries of elegant ideas. García Márquez says, "Look!" and amazing things appear. Borges creates a situation and then asks, "What if?"

The Dream of Heroes, a story of appearances and deceptions, belongs in the Borgesian mode, and Adolfo Bioy Casares' debts to his old friend and collaborator are evident on almost every page.

It is 1927, the suburbs of Buenos Aires. Emilio Guana, the 21-year-old protagonist, is obsessed by an event that soon becomes his destiny. During Carnival, Guana wins a bet and decides to spend the money on a debauch with his friend and sometime counselor, Dr. Valegra, hoping that his prestige will be enhanced by this largess. After three nights of carousing, Guana and his companions enter a club where he meets a mysterious masked girl. They dance, but she soon disappears, and that single event marks him like a brand.

As the narrator says, "After the adventure Guana was never the same." The next day he wakes with only a hazy memory of what happened, but it is enough; from that moment until three years later, when he wins another bet and insists on repeating the earlier experiences in the hope of finding the girl once again, Guana moves toward his destiny with chilling inevitability.

These events unfold in a realistic world of decaying factories, dilapidated stucco houses and tango bars, but most interestingly in Guana's relationship with his mentors. Guana vacillates between the influence of two older men: Dr. Valegra, a faintly sinister figure devoted to violence, and Taboada, the Sorcerer, "who knows more than many doctors with diplomas." When Guana falls in love with Clara, the Sorcerer's daughter, it would seem that he has acted to end his obsession with the masked girl. Instead he unwittingly runs into her arms. Love and marriage are no match for the past, not even when Taboada says, "You went on a kind of journey and now you are full of a sense of loss like Ulysses back in Ithaca or Jason remembering the golden apples … That journey … was neither entirely good nor entirely evil. For your own sake and for that of others, do not repeat the journey."

Up to this point, Heroes—after Guana's encounter with the masked girl—evokes the familiar image of a stone cast into a pond and its rings spreading toward shore. But the most inventive aspect of the novel comes when Casares reverses the action three years later and Guana replays the original event, which is then enlarged and tragically completed. Repetition becomes the agent of fate in this circular narrative, but there is a further irony here, another kind of repetition because Casares' style and structure are clearly derived from his master. Moreover, the novel resonates with Borges' stories, "Theme of the Traitor and Hero," as well as his metaphysical lyric on Argentine machismo, "The South." And so, while Heroes is an impressive work in the Borgesian tradition, it at once commands our admiration for how it is made and, in doing so, places Casares in Borges' shadow.

Published simultaneously with The Dream of Heroes, Diary of the War of the Pig is less successful. In the latter novel, the old people of Buenos Aires are being systematically killed or maimed by violent youth gangs egged on by a fanatic named Farrell, who inflames them by way of fireside chats on the radio. The problem is that Casares presents the action exclusively from the inside, through the point of view of an old man, Vidal, and reports made to him by his cronies. Despite some vivid scenes of a friend of Vidal's being thrown from the upper tier of a soccer stadium and an attack on mourners at a funeral, Farrell never appears, nor does Casares provide any way for us to understand how the government enables Farrell's policies.

Writing a novel based on the theme of society's unjust treatment of its elderly members is not exactly new, and Casares fails to show how the mind of the opposition works, as J. M. Coetzee does so compellingly in Waiting for the Barbarians and George Orwell in 1984. Mindless terror, as the dirty war demonstrated, always has a mind behind it, even though it may be demented.

In my judgment, Casares hit .500 with these two books, not a bad average for anyone. As for the echoes of Borges' style and methods, my guess is that it would be almost impossible not to continue hearing the master's voice in your head even after he died. There is something wonderfully Borgesian in that.

Michael Harris (review date 5 November 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 5, 1989, p. 6.

[Harris is a Canadian journalist and author whose bestseller, Justice Denied: The Law Versus Donald Marshall (1986), is the true account of a seventeen-year-old Micmac Indian who was sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he did not commit. In the following review, Harris offers high praise for The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata.]

