A Poetics of Misencounters: Adolfo Bioy Casares
Sometimes, when I can't do anything but begin a story the way I would like to begin this one, precisely when I would like to be Adolfo Bioy Casares.
|Jorge Luis Borges2|
The first epigraph belongs to Cortázar, who writes about his wish to be Bioy Casares as he starts writing a story that he would like to tell with the kind of detachment and precision he admires in Bioy Casares's work. The quotation from Borges is part of the preface he wrote to Morel's Invention. These words, written for the 1940 first edition of the novel, are not only a testimony to the admiration he felt for it but an indication of the literary friendship between Borges and Bioy Casares, which over the years produced a number of texts in collaboration and an intertwining of the works they signed separately. This is explicitly the case, for example, in Borges's «Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius»3.
The story Cortázar wishes he could tell like Bioy Casares is a love entanglement involving the narrator and a woman named Anabel, whose name evokes Edgar Allan Poe and Juan Carlos Onetti4. Cortázar locates the problems he encounters in finding out how to go about his writing in a counterpoint between Bioy Casares and Jacques Derrida, whose «La vérité en peinture» he quotes5.
Cortázar could not have coupled two more disparate writers than Derrida and Bioy Casares because, although some of the ultimate consequences of their conceptions of literary representation might coincide, the modes of reading they each invite are opposed. Cortázar understands the tension between these two writers and offers the story as a means to understand the particular place in which his own attempts might be located. From Derrida he reproduces some lines about the relationship between subject and object; in Bioy Casares he admires the capacity for detachment, the ease and synthesis of his prose. The story that Cortázar wants to tell concerns a misadventure with Anabel. In that respect, he has been able to reproduce a quality that haunts Bioy Casares's work -endowing the entanglements of love with somber impossibilities, humorous complicities with the reader, and a dangerous imminence of the fantastic.
In a scene from Erich von Stroheim's memorable film Foolish Wives, a Russian nobleman played by von Stroheim looks at the reflection in a mirror of a retarded girl he has selected as a victim. The viewer needs the barest information about what follows; the light and the expression in von Stroheim's face as he looks at her in the mirror are already a rape. The crime has already taken place symbolically in the mirror before it is actually executed.
Before becoming a criminal, the Russian nobleman is an artifice; before being a protagonist in his own experience, he is a spectator who watches the very elements that make up his own representation. In this context it matters little whether the crime is actually committed; the violence of the plot is already in the mirror. The pact between victim and executioner has been sealed, and the viewer knows that any other twist in the plot would only be a violation of the mirror's precise economy.
In Foolish Wives, as in other silent movies, the absence of sound grants a nightmarish vividness to the images, a faithfulness to their visual nature that is not as immediate in films with sound. The plot is always inferior to the density of nondiscursive images; the captions in silent film are trivial in relation to the allusive power of the frames. Silent films may be more faithful to the nature of their medium. The Russian nobleman observing his victim is a reduced model of the mirrorings effected by film; he is seen and sees simultaneously elements that are to be articulated by a spectator projected in a character who is also portrayed as witness.
A vast part of Bioy Casares's work is to be understood in its relationship to the visual as found in film. His relationship to this medium, however, does not involve quotation of films, such as we find in Manuel Puig, for example, but instead grapples with the relationships between the different layers sustaining visual representation and the kind of detachment built into being a spectator6.
Morel's Invention suggests one of the ways in which Bioy Casares formulates the issue. The novel is narrated by a man in flight who wants to leave a record of his experiences. He refers to the existence of a museum and to the fact that he is on an island where there are mosquitoes and aquatic plants. The report is written uncomfortably and with great anxiety:
There are other people on the island; the narrator is above all obsessed with meeting a woman named Faustine. We learn later that the meeting is impossible because Faustine is an image projected by a machine.
The narrator considers different strategies in his efforts to get closer to Faustine; the sight of her makes him feel inadequate but also incapable of doing anything but try to approach her:
Then, while waiting to speak to her, I was reminded of an old psychological law. It was preferable to address her from a high place that would make her look up to me. The elevation would compensate, at least in part, for my defects.
