Home

Body and/or Soul?

20 Comments

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!

asleep

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?

bioy-casares

“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!

A highly unusual detective…

22 Comments

Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by Jorge Luis Borges & Adolfo Bioy-Casares

One of my favourite reads from last year, as I’ve probably mentioned before, was the wonderful crime novel parody “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” by Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares. Both authors are well-known for their connection with the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, and so when I discovered that Casares had written a crime spoof with the former, I had to track down a copy… Surprisingly, it seems not so well-known as the rest of the two authors’ work, and the copy I finally found was published in 1981 – I’m not sure if it’s been reissued since, but it certainly deserves to be!

parodi

The titular Parodi is the detective in question and his name is a clue to the type of book we’re reading here. In fact, the whole thing is laced with in-jokes and was originally published under the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq. Amusingly, there’s a biography of this so-called author by a school teacher at the end of the book, and a foreword is written by one of the characters! So the scene is set for a book that’s going to be tongue-in-cheek from the very start.

Parodi is a most unusual detective, in that he’s locked up in jail, framed for a crime he apparently didn’t commit. Constantly making and drinking cups of mate, Parodi receives a stream of visitors hoping he can solve puzzles for them – involving murder, blackmail, ghosts, thefts and every kind of crime you can imagine. By exercising his little grey cells (!) and seeing through their stories, Parodi manages to get to the bottom of every kind of conundrum and present a solution that seems obvious once you know it, but mystifying while you’re reading about it.

The clever thing about the book is that Parodi is in effect being presented with a series of unreliable narrators, and his gift is seeing past them to the essential qualities of what they’re telling him. It’s a wonderful exercise in literary detection, as much as anything else, which goes well alongside the parodic qualities of the book itself. There are running characters who feature in a number of the stories, gradually developing their lives and careers following on from Parodi’s solving of their puzzle, and his reputation gradually grows as the book progresses.

The (real) authors!

The (real) authors!

There’s also another level of parody in that many of these stories take the tropes of a specific author or style of story (the locked room, for example, or a well-known Agatha Christie) and use this as the basis of the plot. I don’t think I got all of them, but it was fun trying to spot what the authors were spoofing!

All in all, this was a very funny, very clever and very enjoyable read; in fact, I’d like to go back to it again and re-read to see if I could spot more of the references. But even if you don’t get them the book stands in its own right as a wonderful detective spoof and sits beautifully alongside “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” – perhaps Melville House Press would like to bring out a nice new Neversink edition! 🙂

The Ghost in the Machine

21 Comments

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

I had intended that my read of this classic novella by Adolfo Bioy Casares would coincide with Spanish Lit Reading Month (and I believe there might have been a group read somewhere). I *did* read it in July, but didn’t manage to review it in time; nevertheless, as it’s definitely going to be one of my books of the year, it certainly deserves some discussion!

morel

I first wrote about Bioy Casares when I reviewed the spoof crime he wrote with wife Silvina Ocampo – “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate”. I loved the book, and I’ve been keen to explore more of both authors’ works (Ocampo’s NYRB short story collection is sitting on Mount TBR). However, for some reason “Morel” called to me first, plus it was nice and slim, so I picked up a copy for July. The book comes highly recommended, with Borges calling it a masterpiece of plotting, but oddly enough the blurb on the back gives little away…

The book is narrated in the first person, and we never know that individual’s name. The location is an island in Polynesia and the narrator appears to be hiding from something; he’s a fugitive, in effect, but we don’t know what from. But he becomes aware of others on the island and begins to keep a diary record of events. The appearance of the new people causes a tremor in him, and conflicting emotions take hold: he’s afraid of meeting them in case they give him away to the authorities, but longs for contact, particularly when he becomes entranced with the beautiful Faustine. However, things are not quite as they seem; the behaviour of the newcomers is repetitive, and Faustine in particular seems to go through the same actions every day. But suddenly the visitors disappear; the structure of the buildings seems fluid; there is a strange piece of machinery in the bay, which the narrator cannot make sense of; and when the visitors return their behaviour and perceptions seem inconsistent with his.

bioy_casares

To say any more about this perfect little novella would ruin the impact, and it’s so hard to discuss without spoilers – I already fear I may have said too much! “The Invention of Morel” is one of the cleverest, most thought-provoking and most enjoyable books I’ve read in ages. It’s short enough to read in one session (and I really recommend you do so) and it just leaves you breathless. Is it science fiction? Romance? Thriller? Mystery? A bit of all those, really, but something unique in itself. I’m not going to say anything else, despite wanting to discuss it in depth; because I feel this is a book you should approach with no preconceptions (which I’m happy to say I did) and simply read it for the joy of a work that will take you to unexpected places and leave you meditating on the meaning of our perceptions of reality. This was a rare five-star read for me and I loved it!

