Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
So, what would you do if you found that you’d somehow committed your beloved wife to an asylum, allowed her almost identical sister to move into your house and bought a dog that had the same name as your partner? And you felt completely out of control of your own life and prey to unusual and sinister forces? That’s the premise of “Asleep in the Sun” by Adolfo Bioy Casares, and it’s certainly an odd one!
I picked this up as a kind of antidote to a fairly difficult to get to grips with review book I’d just been reading, and certainly it was something very different! I’ve read a few of Bioy Casares’ works before and always found them very individual. “Asleep in the Sun” is narrated by Lucio, a rather ineffectual young man who lives in a very nosey neighbourhood (the alley) where it never seems to be possible to get away from old school friends, and where everyone knows everybody’s else’s business! He is besotted with his wife Diana, but the relationship appears to have its problems; and before he knows it, he’s managed to have Diana sent off to a sanatorium (a place she’s apparently spent time in before).
Lucio is appalled and bereft (then why did he do this, you might ask?), and he’s even more upset when his wacky sister-in-law Adriana Maria moves in with her vaguely unpleasant son. Adriana may look exactly like Diana, and seem intent on flinging herself at Lucio, but she’s very unlike her sister in personality. This sets Lucio to wondering why he loves Diana so much – is it just her physicality, to which he responds strongly, or is it what’s inside?
While Lucio continues with his job as a watch and clock repairer, his housekeeper Ceferina alternately insults and nurtures him. He mingles with his old friends in the neighbourhood, buys a dog (coincidentally named Diana) and tackles the sanatorium about sending his wife home. Finally, she does return – but somewhat changed in temperament, with all the kinks in her make-up ironed out. Although delighted to have her back, Lucio struggles with the changes in her. And he’s less than happy with the implication that he himself is in need of a little medical care. As his story progresses there is an increasing sense of menace, a hint of dark deeds, and Lucio’s struggle with identity becomes a profound one.
I’m not going to say any more about the plot because I’m trying to avoid spoilers (and there are plenty of those on the back of the book!); plus if I’m honest I’m still working out quite what to make of this intriguing and sometimes puzzling story. Like every Bioy Casares narrator I’ve encountered so far, Lucio is inherently unreliable; he denies every motive or intent recognised in him by friends and family, so that you end up wondering which of them is actually telling the truth! Initially, the book seems to be more about the troubles of his marriage, the differences of temperament between himself and those around him and the problems of his extended family and friends. But as the story develops it becomes much darker, ending up as a deep exploration of personality and what it is that makes a person themselves. Is it the physical or is it what we call the soul? And can the two be separated?
“Asleep in the Sun” is not always a straightforward read – at one point our narrator states “I didn’t understand a thing”, and the reader is tempted to agree with him. It’s often unclear what’s real and imagined, and as I said, Lucio’s reactions and impressions are undependable to say the least. I found myself wondering at several points where the narrative was going and it’s only as you get to the end that everything clicks into place and you find out the kind of point Bioy Casares was trying to make.
So this is a very clever read, if perhaps a little unclear and unsettling in places (though that may be what the author had intended). I found myself thinking quite deeply about questions of identity (which are often fluid in Bioy Casares’ work) and I can tell that I’ll be pondering the book’s messages for some time. I didn’t love this in the same way as I loved “The Invention of Morel”, or the spoof crime novel “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” which he wrote with Silvina Ocampo; but nevertheless I’ve ended up with plenty of food for thought and I’m sure I’m going to be mentally untangling “Asleep in the Sun” for months!