Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Suzanne Jill Levine | "On Adolfo Bioy Casares"
On Adolfo Bioy Casares
by Suzanne Jill Levine
The Argentine Adolfo Bioy Casares is an urbane comedian, a parodist who turns fantasy and science fiction inside out to expose the banality of our scientific, intellectual, and especially erotic pretensions. Bioy (as he is known) makes us laugh at our foibles with an affectionate yet elegant touch, with an almost didactic and certainly cathartic effect. Behind his post-Kafka, pre-Woody Allen sense of nonsense is a metaphysical vision, particularly of life's brevity and the slippery terrain of love. Octavio Paz (in Alternating Current) commented on Bioy's first and perhaps most famous novella, The Invention of Morel (1940):
Love is a privileged perception, the most total and lucid not only of the unreality of the world but of our own unreality: not only do we traverse a realm of shadows; we ourselves are shadows.
In love, in prison, or in the hospital, Bioy reminds the reader that outside are other worlds. But self-mockery is inseparable from his metaphysical angst: "Writers," he says in a typically sententious aphorism, "are more tortuous than other men." His predilection for books of fragments reflects humankind's bird's-eye view and the writer's tragicomic realization that the world is made of an infinite series of worlds within worlds, like a nest of Russian dolls. Guirnalda con amores ("Garland of Loves"), a miscellany of stories and aphorisms published in 1959, has served as a guide to this anthology.
Between 1948 and 1967, Bioy produced several volumes of stories from which he anthologized and selected, in 1972, two volumes divided into Historias de amor ("Love Stories") and Historias fantasticas ("Fantastic Stories"). Having already introduced to English readers three novels of Bioy's and a recent collection, A Russian Doll & Other Stories (1990), I have gathered here a selection of his short fiction from the mid-'50s through the late '80s. These come from Guirnalda con amores, El gran serafin (1967), El heroe de las mujeres (1978), and Historias desaforadas (1987). (The Celestial Plot (1948), his first volume, was published in English in 1964, along with The Invention of Morel.) Apart from my own affinities, and those of literary critics such as Jose Miguel Oviedo and the late Emir Rodriguez Monegal, I have based my list on the author's preferences, following the thematic guidelines of the two anthologies, though of course love and the fantastic intermingle in almost every tale.
Adolfo Bioy Casares was born in Buenos Aires on September 15, 1914, the only child of wealthy parents. His father, Adolfo Bioy, descendant of a French family from Beam, the southwestern region of France that is sometimes the setting of his son's stories, was the author of two volumes of memoirs. Every writer imitates a member of his family, according to Sartre in Les Mots. Adolfito—as Bioy was called as a child and is still called by intimates—is also a memorialist, not only because he wrote a memoir of the pampas, but because his ironic love fables are mostly chapters from his own life as a latter-day Casanova.
His mother, Marta Casares, considered a great beauty in her day, came from a well-established family, owners of the largest dairy chain in Argentina. In 1931, through her friendship with the prominent Ocampos, her seventeen-year-old son met his literary mentor Borges, then thirty, and his writer wife-to-be, Victoria Ocampo's younger sister, Silvina. Rincon Viejo, the family ranch in Pardo in the province of Buenos Aires, was to give Bioy and Borges their first pretext to collaborate. Bioy explains in the 1937 entry of his jocular "Chronology":
During the winter, Borges spends a week in the country with me. We write a pamphlet on curdled milk (our first joint effort). We plan a story we will never write, which is the germ of Sets problemas para Don hidro Parodi (Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, 1942), about a German philanthropist, Dr. Praetorius, who by hedonistic methods— music, ceaseless games—murders children.
This tongue-in-cheek collaboration, influenced no doubt by the nightmare of Hitler's Germany, led to numerous parodies, translations, anthologies, and film scripts, and to the invention of a third writer (christened by Rodriguez Monegal as "Biorges") with various pseudonyms, the best-known being "Bustos Domecq."