We are initiated into the protagonist's desire by the awareness of an inequality in love; his embarrassment makes him delay the moment of getting closer to her. Although that closeness remains impossible, given the fact that Faustine is a projected image, the reader is so caught by the rhythm of this deferral of action that when the protagonist does decide to utter some words, they are startling:
The man embarrassed by his words sliding toward the sleazy pick-up, obscenity, impropriety. The coarseness with which the «young lady» is perceived is a product of the interruption of the protracted silence that, while there, opened up countless possibilities of contact between the characters. Once the silence is broken, the anonymous «young lady» sets limits to the eloquence of the situation. The universality of the island becomes erased; we enter the realm of the concrete, of daily existence. The slippage toward vulgarity, the commonplace, and the familiar are rejected in Morel's Invention. Instead, being attracted by another is seen as enjoying the pleasures of detachment, whereas closeness signals the end of the freedom granted by separation.
Faustine's power resides in her capacity for revealing, as an image, the weaknesses of the man who desires her, through his fear that in uttering words that define him he will also show the pettiness of his aspirations. Thus Morel's Invention focuses on the parenthetical aspects of love by prolonging the tensions of the misencounter and, in a resolution that echoes E. T. A. Hoffmann's Olympia7, it suggests that the loved woman is nothing but a projected image. If the impossibility of contact resides in the radical difference between the characters, the intention of overcoming the distance is portrayed as a somberly heroic gesture.
The fleeing character in Morel's Invention attempts to save himself through love and become part of the same system of representation that reproduces the image of Faustine. The novel suggests that such an encounter is not to take place; a kind of nostalgia colors the awareness that it may be mechanically impossible to integrate the protagonist into the film that shows his loved one to him time and again. The music, «Tea for Two» and «Valencia», provides a sentimental background for the film sequences, in contrast to the harsh island existence with its mosquitoes and humidity.
Loving Faustine is equivalent to thinking of oneself as dead, invisible, a puppet:
The published English translation renders the last phrase as «then I could seduce Faustine without any danger»; the original reads «podría raptar a Faustine sin ningún peligro». Raptar means to kidnap, an important distinction for Morel's Invention because the protagonist carefully avoids any intimation of untoward plans in his desire to join Faustine. The novel stresses a counterpoint in his feelings between total incapacity to rise to the challenge of the woman he desires and the brazen actions he thinks are needed to take her away; seduction has no place here. The narrator considers his condition as invisible outsider through the desire to join Faustine and concludes it is an advantage. Persecuted by his enemies in the «reality» of his adventure and also in the projected images that turn Faustine's companions into his rivals, he builds a problematic bridge toward the reader. The report he writes tries to clarify doubts and give information by forging a bond with the reader that parallels the approach in his earlier novel, Plan for Escape8. The reader is granted the invisibility that the protagonist wants for himself; unseen by the characters in the novel, the reader look at the protagonist looking at Faustine while also trying to explain what he or she sees as he listens in the mind to «Tea for Two» and «Valencia»:
Unlike Faustine, the narrator wants to be the reader's friend. But is he really helping the reader to frame what the report says? Is Morel's Invention positing behind the disjointed couple of Faustine and the narrator an ideal couple consisting of reader and narrator? The reader cannot date the pages, despite being subjected to such chronological data as birthdays; the excess of information provided disconcerts the reader as much as it does the protagonist. Thus the appeals to direct dialogue with a hypothetical reader delineate the image of another character, the narrator's double, who relates to the text with the same kind of difficulty that the narrator has as he goes through his adventure.
The main role of the protagonist of Morel's Invention is to be a witness. His experience consists of observing and trying to interpret what he sees as he strives to discover the mechanism of the machine producing the images he observes. His report is the very purpose of his adventure; his text is an attempt to reproduce the images he sees already reproduced:
Morel's Invention registers the inexorable loss of the immediacy of its images. Only copies survive, with markings of the fissures that separate them from their originals; the narrator is the discoverer of those fissures and, at the same time, the producer of additional ones through the writing of his report, that other machine of representations.
Morel's Invention is a violent novel. Its machine of representation cancels the references that support it; its articulation of the visual consists of undermining the reliability of the projected images, and the clues given throughout the text are only there to be obliterated by interpretation.
The narrator-reader couple is constituted here in oblique celebration of its disjunction subject to the virtuality of their link in a paralyzing and repetitive logic. Faustine remains floating, shifting names and gender, silent, and remote in a multiplicity of representations. It is no doubt this aspect of Morel's Invention that prompted Borges to claim for it the lineage of Louis Auguste Blanqui and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Bioy Casares continued to pose the puzzling questions introduced here in other works; his short fantastic stories frequently engage the figure of repetition. «The Celestial Plot»9 has the most affinities with Morel's Invention. The name of Blanqui appears there explicitly to render more credible the experience of a protagonist who, sick and disconcerted, is lost in parallel and barely connected worlds. Blanqui, who spent time in prison himself, was forbidden to look at the outside world from the window of a cell near the sea. He formulated eloquently the despair caused by the kind of infinity produced by endless repetition in his book L'éternité par les astres10:
Morel's Invention tells us that love, writing, and watching projected images circulate in parallel worlds that turn those who try to grasp them into proliferating versions of themselves.