The reader of a novel is like a young man from the provinces who arrives in the big city gawking, suitcase in hand. What adventures will befall him? Romance? A mugging? The main thing is that they start soon. The veteran Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, best known for The Dream of Heroes and his collaborations with Borges, doesn't disappoint [in The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata]. He begins: "Around five in the morning, after a bus trip as long as the night, Nicolasito Almanza arrived in La Plata. He had barely walked a block … when somebody waved to him."

And not just any somebody. Don Juan Lombardo, the old gentleman who detains him, is the spark that sets in motion a storytelling engine of near-perfect efficiency. In this short novel, no time is wasted, no character or detail superfluous, no remark without its point. Yet this very perfection makes the novel seem faintly stylized, its age-old devices—coincidental meetings, delayed paychecks, mid-night trysts, nosy landladies—at odds with the contemporary, sexy story being told. Bioy Casares' lucid prose might as well be the misty, shifting light of La Plata that blurs the buildings Almanza photographs; the effect is of near-total ambiguity.

The young man is a novice, but his photographs have a magical effect on all who see them. He is poor and diffident but rapidly attracts friends and lovers. Don Juan may be a harmless eccentric, but he may also be a swindler, a vampire, even the devil. His two daughters, Julia and Griselda, both of whom the lusty Almanza beds, present interchangeable faces of love. The photographer's friends Mascardi, a cop, may be informing on other friends who are student radicals. Reality and dream, common sense and paranoia, flip-flop. Almanza survives what may be a murder attempt because he has picked up a few city tricks—and because he has remained as sweet-natured and guileless as Candide.

The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata, like much other Latin American literature, gives the impression of a culture both younger and older, raunchier and more sophisticated, than our own: a blend of Europe and the wild frontier. In Bioy Casares, who is 74, the sophistication predominates. Though jacket blurbs tout his "magical existentialism," our reader needn't fear that heavy metaphysical baggage will weigh down his suitcase. Rather, it's like the fizz of electricity above the trolley that carries him effortlessly down new and exotic streets.

Ilan Stavans (review date 19 November 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata, in The New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1989, p. 24.

[In the following excerpt, Stavans finds The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata disappointing.]

The future will remember the Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares as the close friend and collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges. It will also acknowledge his novels The Dream of Heroes and the remarkable The Invention of Morel. Unfortunately, The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata will probably not share this immortality. Published in Spanish in 1985, it describes the weeklong assignment of Nicolasito Almanza, a small-town photographer who is asked by a book publisher to travel to the big city to take pictures of the principal buildings and monuments. La Plata is known for its intricate passageways and sad landscape. In his labyrinthic experience, Almanza gets involved with, and is abused by, Don Juan Lombardo, an old man on the verge of a financial crisis who takes him for his lost son Ventura. Almanza frequents cafes in the company of political activists and a cop, has separate sexual encounters with Don Juan's two daughters and maintains a bizarre relationship with his hotelkeeper—all in an atmosphere tending toward the surreal. Compared with other works by Mr. Bioy Casares, this one is poor and unoriginal. The reader cannot but find echoes in it of Julio Cortázar's "Blow-Up," a masterful story in which not even the camera is a source of reliable truth. Here the plot is perceived through a kaleidoscope where intentions and feelings are never what they seem to be. Mirrors and a set of stained-glass windows are symbols in the hero's hallucinations. But the story is never fully developed, and the interrelating parts are brought together in a trivial manner.

Ursula Hegi (review date 23 September 1990)

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SOURCE: "Anomie in a Shifting Reality," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 23, 1990, p. 12.

[Hegi is a German-born American educator, novelist, and critic. In the following review of A Plan for Escape, she comments on Bioy Casares's focus on communication and reality.]