The "automatic writing" invented by French Surrealism, a precursor of Latin American magical realism and fantastic literature, helped the apprentice writer to free his imagination and expand his view of reality. Bioy would agree, however, that his early works suffered from the chaotic influence of Surrealism, as well as from James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness. In their first conversation, Borges responded to the young Bioy's enthusiasm for Joyce, emblem of the modern and of total freedom, by suggesting, against the grain, that Ulysses was more a promise than an achievement. Bioy soon embraced Borges' rigorous poetics of condensation and concision, which favored the speculative and the artistic over the novelist's expansive representation of human experience. But both in his novels and stories, Bioy would always be more concerned than Borges with the portrayal of everyday life.
The familiar image of Bioy Casares as Borges's shadow promoted his relative invisibility in the pantheon of the Latin American "Boom." Even though Borges once called Bioy the "secret master" who led him out of his experimentation with baroque metaphors into classical prose, his message was, as always, double: master in the sense that children teach and are taught by their parents. It was Borges who told Bioy in an early conversation: "If you want to write, don't mess around with publishing companies or literary magazines. Just read and write." Borges's advice still reverberates in Bioy's story "Trio" (1986), in which a friend advises the narrator: "When you spend too much time analyzing your projects, you don't do them. The best way to write is to write."
Bioy and Borges shared a nihilistic attitude toward literature, but not even nihilism was sacred. In Garland of Loves, Bioy personifies nihilism as "one of those tiresome people who always have to have something interesting to say." In 1939, the two friends came up with a list of everything to be avoided, including all the literary devices ever used, and not only injunctions against realism and naturalism but against "pretentious distortions of space and time: Faulkner, Borges, Bioy Casares."
More than mentor and disciple, Borges and Bioy were obviously lifelong friends whose ingenious and impassioned discussions of literature were mutually nourishing. Bioy has made it clear that while Borges and he shared a similar and largely Victorian literary taste, each had different penchants: Borges favored the epic, as his enthusiasm for Walt Whitman and his admiration for compadres (local gangsters) testify, whereas Bioy tended toward the lyrical: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and especially Verlaine.
At age five Bioy discovered the bittersweet (and comic) lyricism of love:
I fall in love with a girl called Nelida. Nelida's mother, a gentle, beautiful woman, appears one night, pursued by a drunken cook brandishing a knife. Exeunt all, including Nelida. I fall in love with a girl called Raquelita, who makes revelations to me in a laurel bower.
In the stories, you will find l'amour fou in its many permutations: love as illusory idyllic escape, love as confrontation with our limitations, love as two sides of the same coin of hope and disillusionment, in which fidelity is often a form of infidelity (and vice versa), or as Bioy sums it up in his aphorisms: "The most faithful lovers, those who give of themselves most generously, betray on principle, to save themselves a little." He adds that the paradox of such promiscuity is: "The more change you introduce into life, the more routine it is." But alas: "In love, to desire or not to desire, to leave or be left, are ordinary fates, which we should accept naturally, without pride and without bitterness."
There is always a flaw in the perfect love, as the protagonists of "Trio" discover, for, even when the perfect love is found, it is not recognized and is thrown away, like "pearls before swine." Bioy's vision of love is ultimately bleak, expressed perhaps in a comment by one of his narrators: "Love... among honest people is never innocent."
Bioy published his first book of miscellany at age fifteen, called prophetically Prologo ("Prologue," 1929), but he has suppressed all his publications up until the 1940 appearance of Morel as the unruly experimentations of foolish youth, and they are unavailable for re-editions. Marta Casares, a reader of Marcus Aurelius, taught the young Bioy stoic philosophy and the importance of will power and discipline, lessons which were to serve him well as a writer. Bioy would later expand his pragmatic and idealist philosophical repertoire, from the works of Bertrand Russell to Schopenhauer and William James. Marta Casares's bedtime stories also had an enormous impact on her son's imagination; Bioy recalls
stories about animals who stray from the nest, are exposed to danger, and in the end, after many adventures, return to the security of the nest. The theme of the safe, or apparently safe, haven and of the dangers that lurk outside still appeals to me.
Bioy's stories obsessively reenact his early fear of and fascination with the ominous adventure, with the supernatural. Friends "explained" the supernatural to Bioy at an early age: "Through cracks that might open at any moment in the earth's crust, a devil might grab you by the foot and drag you down to hell." The supernatural came across as something terrifying and sad, but, as they played at throwing a ball against the wall, his friend Drago Mitre subsequently explained that "heaven and hell are the lies of religion." Bioy felt relieved, thought of the supernatural as something attractive, wanted "to go inside a three-way mirror, where the images would repeat themselves clearly." Fear and fun certainly combine in his more "sci-fi" stories, such as "The Noumenon" and "An Unexpected Journey."
