“The adventure story,” Jorge Luis Borges said, “is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification.” Borges intended this as high praise. In a prologue to The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, he scorned the “psychological novels” of the Russians masters and their disciples for being “tedious,” “formless,” and “tantamount to chaos.” Much better, said Borges, to devise an interesting plot, like those of Robert Louis Stevenson, which he called “passionate,” “lucid,” and “deserving of our unqualified friendship.” You get the sense that Borges would have been one of those people who wanted The Dark Knight to win the Academy Award. As for The Invention of Morel, an adventure story written by his own disciple, Borges called it “perfect.”
A fugitive is stranded on an island. It’s almost paradise. The tide comes in too high sometimes, and there is no fruit to eat, only roots. But he’s safe here. The only person who knows about the place is an Italian rugseller in Calcutta who gave him directions. Oh, and there are buildings on the island. A museum, a chapel, and a swimming pool—all abandoned. With strange gears and and crumbling walls, they could be something out of Myst.
Trouble arrives in the unlikely form of a French garden party. Gentlemen in coats and ladies in fine dresses appear out of nowhere, strolling the grounds and dancing to old phonograph music. Despite his reservations, our fugitive reveals himself to a woman whose beauty has smitten him. But she doesn’t seem to know he’s there. That’s because she—along with all the interlopers on the island—is a reproduction. The French garden party took place decades ago, and the strange machines on the island are causing its participants to reappear and reenact it endlessly. Since he loves one of them, the fugitive has to find out whether these uncanny beings have souls.
Today we would call The Invention of Morel a suspense story. Although it’s not “psychological” in the style of Dostoevsky or Henry James, it does reveal a lot about the psychology of its age. First published in Spanish in 1940 (translated by Ruth L. C. Simms), its horrific premise is rooted in the fear that new technologies—radio, photograph, television, telephone—will split apart our essential human nature, turning us into monsters. If it seems silly to worry about a radio crushing our souls, just think of all the times you’ve heard people voice the same concern about cell phones.
Ironically, The Invention of Morel became the inspiration for one of the most tedious, formless, and chaotic films ever—Last Year at Marienbad, from a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet. But it belongs on a different shelf, after Robinson Crusoe and before Alex Garland’s The Beach, with H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson nearby. If all adventure stories were this good, we could take a hint from Borges and set aside the Russian masters forever.
– Brian Hurley