Adolfo Bioy Casares
Countering the Cartesian Coordinates
Like the triple named Edgar Allan Poe, Adolfo Bioy Casares is a writer who combines the flavour of the generic with the ambition of the metaphysical. His stories aren't just games - they are mind games. Anything from his short novel The Invention of Morel to stories like 'A Russian Doll' and 'The Idol' create perversity of cause and effect because the subjective and the objective aren't easy to disentangle. This is the metaphysical as Descartes initially couches it in his famous formula "cogito, ergo sum", which leads to a rational universe based on the certainty of one's own mind. As Descartes says: "I was persuaded that there was nothing in all the world, that there was no heaven, no earth, that there was no minds, nor any bodies: was I not likewise persuaded that I did not exist? Not at all, of a surety I myself did exist since I persuaded myself of something...very powerful and cunning, who ever employs his ingenuity in deceiving me. Then, without, doubt, I exist also, if he deceives me, and let him deceive me as much as he will, he can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think I am something." (The Essential Descartes) An evil genius might be deceiving Descartes, but this isn't cause for consternation, but a reaffirmation of the rational: at least he has the certitude that he is thinking. From this basis Descartes moves towards other certainties, including the notion that he has the idea of a perfect being of God, and that "there must be something outside himself corresponding to this idea: - that God exists in reality, not merely in Descartes' thought." (Encylopedia of Western Philosophy) This allows Descartes to pursue ever more coherent thought processes, but a writer like Bioy Casares wonders whether such assumptions are misplaced. As in Poe's work, the evil genius is likely to be stronger than the rational deity. If Paul Valery could say of the great philosopher, "Descartes is, above all, a man of intentional actions" (Selected Writings), the Argentinean writer concentrates on situations where intentional actions are often ineffective or irrelevant.
In many of Bioy Casares's stories the world is ironic rather than effective, more given to playing with our minds than our mind applying itself to the world, and to explore this idea of the uncertainty of one's mind, the problem with cause and effect, and the limits of personal agency, we will concentrate on four Bioy Casares stories: 'A Russian Doll', 'Underwater', 'Cato' and 'The Idol'. In 'A Russian Doll' the narrator comes from Argentina to stay in a hotel in the south of France, and while it is shabbier and less grand than he hoped, he meets there a fellow Argentine who has done very well indeed. When he first sees Maceira, the figure is surrounded by good food and wine, and the narrator thinks, "he must be rich". The story unfolds with Maceira, "this important man, with his dark curly hair, big movie-star eyes, double-breasted suit, and pointy patent leather shoes..." telling him about an extraordinary story, a tale that hints at the riches he now seems to possess. Maceira came to France looking for a rich woman to marry and he chanced upon Chantal, the daughter of a big industrialist in the region, and does all he can to woo her and win her, hoping to marry her before he runs out of francs.
Chantal was a good sort he admitted, apparently willing to sacrifice much of her father's fortune for the good of the planet, and thus involves herself in an ecological group that wants to find out whether her father's factory is poisoning the waters in the region. Trusting him more than anyone else, even her friends in the ecology movement, Chantal asks Maceira if he would go with her father and the botanist and zoologist to the bottom of the lake and find out whether there is anything down there indicating pollution. On a rough evening with the waters choppy, they go down and Maceira proves the only survivor: the others are eaten by a huge caterpillar-like creature, surely a product of the contamination from the factory. On his return to the town, he decides to say what he saw even if he has no interest in protecting nature and only interested in what he sees as human nature: self-interest. And yet he also sees Chantal as an honest person who trusted in him, and thus decides to tell the truth, to "be loyal to the woman that destiny has placed beside me." Telling the truth however is, truth to tell, a telling error: Chantal is no longer the daughter of a wealthy father she is reacting against; she is now the hugely wealthy owner of the father's empire. "From being a girl without any responsibility whatsoever, who as a private citizen could allow herself at least conventional opinions, [she had] moved on to be the head of an empire and the sole owner of a factory where five hundred workers are employed." How could she now approve of Maceira, whose comments to the press could lead to the factory being closed? The person informing Maceira is one Benjamin Languellerie, an ecologist whom Maceira had always seen as a rival. Though volunteering to be an intermediary between Maceira and Chantal, Benjamin ends up marrying her, and Maceira ends up with a consolation prize: he marries the pretty but lame woman who had shown the narrator to the room at the beginning of the story: the hotel owner. The story concludes with Maceira admitting that the hotel produces no great fortune, but believes it a more stable income than the fortunes that can come out of a factory, feeling that industry is more precarious than hospitality.
