Monday, December 04, 2006

The Invention of Morel

"Perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost..."

Adolfo Bioy Casares was Jorge Luis Borges' best mate and acolyte. Whereas the master preferred to use short fictions to suspend a metaphysical labyrinth in literary space, in 1940 the young Bioy felt empowered to fashion some of the fantastical ideas that they shared into a proper novel, albeit a fairly short one.

What impresses me so much about these Argentines is their precocious awareness that the natural and the supernatural could be conceived as ontologically inseparable − that the one might always be explained in terms of the other. As artists they were writing only a decade or so after the important philosophical shifts in science, long before more recent champions of corrosively immanent virtuality, Philip K. Dick and Jean Baudrillard.

The story takes the form of a diary written by a Venezuelan fugitive from justice who has purposely marooned himself on a tropical island, supposedly kept deserted by the stigma of disease. After a while however the narrator discovers that he is not alone − there are "others" here, as there are in Lost, the most up-to-date example of the enchanted island myth.

Carefree people in oddly old-fashioned garb (with a gramophone that endlessly repeats Tea for Two) appear out of nowhere, and fearing betrayal the diarist flees the main building complex and hides in marshland. He begins to observe them from a distance, one in particular, a beautiful gypsy-eyed woman with a red headscarf that settles on a rock to watch the sunset every evening. The green-eyed monster has him in its powerful jaws as her male friends − including an aloof beardy called Morel − hang around her, addressing her as Faustine.

When he can bear it no longer he emerges from the bush and attempts conversation, only to be roundly ignored. The reader thinks "ghost" and wonders why the narrator is so slow on the uptake, but Bioy leads us to a more intriguing solution to this mystery. (Spoilers...)

Morel turns out to be an inventor of the reckless variety with a machine that can record "living reproductions" of human beings, synchronising all the senses (not just sight and sound) to deliver "an album of very durable images".

To launch his invention Morel brought all his friends to the island for a week to be secretely virtualised in this way, creating "a legacy of the present to the future" and granting them, as he puts it, the promise of immortality. It is the results of that promise that share the island with the narrator.

These projections living the same week over and over again are indistinguishable from the real thing. Morel's machine duplicates all the material elements of a person which might impact on another's senses and "the soul emerges...that was to be expected", because "the world is made up exclusively of sensations".

Yet the soul of Faustine remains utterly inaccessible to her lover now doubly marooned on an adjoining plane of reality.

There's a yet more unpleasant snag. The images supplant the originals: Morel, Faustine and the whole group of friends have faded away and died. Only the copies are incorruptible.

The narrator plays with the abandoned machinery until he no longer knows which of the flies buzzing around him are real and which are the copies he has fabricated himself. He notes that there are two suns high in the sky and that the super stifling temperature on his island probably reflects this bizarre interpolation of realities. (Which also explains some of the mysterious qualities of the island's vegetation that he noted on his arrival there.)

Groundhog Day naturally springs to mind as he re-lives the key social moments again and again in order to extract more and more meaning from the details. (He admits to us that he has even peered under the long table to see if any limbs were in contact during one gathering in the main hall.)

Ultimately he cannot bear the thought that Faustine lives within an image for which he doesn't exist. He therefore elects to become a transmitter himself, exposing himself to the inventor's sensors, so that he too can join Morel's cycle for eternity.

Without yet really comprehending the social dynamics of the group (this part I liked), the fugitive spends a week becoming part of the drama, inserting himself into specific scenes and adding appropriate contributions to the dialogue. He then completes his written diary as his original body begins to crumble away.

Morel might be an allusion to H.G. Wells's Dr Moreau, though Borges also had a character called Morell. Bioy Casares claimed that his own obsession with the unobtainable image of the lovely silent film star Louise Brooks was an important inspiration for his novella: "She vanished too early."

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