Henrique Nevers, a young Frenchman in love with poetry, after an uncle accuses him, probably wrongfully, of stealing valuable documents that compromise the family, arrives at the French Guiana to take up a post as warden on an prison-island in order to atone for this crime before he can return to resume his love affair with his cousin, Irene. His duties take him to an archipelago called Salvation where, according to the terms his uncle stipulated, he must penance a whole year in; composed of three islands – Devil, Royale, and Saint Joseph – it altogether keeps some 700 inmates, ordinary and political, and a few oddballs. That wouldn’t be problematic, since you must expect lunacy to thrive amongst prisoners, if it weren’t for the fact that the oddballs belong to the staff, especially the Governor, Pedro Castel, who’s rumored to be an anarchist preparing a rebellion to set up a communist republic. Nevers doesn’t even want to hear about these rumors, he doesn’t want to investigate them; he just wants to do his job and come back home to Irene, fearing that any investigation may only delay him. But curiosity and a residual sense of duty overcome his longing to escape the island, so he investigates, discovers something stranger than he originally imagined and comes to a tragic end.
Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote A Plan for Escape after The Invention of Morel. At this point islands attracted him; having read his further novels, I think his quality took a plunge when he moved inland into urban spaces. ABC knew the island tradition in literature. “Robinson’s fable is one of the first habits of human delusion,” the narrator says about the allure of the deserted island where the castaway can build himself a home away from others, “and The Works and the Days had already retrieved the tradition of the Happy Islands – they’re that ancient in men’s dreams.” Of course the author also knew their potential as places of danger, mystery and magic due to their isolation: cut off from the world, they seem to operate under different rules, obey skewed realities, allow bizarre activities. No wonder Never thinks of Wells’ Moreau when he learns that the Governor has been experimenting on animals. Morel showed a utopia; Escape shows a Hell.
The Invention of Morel, about an escaped convict finding refuge on an island, is about the capture of time, the possibility of creating a closed, immutable world where nothing is lost. I don’t think it’s ABC’s best novel, but its high-concept twist will endeavor to make it popular forever. A Plan for Escape is its opposite: the island as prison, wanting to flee it, going back to the normal world. In effect it’s also the opposite of Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe: unlike Drogo, who wastes his life away in a frontier fort waiting for action, and who ritualizes the exaction of his duty as a means to alleviate his doubts that no battle will ever happen, Nevers is desperate to abandon Salvation and wobbles in his devotion to duty, seeing in it binds that hold him.
There are a few factors that, to my mind, make this novel better than Morel. For one thing ABC perfected the escalation of suspense. From page to page, chapter to chapter, up until the last page, the suspense gradually piles up until the reader shares Nevers’ dread. ABC achieves this in a simple way: he alternates between revealing glimpse of dangers or horrors, and then having Nevers find a logical explanation for them. But the reader is trained from early on to remember that the protagonist wants to be blind; so there’s also expectation about, and satisfaction, when he collides against new evidence that he can’t reject from his neat vision of the island. This piling up occurs slowly: already on the first letter he writes to uncle Antoine he mentions upsetting conversations aboard the ship about the island “that he later regretted not to have paid attention to.” In Cayenne, where he makes a stop before going to Salvation, he learns that Castel left the town, the traditional Governor’s residence, to live in the archipelago; at the same time he sent the former warden back to Cayenne. It’s also during a dinner with the influential Frinziné family that he hears that he’s an anarchist who keeps a private zoo, allegedly starving the guards to death. “If they didn’t have their own henhouses…” regrets Mrs. Frinziné. Castel also indulges in other proclivities. “She also accused him of writing and publishing, in prestigious periodicals, small prose poems.”
On the islands his apprehension and paranoia continue. He meets the Jew Dreyfus, a released convict living there. His real name is Bordenave, but he’s obsessed by the real Dreyfus. He’s also a simpleton who confuses Victor Hugo with Victor Hughes, a former Governor. Nevers learns a lot from him, befriends him, tries to get him to read books, discover the classics, to no avail. When he arrives Castel is living on Devil, which is presently camouflaged: this leads Nevers to believe that he’s preparing for some all-out war with the mainland in case of invasion. The inmates amble about with tasks; there are madmen; there is no doctor, sent away. “The Governor and the secretary take care of the sick,” explains Dreyfus. These regulation breaches worry Nevers. “He censored Castel, thought that he should take the patients off the island, send them to a hospital. Finally he discovered that his passionate reproach was not alien to a puerile terror of being infected, of not seeing Irene again, of staying on the island some, a few months, until his death.” Nevers waits for the Governor to call him; spots him about the island, waking followed by a menagerie of animals. Thinks him dangerous, mad, his suspicions widen. But when he meets him he’s charmed. However Castel soon unsettles him again; he needs an intelligent, humane collaborator to work with him and De Brinon, his secretary; he mentions obscure plans to save the inmates; Nevers becomes apprehensive again: his investigation resumes, discovers that Castel is redecorating the cells with strange color patterns, talks to inmates: Bernheim, a dangerous revolutionary and terrorist, gives him startling information but then joins Castel because he’s convinced the Governor is planning a revolution, and the terrorist doesn’t want to be left out. Castel tempts Nevers a second time, he replies he just wants to fulfill “my duty automatically.” Later Castel gives him an errand to send him to Cayenne. “Castel wants to keep me away in order not to have eyewitnesses or opponents. He won’t,” he confides to uncle Antoine. He has received a letter from his cousin, Xavier, informing that soon he’ll arrive on Salvation to replaced him – soon he’ll be back home, with Irene. Why detain himself? “The evidence that had tormented him were futile. He attributed the obsessions to the weather, the pestilential miasmas and the delirious sun, also to Bernheim, that ridiculous madmen.” These excuses alleviate him of his responsibility; let Xavier investigate when he arrives. Of course it doesn’t pan out that way.
As you may have noticed, some bits are in italics. That’s because the novel has another particularity that makes it, to me, more interesting than Morel: the actual narration is composed of a report uncle Antoine is writing that includes italicized citations from the letters Nevers sent him. A mysterious detail is that Antoine, Pierre’s brother, seems to harbor some ill-hidden hostility against his nephew, and because of this bias the narration is quite unreliable. Antoine makes fun of him, judges Nevers’ personality and disapproves of his relationship with Irene. In the first letter he receives he points out that Nevers dreamed of inciting 40 convicts aboard the ship to mutiny, as if to point out that Nevers is fanciful and not to be taken seriously. When Nevers mentions Irene in a letter, he accuses him of “lack of decorum,” and is upset whenever he discusses women. He also considers him a bit of a wuss. “Of course he himself recognized that he was a hero totally inadequate for the catástrofes happening to him. We mustn’t forget what were his true concerns nor how extraordinary those catastrophes were.” Apropos of Pierre’s decision to send him to the Guiana, he’s pretty supportive. “The governor is extremely polite, says Nevers; but he confesses that he looked upon him, from the first moment, with hostility. This toughness is a new faculty in my nephews; perhaps the mistake of sending him to the Guiana wasn’t that big after all.” Elsewhere he insists: “Pierre showed firmness but also good judgment” for exiling him. He also reproaches him for not taking his job seriously. This hostility sometimes isn’t direct, you just glean it from a few words. “Perhaps it’s experiments, something neither Bernheim nor I understand. In any event, he says with pathetic hope, there’s a probability that those paintings aren’t the first signs of war.” Anything Nevers says he turns into a reason for mockery. About the animals Castel keeps: “Friendship with an animal is impossible; coexistence, monstrous, continues my nephew in search for a crass originality.” Nevers is absolutely alone in the novel.
A few years ago I read most of Bioy Casares’ novels: if read in chronological order, I think they show a steady decline in quality. Asleep in the Sun is unreadable, and I shudder at the idea of reading The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata. But his first two novels were remarkable. I think this is his masterpiece; Morel has a great twist, although the build-up bored me; Escape has a gripping build-up for a climax that could never live up to the expectations; unfortunately ABC succumbs to the temptation of explaining too much, and we get needless pseudo-scientific gobbledygook. But until the last chapters it’s a thrilling book blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, sanity and madness. The way of narrating, too, is more sophisticated and rewards second readings. And Nevers’ hesitation between commitment and indifference makes him more captivating than the narrator of Morel.
In A Plan for Escape Adolfo Bioy Casares crafted a verbal nightmare in the likes of Franz Kafka; it’s his most ingenious, tight-plotted and carefully-constructed book, and doesn’t deserve the obscurity it lingers in.