The embarrassment associated with the idea of approaching Faustine and the uncomfortable relationship with the use of commonplaces are not to be found in later works by Bioy Casares, where, on the contrary, he delves into clichés, local references, and the feel of the city of Buenos Aires. The change that shifts his language toward the colloquial involves a way of conceiving the bonds of love. The novel Asleep in the Sun11 explores, like Morel's Invention, the relationship between characters and their supposedly «original» selves.
The novel is divided in two sections: one that occupies most of the book, said to be by Lucio Bordenave, and a shorter one, by Félix Ramos. Félix Ramos is the reader's twin because Bordenave writes the report so that he can read it and be persuaded of his adventure. By acknowledging the text, Ramos grants it existence. His testimony as a reader is qualified by the fact that he is part of the same fictional web as Bordenave, but because he is the point of departure for Bordenave's account and the closing voice of the novel, he stands for the hypothetical reader of any novel. Thus reader and writer have metamorphosed into Bordenave and Ramos. Bordenave is an unreliable author who writes from a sanitarium and Ramos is a critic of his text, victim of the inevitable complicity entailed by being part of the intrigues that brought him there.
Bordenave suffers from an amorous obsession. He wants to know what he loves about his wife, Diana, her body or her soul. His sense of Diana is fragmented but detailed:
«I am mad about her shape and her size, her rosy complexion, her blond hair, her delicate hands, her smell, and, above all, her incomparable eyes» (p. 16). Since Diana is not an indivisible unity (she may be fragmented as a smell, a hair color, the shape of her hands) the suspicion arises that her parts may be rearranged into a different system. The novel expands this possibility by presenting us with an institution called Sanatorio Frenopático, where a special kind of surgery is performed. Physical parts and souls belonging to humans and to dogs are exchanged in a hyperbolic rendition of what is merely suggested in Bordenave's account of how Diana sits on her chair:
«cuddled up in a armchair, hugging one leg, with her face resting on a knee, gazing into empty space» (p. 16).
After careful analysis souls and bodies are separated. Once the surgery is performed the issue is determining whether those who emerge from the hospital are the same as when they went in, that is, whether there is between them and their names that kind of continuity that allows for recognition.
Diana has two doubles: Adriana María, her sister, and a dog who has the soul that they took out of Adriana María in the Frenopático. Sister and dog have resemblances and differences in relationship to Diana. Her sister has a different color hair but Bordenave emphasizes that otherwise they are the same; the dog has her soul and occasionally Bordenave suggests that this is what he loves best in her.
Diana has somebody's (the dog's?) healthy soul; she is a healed patient who comes out of the hospital. Bordenave alternatively describes her in his account as having been cured or as having turned into someone else. Diana is herself to the extent that she responds to her name and has the same body she had before the operation. Her sister is also Diana since they have almost identical bodies. The dog is Diana because she has its soul. According to the criteria of the Frenopático, Bordenave is not completely sane; furthermore, his account reaches us as it is written to an old enemy, Félix Ramos. Bordenave speaks in a paranoid and agitated manner at the end of the novel and suggests the possibility of having been betrayed by the ever elusive Diana.
Ramos, who had himself been institutionalized in the Frenopático in the past, shows himself to be a questionable witness as he attempts to give us testimony to better our understanding of Bordenave's adventure:
Félix Ramos's testimony is suspect because of the extent of his involvement with Bordenave. The closing words of the novel -Ramos's statement that
«the whole matter seemed, apart from confusing, threatening. So I decided to forget about it for a while» (p. 190)- bring Ramos and Bordenave together by indicating the possibility of a future detailed investigation by Ramos (similar to Bordenave's about Diana) that would have the same consequences it had for Bordenave: land him again in the Frenopático as a patient.
Bordenave has addressed his account to an enemy, who is also his double, and who, on reading it, translates Bordenave's destiny into his own. The exchanges between Bordenave and Ramos are governed, in a less explicit interplay, by the same logic as the transplants of bodies and souls. The novel is the machinery of transplants in the Frenopático; its title highlights words by the doctor:
«I imagine a dog, sleeping in the sun, in a raft that floats slowly downstream, on a wide, calm stream».