The tale plays off a series of ironies, including the gold-digging Argentinean who settles for bronze, that honesty isn't the best policy when the woman you love is not quite the woman she is soon to become, and where the woman you end up with might look like the housemaid ("in a gray house smock"), but actually saves you from penury. There are numerous smaller ironies contained too: early in the story the narrator walks along the road with a fisherman who tells him that catching fish is one thing; eating it another. "If you look at them your mouth will water, but if you eat them, something bad could happen to you. You could get sick." A page later the fisherman has another role, as the maitre d'hotel, and in this role he offers the narrator fish freshly caught from the lake. The narrator goes for the meat. Much of the story's irony comes from the pragmatic: whether it happens to be the fisherman, Chantal, Maceira or Benjamin, these are characters who adjust to circumstances. Principles are pointless, ambitions haphazard, and opportunism inevitable. The story concludes as if with a metaphysical shrug of the shoulders: things happen, and people can forget their certitudes.
'Underwater' is about a man recovering from hepatitis who reckons he should get away to the mountains, but again a lake proves significant. In it one day whilst fishing he sees a long, pink creature and asks the young woman, Flora, with whom he's fallen in love, what it might have been. Flora explains to him that this figure he saw in the water was Willi, a great painter and an older man whom she loved, and whom her uncle Guibert turned into a fish. Believing he had discovered the fountain of youth, the doctor experimented on Willi: trying to utilise a gland found in salmon that rejuvenates them when they are about to undertake a sea voyage." Instead of receiving eternal youth, however, Willi instead became an enormous fish. While he had been willing to sacrifice himself to be as youthful as the woman he loved; Flora admits she wasn't quite brave enough to become a fish too, after the operation's failure, so that she could be with Willi.
The story asks questions about the nature of commitment, however absurd, and near the end the woman suggests she should match Willi's sacrifice to her with one of Flora's own. She had asked her uncle to operate on her so that she can now join Willi in the water. Her uncle isn't very enthusiastic - Willi's transformation was an accident; to do the same to the niece would be intentional. Yet Flora wants to go further, suggesting that the narrator should be operated on as well, creating an aquatic menage a trois. By the end of the story, the narrator chickens out of becoming a fish, but sees the niece and Willi now aquatically one. Underwater they waved their hands at the narrator, "apparently happy". The story hints at Chekhovian regret, at a character who has allowed a love to slip through his fingers, but the sorrowful tone can't be taken too seriously. "Of course, if instead of fulfilling, like a robot, my notary duties, I had stayed with the only person who mattered to me, I would have prevented her operation or, as last resort, I would have asked Guibert to operate on me too and now I would be with her, in the lake, in the sea, at the end of the world."
While Chekhov often offers pathos, Bioy Casares allows for bathos: for a contrast between the understandable sentiment, and the ridiculous outcome. If the narrator hadn't performed like a robot he could have become a fish. The simile here doesn't function as it would in a realist story, where it could give emphasis to a feeling: it becomes an amusingly weak image next to the fantastic reality being explored. Lillian Hellman could say of Chekhov that "science lived not only in harmony with literature, but it was the very point of the writer, the taking-off place, the color of the eye, the meat, the marrow, the blood. It is everywhere in Chekhov's work and in his life: in his dislike of theorizing, his impatience with metaphysical or religious generalizations, his dislike of 4 A. M. philosophy" (The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov). Could we say the opposite of Bioy Casares? This isn't to set writers in competition with each other, but it is to draw out differences. Chekhov is Cartesian when he says of writers "that the best of them are realistic and paint life as it is, but because every loin is saturated with juice, with the sense of life, you feel, in addition to life as it is, life as it should be..." Chekhov wants an ever more rational universe; Bioy Casares to point up the absurdity of it. Whether it happens to be using a deliberately weak simile or generating a possible menage a trois with watery overtones, Bioy Casares places himself on the side of madness against sense.