Time and again, his hesitant protagonists are thrust headlong, out of some unspelled yet inevitable necessity, into situations they cannot comprehend and whose consequences may be disastrous. Bioy's male characters are often cowardly lions, or reckless or fearful children in their response to life's enigmas and unforeseeable situations. Machismo is a frequent target of Bioy's wit, as when Casanova falls in love with an ordinary lady, who then marries someone else and has a number of children; or as Latin lovers lose their suntan, lavish excessive attention on cars, or are meek members of very strict families.
In Bioy's world, women are unequivocally Other. They are often seen as the risk-taking anarchists who threaten civilization: in "Women Are All the Same," a young woman, rather than go off with her adoring lover, allows her husband to intern her in an insane asylum, achieving security by making fidelity into a form of suicide. Or women are abominable, vengeful, erotic monsters, such as a repulsive old lady who hypnotizes a young man into devoting himself to her (and causes his lovely young wife to kill herself) in "Flies and Spiders." Or women are wise counselors (as in "Pearls Before Swine") who help bungling males understand the women they love. Stories are written to resolve enigmas, and the enigma here to be resolved, more often than not, is the beloved: each of us is a world to be deciphered. In "Pearls Before Swine," the foolish seducer sees The Damnation of Faust and loses a great love because he misreads the signs. Bioy calmly but relentlessly restages the many strategies of the battle between the sexes, but the war between the old and the young is an equally recurrent obsession, for example in "The Hero of Women" and "About the Shape of the World."
Bioy's life has been a gentler version of his mother's fables. A shy yet witty, melancholy, and handsome man, he has been a "hero of women," despite or perhaps because of his timidity. He has traveled often, mainly to France—a second home and, as for generations of Latin American intellectuals, a cultural mecca. He has received literary prizes at home and abroad, and films in Argentina and Europe have been based on his stories and novels (for example, Emidio Greece directed L'Invenzione de Morel in 1974, and the Argentine Leopoldo Torres Nilsson, Diary of the Pig War in 1975). But he has lived a very private life among friends and family in the same apartment in Buenos Aires for many years, in an elegant neighborhood near the Plaza de Francia. Even though he has fraternized with many famous writers and intellectuals, out of timidity or good manners he has remained virtually aloof from the world of literary politics. When Octavio Paz and the novelist Elena Garro—Paz's first wife— introduced Bioy in the late '50s to Andre Breton in Paris, the Surrealist guru struck Bioy as a cross between "an army colonel and an infantile prankster."
To escape the blatant autobiographicalism of his early writings, Bioy borrowed the devices of faraway islands and futuristic inventions from the treasure-trove of science fiction and came up with his first successful literary invention, The Invention of Morel. This marvelous—in all senses—novella which, like many of Bioy's plots, has inspired film versions, strands a bungling anti-hero, a political fugitive (a Latin American commonplace), on a desert island where he discovers that the people he encounters are three-dimensional movie images. One might say that Bioy, prophetic like other intuitive science fictionalists such as H. G. Wells, introduced us to the hologram before technology did.
By the mid-'50s, Bioy began to discard the exotic paraphernalia of his early writings. His novel The Dream of Heroes (1954) marked the beginning of a style rooted in everyday banal language and Buenos Aires neighborhood settings. With a liberal distaste for demagogues, Bioy's questioning of patriarchal values extended here to Peronist neighborhood gangster hero-worship.
But even though politics is often in the Latin American backdrops of Bioy's fictions, a metaphysical preoccupation almost always prevails. "The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice" (1958), motivated by a Peronist injustice—the razing of the Jockey Club in 1953 to punish its club members—was more deeply inspired by the death of the author's mother. This Peronist story turned into a version of the Orphic legend, the subterranean baths of the club becoming "the other world" where Silveira seeks hopelessly to recoup Virginia, his dead beloved.