-«Then» -he answered- «I imagine I am that dog and I fall asleep».
Falling asleep is substituting one sleeper for another in a kind of self-awareness that is also self-destruction. The hypothesis of the body and soul transplantation questions whatever might be perceived as essential in one's personal identity. Asleep in the Sun confuses Bordenave with Ramos, multiplies Diana, and, instead of a linear plot, offers us a web of interconnections, a trama.
As in Morel's Invention, Asleep in the Sun tends to present its own conditions of representation, but unlike Morel's Invention the uncanny effects of narration are carried out in everyday language, quite distinct from the austerity found in the earlier novel. Nevertheless, the proximity that Bordenave wants to achieve to Diana is as unattainable as that sought by the protagonist of Morel's Invention with Faustine.
Diana, who is more vulgar than Faustine, neurotic, with lower class manners, surrounded by characters of humble social extraction, and unlike those film aristocrats who are referred to in Morel's Invention as «the heroes of snobbishness or the inhabitants of an abandoned mental hospital», is also beyond reach. The desire to possess her puts the identity of the pursuer in danger as it disassembles the desired object into irreconcilable parts, body and soul, which have forever lost their harmony. Like the mythological Diana, but in a domesticated and porteño version, knowing about her destroys him who wants to observe her. The married couple in Asleep in the Sun is a familiar and parodic rewriting of the figures of detachment that Morel's Invention offers in a more desperate and austere register.
Dr. Samaniego, a direct reference to the author of the fables, has been able to perform his task admirably. Animals do speak with human voices. But is there a moral to this fable? What lesson is to be drawn from these characters, who proceed from betrayal to suspicion to humiliation, all the while suggesting their shared nature with dogs? For an answer to these questions we must turn to still another machine of representation, this time a camera.
Morel's Invention conjectures that a man ought to speak to a woman from a higher position in order to conquer her attention and avoid ridicule; Asleep in the Sun suggests that she ought to be spied on, subjected to surgery, and married, while recognizing that even so she remains elusive. A Photographer's Adventure in La Plata12 further explores these problems and gives them another twist through the presentation of a gallery of female characters.
In this novel it is the women who pursue a man, Nicolasito Almanza, a photographer from Buenos Aires who goes to the city of La Plata on a photo assignment. During his first walk in La Plata Nicolasito meets a family, the Lombardos, whose way of positioning themselves makes him think that they are posing for a group photograph. As he grows closer to the members of the family, the feeling that they are being held together by some kind of unstated bond that makes Nicolasito an outsider is emphasized.
As is common in La Plata, a city with a major university and populated by numerous students, Nicolasito is lodged in a boarding house. Carmen, the landlady, has a rule ostensibly set to maintain the morals of the place: she does not allow the boarders to invite women to their rooms. Nicolasito's friend, Mascardi, is a simple-minded fellow who tries to show Nicolasito the positive side of the rule when he sees him with a forlorn expression on his face:
Almanza's lack of enthusiasm about the shelter provided by the boarding house and the possible thrill of future sexual encounters is in part due to his having given blood a short while earlier for a transfusion to help the father of the Lombardo family, in an episode rife with intimations of vampirism and manipulation.
The women in A Photographer's Adventure in La Plata act differently from Faustine and Diana. They offer themselves in body and image to the photographer. The disagreeable Carmen lusts for him and spies on him constantly; the women of the family he met by chance in the street pay excessive attention to him and give him their bodies with a remarkable celerity. Nicolasito does not share their intense desire for physical contact; his relationships to women are mediated by the camera lens:
He thought that Julia did not grimace when she cried and that he would like to photograph that pretty face, covered by tears. He told her that she was very pretty.
-«Then kiss me».
Julia asks Nicolasito to kiss her; the landlady kisses him after he finishes photographing her for a portrait, while he is thinking about how horrible the results will be. Both women, the beautiful one who is the ideal model for an attractive picture and the ugly one, with a triple chin and bags under the eyes, want to move quickly from the photo session to having sexual relations. Almanza lives these liaisons with varying degrees of involvement, acquiescence, or rejection but always with the detachment of a tourist.