'Cato' has no fantastic dimension, but again the story hints at the dissolution of one world into another as it follows the fortunes of well-known actor Jorge Davel, according to the narrator "a second-rate imitation of John Gilbert, another second-rate actor." Or at least this is his opinion until one evening he sees the actor in a stage adaptation of the King Vidor film The Big Parade. Some time afterwards he gives up journalism and, on writing a novel, hears that though everybody acknowledges Davel is a great actor, nobody seems willing to employ him. Yet in time the narrator hears that Davel has a role in the classical play Cato, with the title character standing up to the rule of Caesar. The play is a huge success, Davel's performance at the Politeama enormously praised, and people identify him entirely with the role. "Long live Cato" they would say, seeing him on the street.
Yet the narrator is wary of all this praise, and wonders if the actor is being used for political ends, even though he has always been an apolitical public figure. When meeting the woman who helped get him the role, the wife of the director and herself an ex-lover of Davel, the narrator says to her that the actor is being strangely exploited. She replies: "He's identified with his role. He wants to fight the dictatorship." The narrator believes Davel is simply playing the role beyond the time spent in the theatre: it isn't so much that he is politically engaged; more professionally so to the point of obliterating boundaries between real life and the role. It's a point confirmed when the narrator eventually speaks to Davel and asks him about the part. Quoting Hamlet, Davel's "histrionic talent was so extraordinary that at that moment it seemed to me that Davel was speaking from a stage and that I was in the audience."
Soon afterwards the government is overturned and for several years Davel is again without work. But then Cato is revived and now the very people who were overthrown were turning up at the play and cheering on Davel's Cato, just as the revolutionaries were years earlier. "The people who were applauding at the Apollo were officials and supporters of the dictatorship. It was their very own lost freedom they were demanding back." One night while performing the role Davel is shot dead, a bullet fired from the balcony box. He might have been playing the exact same role, but where in the first series of performances he was fighting to end dictatorship, now it seems as though he is fighting to end the revolutionary government. He pays the price not of politics but of aesthetics: of playing a part in a play that can be taken more ways than one. Again here is a character without much agency, caught in the flux of existence. The metaphysical doesn't lie in the fundamental assertiveness of reason, but in the misfortune of the perception: he could just as easily have been killed for playing the role the first time round as the second, or not killed at all. Where usually the political figure is assassinated for their belief (from Martin Luther King to Gandhi), Davel is killed because of his capacity to suspend disbelief in the audience. In the Cartesian world of reason a belief in God is an underpinning function of rationality: "the idea which provides the key to Descartes' release from solipsism and doubt is the idea of an infinitely perfect or unlimited being - the idea of God." (The Essential Descartes) In Bioy Casares' world where reason is much more unstable, it is the belief in the actor that suggests the madness of man. The murderous figure there that evening was Walter Perez, a radical individual in the revolutionary movement who others regarded as the "most intolerant of the supporters of liberty" and a "fanatic". 'Cato' shows the theatre and reality intertwined as a man dies for a cause that he is not defending, but dies merely because he is in a play that can be read in different ways.