Adolfo Bioy-Casares' choice of point of view [in A Plan for Escape] is brilliant: He filters experiences through the guarded speculations of someone who hasn't participated in them. Juxtaposed with excerpts of an exiled Frenchman's letters are narrative passages from his uncle who tries to make sense of the letters while freeing himself from any sense of responsibility for his nephew's bizarre fate. From the first page of his cryptic novel, A Plan for Escape, Bioy-Casares challenges his readers to question the reliability of this narrator.

First published in 1945, the book explores the decline and corruption of the individual trapped within a machine of violence. Bioy-Casares draws parallels to the atrocities of Nazi Germany in his treatment of horror and confusion, conspiracy and fear. As his characters attempt to endure or overcome a corrupt system that is secretive about its ever-changing rules, they are weakened or contaminated. Hallucinations, misinterpretations and paranoia lead them into irrational acts, but these acts don't matter nearly as much as the increasing disorientation that arises from them.

A spoiled young Frenchman, Henri Nevers, is exiled to a group of camouflaged islands off French Guiana to assist a governor who believes that his operation is regulated by a unique order. Nevers, who always considered it absurd to "meddle in things that had already happened," is disturbed by rumors of mysterious experiments with prisoners in this world in which its inhabitants are "dreaming that we dream." The prisoners are conditioned to imagine their world "vividly, obsessively" and are kept in isolation "so that the obsession would remain pure."

As the characters manipulate each others' reality, they move within a nightmarish landscape where it's not always clear who the enemy is, and where the power structure can change at any moment. "The governor was sure of participating in the dream of the islands that he infused in others; but he was afraid of losing forever our vision of reality."

Kept awake by his fear of insomnia, Nevers plots to get off the islands. He wants to believe that his "stay in the Guianas was merely an episode in my life. Time would erase it, as it did other dreams." Instead, he becomes obsessed with the secrets and sheds his passivity by setting out on an obscure, self-imposed mission that includes a false confession, intrigue and forged identities. But perhaps he is not gaining a new independence; perhaps he is merely playing his part within the governor's dream machine. "He found himself before a growing conglomeration of mysteries. Were they independent of each other? Or were they linked; did they form a system, perhaps still incomplete?"

Born in Argentina, Adolfo Bioy-Casares is well known as Jorge Luis Borges' collaborator and friend. His numerous works, including novels, film scripts and short stories, have been translated into many languages. A Plan for Escape, like some of his previous works, explores the disintegration of communication within an ever-shifting reality.

Daniel Balderston (review date 29 November 1992)

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SOURCE: "Fantastic Voyages," in The New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1992, p. 15.

[An American critic, Balderston is the author of Out of Context: Historical Reference and the Representation of Reality in Borges (1993) and The Latin American Short Story: An Annotated Guide to Anthologies and Criticism (1992). In the following excerpt, he discusses Bioy Casares's approach to the fantastic in A Russian Doll, and Other Stories, noting how he imitates the work of his former collaborators, Jorge Luis Borges and Argentine fiction writer Silvina Ocampo.]

In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," Jorge Luis Borges's great story of the creation of an encyclopedia about an imaginary planet, everything begins with a conversation between Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares about the possibility of a work of fiction in which the presence of minute contradictions would permit a few readers to discover a disquieting plot quite different from the apparent one. The story was published in 1940, the year in which Mr. Bioy Casares published his first major novel, The Invention of Morel, with a plot pronounced "perfect" by Borges in his review of it, and also the year that Borges and Mr. Bioy Casares—together with Silvina Ocampo, Mr. Bioy Casares's wife and herself a major writer—published an anthology of fantastic literature (recently issued in English as A Book of Fantasy) that changed the course of Latin American literature.

A half century later, The Invention of Morel has inspired a disquieting parable of totalitarian power, Eliseo Subiela's film Man Facing Southeast. Mr. Bioy Casares, by now the author of a number of other significant books including A Plan for Escape, The Dream of Heroes and The Diary of the Year of the Pig, has stayed faithful to the task of unsettling the reader with understated works of fiction in which some details don't quite fit, in which something is not quite right. His latest book, A Russian Doll: And Other Stories, continues his quest to present a contemporary reality distorted by elements of the fantastic and the grotesque.

