Octavio Paz says calls The Invention of Morel, “without exaggeration… a perfect novel.” According to Borges, “to classify [it] as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” It has influenced creations as diverse as the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the influential French film Last Year at Marienbad, and the television series Lost. Wikipedia says (albeit, without citation) that “many consider it… to be one of the best pieces of fantastic fiction.” And if that isn’t enough to pique one’s interest, the principal character, Morel, is named after H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau, and the main female character is called Faustine, which I am convinced is a play on Faust – and moreover, these two names are entirely appropriate.
First things first – The Invention of Morel is entirely resistant to genre classifications. Perhaps the safest bet is to call it a work of speculative fiction, but I don’t think that label does it justice. In its willingness to play with and twist our conceptions of existence and reality, it anticipates some of the best works of Philip K. Dick (notably, Ubik which, in turn, was subject to a rip-off by Inception), but has greater philosophical depth than Dick; its musings on death, on immortality, on love, loss and regret, on the impossibility of desire, and on the intertwined nature of reality, time and dreams (think of Borges’ The Circular Ruins), and on the connections between all of these, are moving and profoundly beautiful; and the denouement is both melancholy and haunting, worthy of the great tragedies.
The second thing is that it is virtually impossible to write a review of this short, 90-page novella, because everything turns upon a single premise that, if revealed, would spoil the story, but without which nothing would make any kind of sense. So I’ll commence with an outline of the story, and then, following a Spolier alert, proceed to discuss the main themes. For me, personally, reading the book a second time, even knowing exactly what was going to happen, didn’t take away from the experience. But for some, it might, and so I’ll be careful not to give away too much.
The story is told from the point of view of a fugitive who, fleeing from the law, has arrived upon a remote and inaccessible island, where he determines to live out the rest of his life. This plan is thrown into serious jeopardy when, for no apparent reason, a group of people suddenly arrive upon the island, and the fugitive has to hide form them. Soon, however, he finds himself falling in love with the pensive and enigmatic Faustine, whom he sees every evening, watching the sunset from a rock (there are some truly brilliant observations about the psychology of love scattered throughout the novel – it’s worth reading for that alone). The fugitive’s attempts to attract her attention fail utterly; she refuses to acknowledge his existence – she even seems blindly oblivious to it. Subsequently, he sees a man named Morel come up to speak to her, at times in an intimate manner, and yet at other times distantly and formally – so that it is impossible to tell whether they are, or have been, lovers. The fugitive feels an intense jealousy – and yet Morel refuses to take any notice of him either, even when they nearly come face to face.
At this point, other strange things begin to happen. The fugitive notices that the conversations between Morel and Faustine are repeated, word for word, after the interval of a week. People complain of feeling cold even when the climate is excessively hot. They dance in a storm and swim in a pool that is full of rotten leaves and decaying fish. And one day, two suns and two moons appear simultaneously in the sky.
** HERE THERE BE SPOILERS **
The fugitive finds, eventually, that the island belongs to Morel, who is a scientist. Morel has discovered a method of recording that captures not only the visual (as in the case of photographs), or the auditory (radio), but reproduces, instead, all of sensorial parts of the individual (the word “all” is ambiguous, and the story does not resolve the ambiguity). As Morel says:
“When all the senses are synchronized, the soul emerges…When Madeleine existed for the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, Madeleine herself was actually there.”
The price, however, is that the process of recording kills the subject. Morel himself is in love with Faustine, but (for reasons never explained entirely) she cannot be his. So Morel decides to bring a group of his closest friends to his island, where he has set up his elaborate equipment, and without informing them, record the entire week that they spend upon the island. The consequence is that physically, they all die (their bodies are found in the ship that is taking them back from the island), but in the recording, they live on. And since the equipment runs upon a perpetually renewable source of kinetic energy generated from the sun, the wind and the tides, the one week is like a song on an infinite loop: it repeats itself forever, the same week, beginning to end. And this explains all the strange occurrences – the apparent dancing in the storm and the swimming in a putrid pool, and the two suns and two moons in the sky – it is the world of the recording and the “real” world rubbing shoulders. In essence, you have two “times” existing side-by-side: linear, “ordinary” time, to which the narrator is subject; and circular time, in which the rest of the people, including Morel and Faustine, live forever.