In 'The Idol' the narrator is an antiques dealer and interior decorator who has had a long term professional relationship with Martin Garmendia, a friendship that is threatened when the narrator picks up a Celtic Idol: "a wooden statue not quite 20 inches high of an enthroned god with a dog's head." He is told, "they made it without eyes to show that it has no soul." The friendship is also threatened more categorically by a maid over whom they fight. Initially the narrator doesn't want her, and sends Genevieve to Garmendia, who falls in love with her in his dreams. "This woman is destroying me. I dreamt of her every night. When I sleep I love her with a chaste and intrepid passion." He admits the best thing for him is to get rid of her, and so Genevieve returns to the narrator's home, only for Garmendia to reproach the narrator not long afterwards for stealing Genevieve from him. In turn the narrator starts having dreams of Genevieve, "although I never actually saw her in my dreams", he was sure it was her, and he is sure that she is causing untold damage. When he next sees Garmendia, his friend tells him he has gone blind, and the narrator replies: "If you think you're blind...you're crazy!" He then realizes how astute happened to be his remark: "I had stumbled onto the exact and atrocious diagnosis. Garmendia was not blind: he thought he was blind because he had gone mad."
The narrator wonders whether it has anything to do with the idol, and when arriving home notices that two nails have been inserted into the object. Who could have put them there? Of course Genevieve is suspected, but she reminds him the idol is under lock and key. Who could have done it if it wasn't Genevieve, nor the narrator? The most plausible explanation however insane was that it was Genevieve's ghost who was responsible, dreamt up by both the narrator and Garmendia. Though feeling drowsy the narrator determines to stay awake, and yet how can he know he happens to be awake, and not simply dreaming that he happens to be conscious? "Was I dreaming or awake when I heard from my balcony, a conversation between... [a] man and Genevieve, at my front door." The story ends in a state of indeterminacy no matter how determined the narrator happens to be to arrive at certitude. "When I reach the end of this page I shall write, very carefully, very firmly, the words The End." But the voice of reason seems inadequate to the task, and unlike with Descartes' evil genius, the irrational is stronger than the rational.
Bioy Casares offers us a series of stories defying reason and purpose, but to what end? We should perhaps think less of ends than means leading to alternative possibilities of thinking, of seeing the world in a way that can incorporate the irrational and not too hastily give it over to reason. Whether it happens to be Poe, Dostoevsky and Strindberg in the 19th century, or Bioy Casares, Kafka and Bruno Schulz in the 20th, they show man not as a figure of Cartesian rationality, but one closer to the philosophy of Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Sense might come out of thinking, but there is no guarantee that sense is where it comes from. As Nietzsche says in relation to cause and effect: "we call it 'explanation', but it is 'description' which distinguishes us from earlier stages of knowledge and science. We describe better - we explain just as little as any who came before us. We have revealed a plural succession where the naive man and investigator of earlier cultures saw only two things, 'cause' and 'effect' as they were called; we have perfected an image of how things become, but we have not got past an image or behind." (A Nietzsche Reader)
One of the great literary divides is between showing and telling, with the former generally much more respected than the latter, and with the former apparently closer to Nietzsche's notion of describing rather than explaining. But perhaps we can think of telling as a provisional description, with showing often masking in the showing a greater sense of telling. If Dostoevsky tells more than most, if great segments of Notes from Underground hardly pass for development of narrative at all, then this is partly because he can't find the wherewithal, the sense, to get started, where other writers so sure of the sense that can be found get started straight away. We are immediately aware of how Bill met Jill, what they said, what pub they went to and what they were wearing. Such fiction often has little epistemological, existential and phenomenological doubt as it shows a story rather than tells it.
Bioy Casares is not quite the radical writer Dostoevsky happens to be, but certainly the more fantastic one, whilst also making clear that fantasy is far from itself a challenging literary manoeuvre: how many sci-fi writers immediately throw us into the story just as assertively as the realist who talks of Bill and Jill and the pub? What makes Bioy Casares's work intriguing is that he uses the fantastic as a way into the irrational. He is a writer finally more concerned with showing rather than telling (no matter the often first person narrators), but is nevertheless suspicious of the sense that comes out of this approach. 'A Russian Doll' is a classic story in some ways, with an arriviste arriving in a small town hoping to make his fortune, and meeting there a man who had similar ideas years before and partially fulfilled them. But the man has arrived at them by accident more than design: his wish and his will would have been to marry the factory owner's daughter; instead he ends up with the hotel owner. What lesson should the narrator draw from this? Maybe no more than that he should accept what comes to him rather than trying to seek anything out. Is the very story he has been told not an example of the contingent? The narrator, hoping for an assignation, gets instead a piece of narration: a story that might undermine his wilful search for the woman of his economic dreams. The fantastic dimension in the story is small ? the enormous lake creature produced by the factory's pollution ? but underpins the further problem of thinking that we can easily assert ourselves on and in the world.