Two stories in the collection, "A Russian Doll" and "Underwater," invite the reader to take a look at what the interventions of modern science have done to life under water. In one, an Argentine visitor to Aix-les-Bains in France encounters an old acquaintance, Maceira, who (inspired by the movies) has come to the spa to look for an heiress to marry; the ensuing complications turn out to be more than the gold digger bargained for. The story resembles one of Kafka's in that the extraordinary happenings disrupt a dull and rather dreary reality; the fantastic events, however, grow out of an apocalyptic series of ecological catastrophes.

This contemporary flavor also informs "Underwater," in which a story of unrequited love turns into a tale of horror, again because of scientific meddling with the natural environment.

One of the most impressive stories, "The Navigator Returns to His Country," is also the briefest in the collection, and the least like Mr. Bioy Casares's other work. Here an employee at a South American embassy in Paris discovers an unexpected likeness between himself and a disheveled Cambodian student on the subway. The dream sequence in the story is brief and beautifully understated, serving to underscore the pain of both foreigners' waking reality.

This collection also contains some understated homages to two of the closest associates of Mr. Bioy Casares. "A Meeting in Rauch" is strongly reminiscent of the stories in Borges's 1975 collection, The Book of Sand, down to the bookish reference to Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell, a treatise on the world of spirits, that provides the idea for the metaphysical conceit in the story and even the name of the protagonist (Swerberg). More surprising, given the extreme differences in tone between their earlier writings, are Mr. Bioy Casares's quiet homages to Silvina Ocampo. "Our Trip (A Diary)" and the final "Three Fantasies in Minor Key" sound and feel like Ms. Ocampo, though perhaps the black humor and the violence are not so intense as in her own writing (a selection of her stories, Leopoldina's Dream, is available in English).

It is surprising to see Mr. Bioy Casares imitating Borges and Ms. Ocampo so late in his career. No doubt Mr. Bioy Casares began his career as a writer imitating Borges, but the imitation of Ms. Ocampo (considered by many a stronger writer than her husband) is new and unexpected….

In the last two or three years Adolfo Bioy Casares has won a number of important awards, including Spain's coveted Cervantes Prize, and his work has been discovered by a new generation of readers across the Spanish-speaking world. His writing is not marked by the excess that many North American readers associate with Latin American writing; his brand of the fantastic is never disconnected from reality, and he is always attentive to the cadences—and the commonplaces—of everyday speech. One can only hope that the charms of this little collection will entice readers to discover—or rediscover—his earlier work, particularly The Invention of Morel and The Dream of Heroes.

Barbara Mujica (review date November-December 1992)

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SOURCE: "Jewels of a Million Truths," in Américas, Vol. 44, No. 6, November-December, 1992, pp. 60-1.

[An American educator, critic, editor, nonfiction writer, novelist, and short story writer, Mujica is a specialist in the field of Hispanic studies. In the review below, she offers a favorable assessment of A Russian Doll, describing the collection as "vintage Bioy Casares."]

In the world of Bioy Casares people are unique yet duplicable, the line between individuals and even species is blurry, and God appears in the most unexpected places. Originally published in Spanish in 1991 as Una muñeca rusa, this new collection of seven stories [A Russian Doll and Other Stories] is vintage Bioy Casares: the fantastic goes hand-in-hand with the mundane and the dead serious with the deadpan.