(As an aside, when I looked the book up online after reading it, I found a fascinating piece here about the translation and editing of this book. So it seems this might not be the complete text of Bioy Casares, which is frustrating – oh, to be multilingual….)

Spoofing the classic crime novel!

25 Comments

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo

One of the constant joys of reading book blogs is the recommendations for works and authors you’ve never encountered before. So when I read about this book on Jacquiwine’s excellent blog recently, I knew it sounded exactly like the kind of thing I’d enjoy, and promptly tracked down a copy!

And really, I feel very silly not having registered the authors before! Wikipedia says of them:

Adolfo Bioy Casares (September 15, 1914 – March 8, 1999) was an Argentine fiction writer, journalist, and translator. He was a friend and frequent collaborator with his fellow countryman Jorge Luis Borges, and wrote what many consider one of the best pieces of fantastic fiction, the novella “The Invention of Morel”.

Silvina Ocampo Aguirre (July 28, 1903 – December 14, 1993) was an Argentine poet and short-fiction writer.

Both were associated with Borges, who I’ve read in the past and whose Collected Fictions lurks on Mount TBR. So I should have been well aware of them, and read them before – but better late than never!

Where-Theres-Love-Theres-

WTLTH opens with the narrator, one Dr. Humberto Huberman, travelling through Argentina on his way to a vacation by the sea at a hotel run by his cousin. As well as being a medical man, the doctor also has literary pretensions and plans a working holiday, writing a book on Petronius. His arrival at the hotel is a little unusual as the town is deserted, the functionaries uninterested and the ambience less than enjoyable. However, the doctor is unsinkable and eventually after hours traversing the sands he arrives at the hotel. On the beach he encounters some of his fellow guests, including Mary, her sister Emelia, another Doctor, Cornejo, and Emilia’s fiance Atuel. They’re an odd bunch, somehow, and Mary has a narrow escape in the water, nearly drowning.

Back at the hotel we meet the other guests, including yet another Doctor, Pickering, and a very strange secretary wandering round the building with a fly swatter. As the weather takes a turn for the worse and the hotel becomes locked down in a sandstorm, there are murders and confusion. Can Doctor Huberman solve the mystery?

“Atuel was looking out of the window. He called us over. Engulfed in a furious cyclone of sand, we saw the Rickenbacker. For the first time all day, I laughed. I confess: the absurdity of the scene unfolding with cinematic diligence was quite compelling. Out of the car emerged one, two, three, four, six people in all. They huddled against one of the car’s rear doors. Laboriously, they extracted a large, darkly coloured object. I watched them – my eyes tearing with laughter – as they approached the hotel, tripping blindly in the sand, as thought it were the dark of night, struggling and knocking about in the wind, their faces misshapen by the oblique effect of the windowpane. They were bringing the coffin.”

I have to say that WTLTH was an unexpectedly wonderful delight of a book! It was published in 1946, when the Golden Age of detective fiction was well established, and the authors are obviously hell-bent on sending up the genre as much as they can. Dr. Huberman comes across as a blend of Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot; he’s obsessed with routine and his meals, and often gives them much more importance than the actual investigation!

The landscape and weather are important too, as the sandstorms in the area are obviously an issue – hotel owner Andrea, Dr. Huberman’s cousin, comments that:

“Two years ago, our lobby was on the first floor; now it’s in the basement. The sand rises constantly. If we opened your window, the house would fill up with sand.”

and it does seem that the hotel is somewhat threatened by the climate. This also allows for the typical closed-community setting so often seen in classic mysteries and also for some wonderful set pieces when various characters run into the storm and are lost and found at various points. The atmosphere is full of existential angst which you wouldn’t normally find in an Agatha Christie, and I think there’s a lot of symbolism here, some of which I picked up but some of which I’m sure I missed. Not for nothing is the local shipwreck called the Joseph K!

The authors looking very cool!

The authors looking very cool!

WTLTH is an affectionate homage to crime novels which is also extremely funny in places; Dr. H himself, pompous and self-absorbed, can’t see how ridiculous he is. Nothing is as it seems as one twist follows another, our perceptions are constantly challenged and changed, identities shift along with our suspicions, and the final resolution is certainly rather unexpected. The wonderful deadpan style is very readable and the authors can deliver killer punch lines – for example, of Dr. Montes, who’s always drunk, Huberman comments:

“The gods, who are not ignorant of the future, usually speak through the means of children and madmen. I also understand that they favour alcoholics.”

I absolutely loved this novella and really wished it had been longer! As it was, I raced through it, probably missing some of the allusions, but I shall definitely revisit WTLTH and also explore more of the authors’ works. I’m so glad Jacqui reviewed it or it might not have come across it – thanks Jacqui!! 🙂

%d bloggers like this: