The Dream of the Heroes, Bioy Casares

28 02 2010

I adored The Invention of Morel and The Squid Opts for its Own Ink, so I was excited to read The Dream of the Heroes. Casares himself introduces it as his favorite work, not because he deems it so, but because his “most intelligent” friends have always said it was his best novel. When Borges heard the plot synopsis, he called it the most beautiful story ever told. I think it’s a pretty silly story. Borges probably said what he said out of friendliness. Or maybe Casares explained the synopsis of his novel-to-be with beautiful zest. Or maybe I just disagree with Borges.

In a way, the synopsis is potentially exciting stuff. A man wins money at the races and decides to spend it with his friends during three days of carnival madness. During the third day, in a haze of drunken epiphanic glory, he lives the most significant moment of his life, except he can’t remember it afterward. In the years following this event, he finds a girl, gets married, settles down, detaches himself from his unseemly and crude friends, and yet the mystery of that epiphanic glory never leaves him, and so, three years later, he decides to imitate his steps, following the same itinerary of that earlier carnival madness in the hopes that his memory will be stirred accordingly. Bioy Casares being a friend of Borges and so sharing a similar temperament, there’s a lot of dream-talk about waking up and only grasping the vague outlines of what must have surely been the most remarkable dream ever dreamed.

I can see how this synopsis might have sounded exciting. It was exciting enough that I bought the book. But Casares uses the above conceit for really dull purposes. The “reveal” in Morel opened the narrative up to unexpected philosophic vistas and emotional undercurrents that improved every noun and adjective that preceded and followed the discovery. We suddenly have to think about the meaning of love, social interaction, social performance, reality, perception, and the essential solitude of all human beings, along with the purpose and place of readership, both as a reader of books and as a reader of life in our everyday wanderings. That’s a good “reveal.” Here, the “reveal” mostly tells us that, well, destiny is ironic, love is eternal and meant to be, and what we once thought was really important and impressive might not be so later in life. Maybe I’m underrating it. Maybe I’m wrong. I am willing to consider a different outlook, but I can’t come up with anything else other than what I just wrote. The book is pretty limited and the story is likewise limited, concerned with a shallow love story and with a girl who only becomes interesting during the last ten pages, where we realize that the book would have been better off dwelling around its final fourth and dispensing with the mundane middle sections detailing the painfully conventional and idyllic love story. Morel played off platonic love cliches, but that ends up being gratifying when the cliches are turned around after the “reveal.” I am not sure the same thing happens here. Certainly, as in Morel, the facts of the love story are altered, but I don’t think they’re altered in any really meaningful way, except we’d have to read her character somewhat differently. I don’t know how the novel plays out during a re-read. Nevertheless, the “reveal” doesn’t introduce an alteration in content and essence, as it does in Morel, but merely in circumstance and suggestiveness: it’s not the meaning of the love story that changes, so much as its genesis and some of her motivations. The more magical part of the “reveal” is mostly destiny-gibberish that I don’t find very intriguing. The end is sad, I guess, which is sort of unconventional, but it has nothing on the gorgeously melancholy denouement of Morel.

There’s some historical value to the book, since it effortlessly describes Buenos Aires circa late 1920’s. It also focuses on an archetypal Argentine man in Valerga, just the sort of despicable, unruly, over-confident, patronizing, criminal, brutish, idiotic, cocky, faux-magnanimous, and faux-paternal man that rests at center of the Argentine soul. Extricating the Valergas from the Argentine soul could be the key to fixing the country. Probably not. There is probably nothing like a national soul, and speaking of a national soul is probably a language short-cut to talking about national tendencies haphazardly grouped, but either way, Argentina and Argentine history are marked by a glut of Valergas. The Dream of the Heroes so perfectly illustrates this archetypal individual, that it’s probably worthwhile just for Valerga: he’s an exaggeration or a culmination of the selfish me-against-the-world mentality that unfortunately grips many of his compatriots to this day. The protagonist’s journey is not just one towards memory and love, but also one towards realization, coming to terms with the awfulness of Valerga and the lifestyle that he embodies — at least for a time, until destiny plays its cruel hand.

Alas, this development is adequate, but not terribly inspiring: our protagonist learns the immaturity of his youth and of his seedy past, only to be sucked back into the same criminal fold from which he had escaped. This is pretty typical and there is nothing in the language that makes it fresh, especially since the narrator so solemnly explains its significance. Actually, the narrator does a lot of solemn explaining. This is the kind of narrator who will say: “And now we come to the part of the story where…” Not to everyone’s taste, obviously.