If most accept that giant creatures grow under the water feeding off pollution as a monster myth, Bioy Casares wonders if there are numerous other myths that we take much more seriously: like the idea that man is master of his own destiny. The fantastic is invoked, but all the better to question other myths as it narratively supports the monster one. In a work of rational fantasy, where cause and effect are in place, we might have the premise of the fantastic, but aligned with the execution of the logical: think of all those monster movies where Godzilla exists, but so also does the can-do spirit of science capable of obliterating it, with man proving with the aid of bravery and reason he is capable of banishing the beast. There is no banished beast in 'A Russian Doll', only a pragmatic acceptance that chance plays you various hands.
In 'The Idol', cause and effect are twisted inside out not only by the possibility that someone dreams an idea that has its effect in reality, but by having two characters dreaming, and effects coming out of them. With one dreamer dreaming we can accept that reality can come out of it. If someone dreams they are thirsty and then wakes up the next morning, goes downstairs and sees the tap is running, it is possible that in the middle of their sleep they went into the kitchen to get some water. But can two people dream a reality, or, even more extreme, dream a ghost that then acts on reality? Out of such thoughts we don't arrive at the Cartesian consistencies practised even by monster tales, but the irrational universe closer to Dostoevsky's claim in Notes from Underground that two times two needn't necessarily lead to four. "I agree that two and two make four is an excellent thing; but to give everything its due, two and two make five is also a very fine thing." Just as the actor cannot control the limits of the performance's perception in 'Cato', so in 'The Idol' the narrator cannot control his thoughts on the ghost of Genevieve. And even if he did, would his friend not also be dreaming her into existence? In each instance people are at the mercy of perception, whether it happens to be the unconscious thoughts of the narrator and Garmendia in 'The Idol', or the fully conscious political ones of those deciding what Davel's performance means in 'Cato' and that will cost him his life, the vagaries of mind prove important, and the ability to construct a coherent reality troublesome.
There is more to Bioy Casares than this, but what we have said about the stories is true also of a number of the novels, including the very famous The Invention of Morel, and even the more ostensibly realist The Dream of Heroes. In the latter book, Bioy Casares focuses on the Buenos Aires milieu of his characters, and the frustrations of one of them, Emilio Gauna, who wants to recapture a moment from his past. Obsessed with a day in 1927, he manages to more or less recapture it three years later, but with the outcome quite different. If before he managed to get the girl of his dreams and escaped with his life without knowing that he has escaped with his life, three years on he is not so lucky. The book plays up the problem of time, but does so while respecting the real (as in 'Cato'), yet also pointing up certain paradoxes. Emilio can't stop thinking back to the past, and so even his girlfriend returns to that past moment, going to the ball dressed as she was three years earlier, but while this gives him the knowledge he never possessed before, it also again puts him in the sort of danger he narrowly escaped the first time. He seeks knowledge and excitement, but on this occasion they come at a greater price. He is someone who asserts his will on his past, but to the very detriment of his own well-being.
Writing in the Guardian at the time of Bioy Casares' death, Nick Caistor says that his great and well-known friendship with Borges "led to his own work being unjustly overshadowed". Yet Borges was always a much denser, more deeply paradoxical writer than Bioy Casares, pushing the quandaries of time and space, cause and effect, the self and other, into mind-bending areas that remain unsurpassed. But Bioy Casares is an important fringe member of this attack on Cartesian coordinates. As Borges says in 'The Mirrors of Enigma': "no man knows who he is..." and just before states, "it is doubtful that the world has a meaning; it is even more doubtful that it has a double or triple meaning..." Bioy Casares one feels would be inclined to agree.
© Tony McKibbin