The extraordinary adventure to a desert island was, in any case, a stage he had to traverse in order to return to speak about the "lived and the seen." We are most attracted, Bioy has observed in "The Hero of Women," "by the discovery of a crack in our imperturbable reality." Reality, and certainly human conduct, already is fantastic: just as Kafka set out to write a Dickensian novel and came up with Amerika, Bioy sets out to gather up slices of reality, but his stories slip into fantasy. "Nobody knows whether the world is a natural process or whether it is a kind of dream which we may or may not share with others," Borges once said.
Bioy stresses that he has old-fashioned tastes, and his fantasy can usefully be seen as a reworking of nineteenth-century English adventure stories. Bioy loves storytelling. The way he sees it, we are always telling others and ourselves stories; we are limited to our version of reality, and we are all characters in some fiction, ours or that of others. The truth lies somewhere between all the versions. This fictive nature of narrative (often his characters are writers) is already in life itself: your life resembles a description of your life, or, to turn the phrase around in the mirror: one's work is only a mirror of oneself.
Bioy writes to be read. He once gave me this advice about writing: "Try always to have a good story and to tell it with simplicity. Remember what Johnson said about Shakespeare: he always makes us anxious for the event. Our first duty as writers (I continue paraphrasing Johnson) is to communicate to the reader (distracted, tired, impatient to close the book and go outside) the desire to keep reading."
Bioy is a master of dialog—a lesson learned well from Hemingway—as a way of writing without solemnity; his style is terse and understated, and his narrators tend to say more with less. Their elliptical yet matter-of-fact manner of communicating bewilderment makes the reader both laugh at and sympathize with bunglers who don't quite have a grip on reality but are doing their best.
I have tried to reproduce the effect of his humor, to follow his style marked by understatement but also by the well-placed cliché. Like Kafka's exasperatingly banal dialogues, spoken language in Bioy Casares' stories becomes an empty rhetoric which veils a sinister or tragic reality. The cliché becomes emblematic of insidious alienation, and it is essential to capture the effect, if not the nuances, of these local commonplaces. I have tried to find a language neither too contemporary nor too archaic, and even to seek textual models from a similar period in my own culture. There's no doubt, for example, that to represent gangster types in "About the Shape of the World," the comically coarse tone of Damon Runyon's underworld tales, though from an earlier period, resonates with affinities. A fundamental tenet of translation is that you don't translate a text, you translate a context. Rather than leave (in this same story) the names of soccer teams in Spanish, I translate them (Excursionistas and Huracan) because of their possible symbolic value in this story, in which an excursion leads to the possible dangers of venturing out into the world. The author himself recommended the more British, hence more archaic-sounding "Rovers" for Excursionistas (Excursionists, Wanderers). The names in English still suggest a foreign culture; they have not been transposed into, say, "Giants" or "Dodgers." As a translator of South American texts for American English readers, I try to seek a balance: underscoring the common bonds between North and South, Spanish and English, making the author's achievements intelligible to his new reader, but also staying as close as possible to the original's style and cultural frame.
I would like to close by emphasizing that beneath his mild-mannered surface, Bioy's elegant textual machines, like the "invention" of the mad scientist Morel, are works of passion, expressing a desire for eternal love and a poignant failure to counter the dissolution wrought by mortality. Already in the early Bioy, there is a lucid irony that maintains distance between the passion with which he denounces the evils of the world and the curiosity with which he registers them. The futuristic machine as the pathetic or sinister vehicle of man's hopes in this century of technology, and as an emblem of his limitations, is a comically terrifying motif throughout his work: in one aphorism, he compares man to a mechanical monkey on a bicycle that gradually rusts away and wears down with use.
Bioy's aphorisms from Garland of Loves sum up most succinctly his classical sensibility and his vigilant irony. Take, for example, his advice on writing: "Don't tell violent actions with auxiliary verbs and long phrases; don't describe a landscape with action terms; don't say that the grass grows and the trees extend their branches: a calm scene becomes a circus act." Or his thoughts on (what's left of) the human condition: 1) "Sometimes I suspect that people alone are crazy and that they cease to be so in conversation. Conversation imposes a level of common sense." 2) "Man is a gregarious creature who doesn't know how to live in society. What I mean is that we're alone and we have to confront our destiny." Metaphysics transcends politics, stoic satire subsumes all genres in this writer who is both a bel anachronisme and a prophet of postmodernism.
Santa Barbara, October 1993
Copyright (c) Suzanne Jill Levine