Like much of Bioy Casares' fiction, many of the stories in A Russian Doll involve travel, for it is the author's belief that travel liberates the spirit, allowing it to accept bizarre new experiences. In the title story ["A Russian Doll"], an Argentine traveler runs into an old friend in a less-than-elegant hotel in Aix. An admitted fortune-hunter, the friend recounts the bizarre story of his efforts to woo the daughter of a rich factory owner. At the beginning of his adventure, he visits the surprisingly well appointed apartments of the hotel owner, a widow who offers to lend him her late husband's dinner jacket. While there, a Russian doll catches his eye. The widow explains what everyone knows about Russian dolls: they are arranged by size, one inside the other, so that "when one breaks, the others are left." The significance of this seemingly superfluous observation is not obvious until the end, when the wooer's greed leads him to make some bad decisions in terms of his long-range plans. Fortunately for him, when the biggest, most beautiful "doll" is gone, another one is left to take its place—and he is perfectly happy to settle for second best.

In "Our Trip (A Diary)" Bioy Casares treats the same subject from a different perspective. The story consists of a series of fragments from a travel diary, each of which recounts episodes from the demise of a marriage. In every scene, the location and the woman's name are different. Here, as in "A Russian Doll," women are interchangeable and therefore expendable. The misogynistic undertones of these stories is undeniable, but Bioy Casares' real focus is the universality and duplicability of human experience. No matter where or who they are, men and women face certain obstacles to communication that undermine their relationships.

Communication is also one of the main themes of "Underwater," but here Bioy Casares makes his point through surrealistic imagery. Aldo Martelli is a very ordinary notary public whose main interests are his health and fishing. Recovering from a bout of hepatitis, Martelli visits the lake region in the South, where he falls in love with Flora, a fascinating young woman who is the niece of an experimental biologist. When Martelli learns that Flora had another lover before him, he is overcome with jealousy. Flora admits readily to the previous affair. She explains that her former admirer was a much older man, whom her uncle accidently turned into a salmon in an effort to rejuvenate him. Flora proposes that Martelli and she allow her uncle to turn them into salmon as well, so that the three of them can live together in the lake. Martelli claims to take the proposal seriously, but it is clear from his endless observations on the state of his health and his concern with comfort that he will never consent to spend the rest of his life splashing around in cold water.

In spite of the hilarity of this outlandish tale, which Bioy Casares narrates with detached seriousness, at its core are the fundamental problems of male-female relationships. To what extent is each member of a couple willing to give up his or her "self" to satisfy the other? Clearly, Flora and Martelli are two different species. Ironically, she is the hot-blooded lover; he, the "cold fish." Is true communication between two such different creatures possible? It may be true that opposites attract, but can mere fascination lead to an enduring relationship?

Not all of Bioy Casares' stories deal with love. In "Cato," the author ponders the politics of repression and shows how fanatics of all ilks exploit the artist. In "A Meeting in Rauch" he mocks the avarice and spiritual emptiness of a young middle-class businessman, so obsessed with making a deal that he fails to recognize God when the Almighty hitches a ride from him.

For more than five decades Adolfo Bioy Casares has been a moving force in Argentine fiction. A Russian Doll and Other Stories is a testimony to his enduring narrative skill, undiminished after all these years. These are engrossing, elegant tales, and Suzanne Jill Levine has done an exquisite job of rendering them into English.

Ana María Hernández (review date Winter 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of El lado de la sombra, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 154-55.

[Below, Hernández offers a positive assessment of the stories collected in El lado de la sombra.]

Originally published in 1962, El lado de la sombra heralded Adolfo Bioy Casares's partial return to fantastic fiction after Guirnalda con amores (1959). Of the ten stories in the collection, four deal with fantastic subjects; of these, "El lado de la sombra" is undoubtedly the best. In it a traveler to exotic lands encounters a former friend who has experienced a change in fortune. The story is told from the perspective of a first-person narrator—indeed, eight of the stories utilize first-person narration—whose descriptions of a Conrad-like Indonesian setting prepare the reader for the fateful encounter.