Morel kills his friends, but gives them in return an eternity with each other, and himself an eternity with the woman he loves. The week will repeat itself forever, but obviously those who live in the projection will have no memory of it; at the end of each cycle, they will begin again as though the world was beginning again. They are trapped in endless repetition – but they do not know it, and so, for them, every moment is new. As Morel says:
“Even if we left tomorrow, we would be here eternally, repeating consecutively the moments of this week, powerless to escape from the consciousness that we had in each one of them – the thoughts and feelings that the machine captured. We will be able to live a life that is always new, because in each moment of the projection we shall have no memories other than those we had in the corresponding moment of the eternal record, and because the future, left behind many times, will maintain its attributes forever.”
On learning, then, that Faustine is actually nothing more than a projection, a recording, a phantom, the fugitive is distraught. But then, he discovers his solution. Finding out how the machines work, he restarts the process, and places himself in the recording – walking just ahead of Faustine, as though they are lovers and she is following him, saying something to her just before she speaks, making it seem as though she is replying to him – and all the while, through a conscious effort of will, bringing himself to believe that this is real, that Faustine is real, that they really are lovers. And so, at the end of it, the fugitive has sentenced himself to death, but he too will live on forever in that one week upon the island, with Faustine. And as he feels himself beginning to die, as he senses his body decaying, the fugitive’s last wish is a prayer to those who follow in the footsteps of Morel, and invent an even more perfect machine, to merge his and Faustine’s consciousness. “It would be an act of piety.”
By repeating itself continuously, yet without any consciousness on the part of the subjects that there is any such repetition, Morel, Faustine and the fugitive can truly “live in the moment for eternity“. And curiously enough, my own response to this was a mingled awe and horror. Would I, given the choice, take Morel’s solution, the solution that the fugitive later adopts as his own? I simply do not know. It seems ideal, it seems perfect and yet, at the same time, it seems utterly horrifying. That, I feel, is where the great success of this novel lies. Casares manages to convey to us the sheer vastness, the magnitude of what immortality, in its best imaginable form, could be like, and the thought, almost beyond the ken of comprehension, is truly frightening.
Immortality is not the only complex theme that Casares deals with. Love is ever-present. Perhaps the spirit of the novel is summed up by one of the characters quoting the first two lines of Verlaine’s famous poem:
Âme, te souvient-il au fond du paradis
De la gare d’Auteuil et des trains de jadis…
What is it that we really love, when we fall in love? Is it, as Tolkien, would say, “a shadow and a thought“? Casares certainly seems to think so. The fugitive falls in love with a phantom. Morel creates a phantom to spend an eternity with. But if we’re pressed to answer what exactly makes this phantom any less real than a human being, or the experience poorer, paler, more attenuated – barring the obvious – there is nothing that we can say. Consider the point made by this review of the book:
“Yet Morel’s projections belie his words. The characters generated by Morel’s invention are hollow creations, lacking any sort of totality; and there is no proof to support Morel’s claim that his machine will capture the soul, since his existing creations are only the sum of their sensorial parts. What the machine does offer, however, is a presentation of reality that is fixed and unchanging, not dependent upon the shifting viewpoint of the subjective self.”
But what is the soul, then, if the sum of the “sensorial parts” is present? Do we even need someone’s soul, if we have the rest, and if we have it like this – “a fixed and unchanging presentation of reality“?
The fugitive sums up the paradox here:
“To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares; to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost).”
And yet, by the end of it, he changes his mind completely:
“He [Morel] loved the inaccessible Faustine. That is why he killed her, killed himself and all his friends, and invented immortality! Faustine’s beauty deserves that madness, that tribute, that crime. When I denied that, I was too jealous or too stubborn to admit that I loved her. And now I see Morel’s act as something sublime.”
Here, love and immortality become intertwined. In a sense, it is not only a solution to the Faustian pact, but also to the Tithonus problem – Faustine has been given Tithonus’ gift of immortality without the curse of ever growing old. Because murder is the only way to achieve that, Morel’s act remains “a crime” – and yet, is something “sublime“.
But the price, of course, is that Morel and the fugitive are both condemned to love a phantom, a phantom who is herself unaware of the gift that she has been given. As the fugitive himself concedes, by his death he achieves the “eternal” and “seraphic” contemplation of Faustine. Is that better than nothing? Perhaps. Is that ideal? Not by a long shot.
And I think that the final point that Casares makes is that it is simply impossible to, in a sense, have it all: if you were aware of the fact that the week you’re living in is going to repeat itself eternally, than even the most intense joy would be tempered by a kind of horror; and on the contrary, if, like Faustine, you didn’t know, then your thoughts and your feelings remain as they ever were; is immortality any good if you don’t know that you are immortal?
I can’t say.
** HERE END SPOILERS **
Part-Borges, part-Kafka, part-Philip K. Dick; lyrical, beautiful and haunting; this is the kind of book you never, ever forget.