Almanza's adventure, rich in presumed dangers and suspicions of a conspiracy by the Lombardo family, brings him into contact with women who are Faustine's opposite; they are too talkative13, vulgar, physically aggressive, merely pretty, or decidedly ugly. Like Faustine, though, they are all separated from Nicolasito by a means of representation. We do not have here Morel's machine or the complicated surgeries of the Frenopático; instead, we read about a camera that Nicolasito puts between himself and his models. The camera acts like a shield that separates him from «real» experience to turn him into an agent for representation, safe from the women's emotional excesses. Nicolasito does not choose for himself an elevated place, like the protagonist of Morel's Invention, he prefers to be merely outside, even as he goes through the motions of living a romance with one of the Lombardo women, Julia.
A Photographer's Adventure in La Plata closes with the suggestion that the dangers faced by Almanza may have been imaginary but were of enough weight for the relationship with Julia to end. The last scene, a sentimental cliché, shows Julia leaving in a bus without there having been any conversation between them about the reasons for the imminent separation or the meaning of their attachment.
The reader, in a photographer's position, perceives this scene (with its echoes of such films as Casablanca and so many others picturing separation and broken romance) already framed with its sentimental charge but so filtered by the clarity of the allusions that a humorous current surfaces.
Separated by a glass that echoes the novel's numerous references to windows, crystals, kaleidoscopes, and stained glass, the characters are refracted and show us the truth of their separation, the unheard words, in a silence that stands as final definition of the chatter that had joined them. Each of them remains with a different story about this story -the women who ask for a kiss, the photographer who gives it but thinks about his photographs- each of them separate but still linked to the other by the illusion that somehow they may surmount the distance between them.
In another story by Bioy Casares, «The Women's Hero», two characters attempt to remember a film and wonder about its end:
Bioy Casares's literature reveals that the hero's women are many but that they are all the same underneath their differences. Whether portrayed as exasperating, delicate, vulgar, silent, too loud, aristocratic, or grotesque, they share in the radical detachment of representation that shows them as foreign, intruders, other. Perhaps Cortázar was, indeed, incapable of emulating Bioy Casares. The fable in Cortázar's writing is a shattering of the same mirror with which Bioy Casares's work tries to examine its own failures and mirages.
Like Borges, Bioy Casares works in the established tradition of focusing fiction on the adventure of an individual hero in pursuit or, even more typically for Bioy Casares, in flight of something. If Borges's «The Intruder» affords us a model for the murderous implications of male friendship against all odds, «An Encounter in Rauch» in Bioy Casares's recent volume A Russian Doll14 poses the issue of male rivalry with a different resolution.
The year is 1929. A young man goes on a business mission that requires him to spend a brief time at a hotel before resuming his trip; it is Christmas Eve and one of the guests sharing the table with him, a European, marvels at the fact that he has a business appointment on a day that should be observed as a holiday.
The young man, a somewhat insecure fellow who admits to having gotten and preserved his job thanks to his family's connections, balks at the idea that this guest, who remains unnamed throughout the story, may not believe in the seriousness of his assignment. As the evening proceeds, the young man is put off further by the condescension and politeness displayed by the more mature European, who engages him in a discussion about the function of faith in God and lying in an attempt to debunk the young man's rather curt dismissal of religion, ritual, and God. The description of the European as having a somewhat repellent otherworldly look, the kind that «is found in pictures of saints», reinforces the differences between the two and the inexplicably intense rivalry that becomes apparent in their discussion.
When, because of the rain, the European asks the young man for a ride -even though they are warned that the driving will be treacherous- the young man agrees reluctantly. Their ride through swamps is punctuated by the European forcing the young man to improve his driving so that he will not be outperformed by his foreign companion, who exhibits an irritating willingness to take control of the car as well as of the metaphysical aspect of their exchange. During this ride the young man has to contend with both the rain and a rival pushing him to drive better, argue more astutely, and watch the road more attentively. The story ends as the young man gets out of the car once the rain is over and fails to see anything but the flat countryside and the pampas surrounding him; there is no trace of his rival.
The rival has left after he succeeds in taking control of the trip and instilling disturbing doubts in the young man. In this Christmas story, the nonbeliever is taught a lesson about the unexplainable; he has been changed because he cannot triumph over an absent interlocutor. The power, again, lies with those further removed from experience. Like the silent Faustine, the rival has been able to elicit an adventure that would not have taken place without him. Absent, otherworldly, and irritating, the rival's foreignness typifies the productive unevenness of true misencounters. Love for a woman and male rivalry become the ultimate points in a representation that posits the conditions of its distancing as its own wisdom.