The story manifests some of Bioy's best traits. He elaborates a spellbinding plot, skillfully revealed in successive stages, and he creates an almost animistic atmosphere that foreshadows unfolding events: "Atribuí al trópico una irreprimible actividad envolvente contra presas marcadas, entre las que fatalmente me encontraba yo." Veblen tells the narrator about his disastrous liaison with Leda, a femme fatale/ingenue who causes his ruin and later dies in a traffic accident. Leda and her cat Lavinia function as a set of doppelgänger. Lavinia is the stronger one: after she dies in a fire, Leda loses her power over Veblen, at least temporarily. Later, Veblen reencounters Leda in a local prostitute named Leto, who soon leaves him; it is Lavinia, "returning" to life after a local fire, who triumphs in the end.

A psychological crime-thriller skillfully conceived and brilliantly executed, "Cavar un foso" deals with the inner mechanisms of ambition, guilt, and delusion. The story portrays a young couple who murder an elderly lady and steal from her in order to forestall bankruptcy. The couple must then confront two separate pursuers, who precipitate additional homicides. The narrative is structured to create a gradual intensification of suspense by the juxtaposition of a subjective element—the couple's guilt—and an objective one: the pursuers, whose motives we do not discover until the end.

"Los afanes," another jewel in the collection, chronicles the relationship between Eladio Heller—a hyperintellectual character with touches of the "mad scientist"—and his wife Milena, described as unabashedly original and unbearably snobbish: "Nunca habíamos encontrado una persona menos acomodaticia ni más agresiva." Both characters are portrayed in an ambiguous manner. Is he a genius or a sadist, or both? Is she a neglected wife or a possessive spider jealous of her husband's talent? Heller's ultimate invention is a device that captures the essence of a being and preserves it eternally. He first tries it on his dog Marconi, whom he had rescued from death years before; later, he transfers his own soul into the device. The use of a first-person narrator—a friend of Eladio's who loved Milena in secret—creates several levels of ambiguity, as we cannot be certain of his objectivity regarding either Heller or Milena.

Also notable is "Un león en el bosque de Palermo," wherein the author resorts to archetypal symbolism—the lion as passion, the forest as the unconscious—to reveal the disruption in the daily routines of local residents when a lion escapes from the zoo. The creation of a magical atmosphere is of paramount importance in this story; the piece has the cinematic quality that characterizes many of Bioy's stories and novels. (The author's interest in cinema is well known, and he has often collaborated on film ventures.)

Bioy, who often likes to cast writers and journalists as his protagonists, does so again in "El calamar opta por su tinta" and "La obra," the latter about a novelist who retires to an off-season resort to complete a work in progress. Here Bioy playfully refers to himself through his narrator when he declares that his works "me asegurarán un nicho … en la historia de la literatura argentina. Acaso no figure entre los exaltados ni entre los infimos; me conformo con un lugar secundario: en mi opinión, el más decoroso."

Certainly, El lado de la sombra reveals the best of the mature Bioy: rigorous, lucid, elegant, with an understated virtuosity that is dazzling to the discerning eye.

Evelio Echevarría (review date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of A Russian Doll and Other Stories, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter, 1994, p. 126.

[In the following review of A Russian Doll, and Other Stories, Echevarría criticizes the collection's lack of "vital conflict" and thematic variation, but praises Bioy Casares's elegant writing style.]

Literary critics and Latin Americanists agree on classifying the Argentinean Bioy Casares as a fiction writer who, by dexterously combining the real and the fantastic, delves deep into the confused human mind. The present collection of short stories [A Russian Doll and Other Stories] is his ninth. It is composed of six pieces averaging some 20 pages each, and three short glimpses. They have in common their topics, which confirm the opinion of the critics. The title of the book itself, taken from the first story, summarizes the contents: Russian dolls were manufactured having identical dolls one inside the other, so that if one broke, it was replaced by the next. This represents, among other things, interchangeability and duplicability in the human personality. These stories take place mostly during travels, since the author believes that traveling makes one's spirit freer. "A Russian Doll" shows the double standards in love of a man after a rich woman; when he loses her, he simply replaces her with another, not quite so rich. "A Meeting in Rauch" again deals with the impact of greed upon the human personality: it depicts a businessman so eager to make a deal that, in an encounter with God, he fails to recognize Him and treats Him rather rudely. Other stories cover male-female relationships, which, as usual for Bioy Casares, are pictured with obstacles that neither side is willing to overcome. "Underwater" is fantastic, fantasy being for Bioy Casares a form of surrealistic imagery that helps to explain a problem. The tale shows some lovers turned into salmons, so as to stay together and isolated from others. But others also invited to take such a way to happiness shrink and simply decide to stay dry.

