I misread ‘the intimate forms of address’ as ‘the intimate forms of sadness,’ and liked it much better.
At one time I could recite word-for-word, without the book in my hand, but now, as I read it, I make mistakes. Before I found the book I spent a long time looking at photographs, studying them. I would stare at the faces and try to gauge their mood. Who amongst them were happy? Those who are smiling? That seems obvious, of course; but who can say with any certainty? You cannot know anyone but yourself. Finding the book was a relief, a welcome distraction from the photographs that were becoming an obsession for me.
Start at the beginning? There are no beginnings. The book is called La invención de Morel and was written by Adolfo Bioy Casares and first published in 1940. Whilst the loneliness is sometimes hard to bear, at least now that everyone has left no one will point out that he was a close friend of Jorge Luis Borges. Moreover, with no one here to read what I write I do not have to worry about spoilers. It is possible to read the book as an adventure story, a detective or mystery story, a ghost story, a love story, or as a philosophical investigation. I have had time enough to enjoy it in every way possible.
I sometimes misread the title of the book as The Island of Morel. This is because it is written as though it is the diary of a fugitive who lands on what he thinks is an uninhabited island. Ah, from the start you are led to believe that this is no ordinary island, that it is ‘unhealthy, sinister.’ There are three buildings; the largest, the museum, is a kind of labyrinth, with hidden rooms, and strange aquarium flooring. I must admit that in my solitude these early adventurous chapters, that are so reminiscent of Conrad and Melville and Carpentier, none of whom I have access to, and which speak of a new land and new discoveries, are a source of excitement. There is nothing for me to discover here; everything is familiar.
I am not on an island. I hope I have not given that impression. No, I am at home. They left, I did not arrive. So one could say that my situation is the reverse of what happens to the fugitive, who suddenly finds his island has been invaded by a group of people. Here is the mystery. How did they get there? The fugitive did not see or hear them arrive. Who are they and why are they there? They appear to be tourists, or holidaymakers. Eventually the narrator focuses on one of them, a woman called Faustine. It has been a long time since I have seen a woman, except in photographs. Sometimes I find a photograph that features a beautiful woman, and I dream. These dreams are really nightmares, of course.
The fugitive and Faustine is, for me, one of the world’s greatest love stories, despite the fact that Faustine does not at any stage speak to, or even acknowledge, the fugitive. I have been alone too long; my heart has turned peculiar. One of the novel’s themes is recognition. How can life have meaning if you go unrecognised, or if no one will acknowledge your existence? What purpose does life have without human contact? Of course I have given much thought to these questions. Before everyone left I often ranted and raved about our need to be acknowledged, about how we [by which I mean humanity-at-large] spent all day posting our vacuous thoughts onto the internet for just that reason: for someone to see it and validate our existence. I no longer scoff at this idea. I write this now in the same spirit, even though I know that no one will ever read it.
Have you ever been in love? Was that love always reciprocated? Unrequited love could be said to define the fugitive’s relations with Faustine. He tries to catch her attention; she ignores him. This is painful, of course; it causes him to despair. He becomes bolder, takes greater risks – for one must remember that he is a fugitive, and the police are perhaps looking for him. Could Faustine be a trap? A sting? Is she, and the rest of the gang, working for the authorities? Love makes one crazy, they say. Or they once said; they have left, as I have to keep reminding you. But the fugitive must reach out. Ah, there we are: loneliness and the yearning for human companionship. No man is an island, although he may find himself living on one. ‘Hope is the one thing I must fear,’ says the fugitive. The hope that Faustine will love him in return, is what he means, of course.
Eventually the fugitive starts to doubt his own sanity. Is Faustine really there? If so why does she not respond? He reminds the reader that he eats plants and so forth that have been known to make him hallucinate. Is he hallucinating? Adolfo – I allow myself to address him familiarly, I know his work so well – wants the reader to think about the nature of reality. Ask yourself, is what a madman sees real? Is an hallucination real? Perception is a strange beast. If something feels real to you, then it is real, it is your reality. Consider: what if I am not the last man on earth, what if it is not the case that everyone left one day without so much as a solemn wave of the hand, and that actually I am in an insane asylum or I took some super-strength narcotic and I only think I am alone in the world? Does that make me any less alone? More importantly, does it make my loneliness less acute, less painful? If Faustine does not exist, does the fugitive love her any less? The book, to my mind, is at least partly about how, no matter how many people you have around you, you are truly alone; because the only person, the only thing, you can be certain of is you.
Of course, it could be that Faustine is a ghost. Or that the fugitive is a ghost. How tragic, to be in love with a dead person, with someone who you can never, therefore, touch or reach. The narrator mentions ghosts frequently; perhaps the island is enchanted? Perhaps, perhaps. As I read the book for the first time, many ideas, many interpretations occurred to me, as you can imagine. What qualifies the work as a work of genius – if I can use so lofty a term – is that it actually becomes more moving, more beautiful, more fascinating once you know what the twist is, i.e. once you finish and return to the beginning of the book and start again. Faustine and the rest of her troupe are not ghosts, nor hallucinations, nor the result of madness [or maybe they are – but we’ll gloss over that for fear of going round in circles]; they are…
No, no, I can’t do it….I can’t spoil it for…who? How strange that certain niceties and politenesses cannot be shaken off, how one maintains certain behaviours even though there is no one around to appreciate them. Morel, more is important. Love. Faustine. I still put down the toilet seat after using it. For who? For Faustine? My own Faustine has gone, is dead, most likely.
The invention of a man called Morel.
What is Morel’s invention? Ah, well, the invention is actually twofold: first of all, it is the story that the island houses a kind of disease that will kill you within two weeks. This story was invented by Morel in order to keep people away. Second of all, there is the physical, or, if you like, mechanical invention. How very clever you are, Adolfo. How I wish they hadn’t left so that I could praise your lovely novellita to them all. The fugitive is in love with…! Isn’t it beautiful? If you were to go back and read the book, with a certain knowledge in mind, wouldn’t the scenes with the fugitive and Faustine, scenes such as when he creates a little garden for her, wouldn’t they break your heart? But, wait, there’s more…
The Invention of Morel is about death, about immortality. Yes, it is. There’s something rather amusing about that: to be immortal, you must die! Maybe my sense of humour has soured somewhat due to my isolation; one finds it hard to tell jokes to oneself; one does not often find humour in empty streets and buildings.
I have consciousness but did my mother, my brother? My Faustine? I’m losing my thread…weariness overtakes me suddenly. Thinking is all I do these days, and so I regularly overtax my brain. Being alone like this I find that I do not think better, but much, much worse, less clearly. ‘When one is alone it is impossible to be dead,’ wrote the fugitive. My favourite line in the book.
Proceed to a conclusion: the conclusion? How very happy-sad the ending of the book is.
How sad…so sad…
I cry to myself; for myself; for everyone who left.
And yet how uplifting…
To reach Faustine…faustine….faustine….
It wasn’t impossible after all.