As far as the argument is concerned, these stories are disappointing. Argentinean contemporary fiction writers have been repeating the same metaphysical topics for more than four decades. The great vital conflicts that characterize Spanish-American literature are not here. But these stories are not dull. Bioy Casares's elegant style … [helps] to make up for what arguments lack with something more vital.

Breaking the law of logic and reality, Bioy Casares continues to offer a succession of cases that impart a sense of isolation and helplessness, with nearly no hope or solution in sight. But his characters are resilient and even the symbol of the Russian doll seems to offer some comfort, for not everything is lost: "A gift from my father…. It had identical dolls inside, which are smaller. When one breaks, the others are left."

Melvin S. Arrington, Jr. (review date Winter 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of Memorias: Infancia, adolescencia y cómo se hace un escritor, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 109-10.

[In the following, Arrington offers a positive assessment of Memorias.]

In his collection of reminiscences, Memorias, Adolfo Bioy Casares (b. 1914 in Buenos Aires) openly discusses his early orientation toward the opposite sex, his various love interests, and his infidelities. Some of his fondest memories relate to life on the family estancia. His father looms large in these pages and deserves credit for instilling in the future writer an interest in literature. Bioy recalls, for instance, how his father would often recite to him classic sélections from gaucho poetry.

Among these formative experiences the author includes two unforgettable manifestations of the fantastic: the multiple reflections that emanated from a mirror in his mother's room, and the visual effect created by a triple photo of his long-deceased grandfather. The latter, containing a center picture and two side-panel shots, gave the impression that his grandfather was having a conversation with himself. Bioy also writes of his dejection and sense of personal loss on learning of Firpo's defeat at the hands of Dempsey and a similar disillusionment over the decline of the screen career of one of his favorite actresses, Louise Brooks: "Como ante la derrota de Firpo, comprobé que la realidad y yo no estábamos de acuerdo."

Other writers play prominent roles in these memoirs. Bioy's wife, the noted poet and cuentista Silvina Ocampo, appears as his faithful companion and sometime collaborator. Conversely, he depicts his sister-in-law, the acclaimed woman of letters Victoria Ocampo, as an over-bearing, domineering, larger-than-life personality. Even more fascinating is the story of his long friendship and association with Borges, "la primera persona que conocí para quien nada era más importante que la literatura." In addition, Bioy recounts his work with Silvina and Borges on the famous Antología de literatura fantástica, his editorial project with Borges to produce a series of detective novels, and his incompatibility with the Sur group. This section sheds light on the creation of some of his better-known works and on the writing process employed by the Borges-Bioy team.

Unlike the sweeping panorama of a full-fledged autobiography, Bioy's Memorias covers only selected moments in his life. He frequently recalls mundane occurrences, such as the time in London when, on his way to have lunch with a fellow writer, he stepped in dog manure. Oddly, he remembers this episode but has no recollection of the lunch engagement. From dog droppings Bioy turns to name-dropping, as he compiles a lengthy catalogue of writers and locales encountered during his frequent travels.

Stylistically, the volume resembles a collection of short stories: the narrator switches topics erratically; chapters are brief and episodic; not all the narratives appear significant or even interesting. Aptly titled, these vignettes and accompanying photos offer an intimate portrait of a man whose life has been intertwined with Argentine literary activity for over a half-century. The process of emerging from Borges's shadow has been a long and difficult one, and it is to his credit that Bioy Casares looks back on the experience with fondness rather than bitterness.

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