The Dream of the Heroes is too tame for me to either get angry at it or be very moved by its downbeat closure. It just is, and what it is doesn’t interest me. It makes discoveries that should form a launching pad for a longer book, not be final conclusions. The narrator does say, near the end, that the entire book has been magical, not just the finale. There is the possibility that the end is actually the beginning of a reappraisal of the whole story, in which case the discoveries are launching pads for the longer book that is the re-reading of the book we just read, kind of like Morel. I am not getting the sense that this is the case as of right now, but I leave the door open for a change of heart.

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6 responses

28 02 2010
The Dream of the Heroes, Bioy Casares « Elevator to Alphaville | Argentina Today

[…] Continued here: The Dream of the Heroes, Bioy Casares « Elevator to Alphaville […]

10 08 2010
TF

Fair review – definitely one of the more comprehensive ones I have read. I enjoyed the book, I thought Casares’ disjointed ‘dream-like’ writing style (or is this just a result of the translation?) was better suited to this type of story than Morel. I also connected with many of the story’s themes, though, again, I think you pinned them down and appraised them fairly.

It’s interesting that you say the book is too tame for you to be angered or moved. I was going to say it’s a book you will either connect with or not – but I don’t think it even has the power for that.

By the way, what edition did you review?

10 08 2010
beaucine

Being Argentine myself, I was able to read it in its original Spanish. I was feeling pretty lukewarm on Casares after this, so I forced myself to read another of his novels before I lost any more enthusiasm. Luckily, the gamble worked. I quite liked the novel I ended up reading: Dormir al Sol, which translates as To Sleep Out in the Sun. There are some parts where the novel skirts awfully close to “men being housewives are so funny” territory, but thankfully Casares doesn’t care about that and instead writes something closer to Kafka’s The Trial, albeit more whimsical and provincial — despite taking place in Buenos Aires, there’s a very town-like air to the neighborhood it’s set in. I myself had to do a little project for university around the environs of that novel, and the town-like vibe persists to this day, with the squat houses and the odd calm. It’s technically right in the middle of a metropolis, but you wouldn’t notice being there. Very weird. And Casares exploits that feeling wonderfully.

I also like the dream-writing you mention, which is there too in Dormir al Sol. There’s a very humorous tone to everything Casares writes, as well as self-conscious writing-about-writing, except it’s not necessarily meant to distance us from the story or remind us we’re reading a book. It’s more in line with what Borges was doing, which isn’t very surprising given the friendship between Borges and Casares. What I mean to say is: in Morel, the narration seems like a riff on nineteenth century or eighteenth century adventure or epistolary novels, with its often over-excited prose and constant awareness of a potential future reader (since the protagonist is writing a diary, like Robinson Crusoe). In Dormir al Sol and The Dream of the Heroes, I think we have narratives that bask in their own circuitousness. Dormir al Sol is also presented as a letter. It’s writing-about-writing, but it’s meant to submerge us in the world of the novel, which is the world of literature.

That said, Bioy Casares writes very clearly. He’s fast reading. I don’t know how the translations convey that, but compared to the other big Argentine writers — Borges, Cortázar, Filloy, or Sabato, especially Filloy, although everyone’s simple compared to Filloy, because Filloy was trying to save words from oblivion, scouring the ends of his thesaurus, with awkward and hilarious results, partly intended, partly I don’t care — Casares is soothing, like bubbling creek water. Which doesn’t mean I don’t like raging streams. That would be Cortázar when he wrote novels. Both Casares and Cortázar strike me as deeply comic writers, in that even when they’re not being explicitly funny, even when you’re not laughing, there remains something inherently comedic about what’s going, even if it’s just a morbid chuckle happening deep inside of us. Borges has that too. And a lot of other greats.

Anyhow, sorry about the wall of text, since not everything I just wrote necessarily answers your post. I still find it interesting that a non-Argentine (apparently) found his way to Dream of the Heroes. Sometimes I wonder what audience I’m speaking to by talking about an Argentine book in English. I guess I figure that if I don’t, who will? Glad you liked it, despite my own reaction.

10 08 2010
TF

“I think we have narratives that bask in their own circuitousness.”

This is a beautiful way of putting that quality I find both curious and attractive in so much of the South American fiction I have read (there seems to be less ‘play’ – if that’s what this can be called – in serious English fiction).

The way I came to Dream of the Heroes (I believe the edition I read was titled The Dreams of Heroes – a subtle but charming difference) is odd and too long to recount here, but it was ultimately through Borges.

On the subject of Borges, I do agree that he seemed to be very kind with his praise of Casares. I recall him writing that The Invention of Morel was the perfect novel, or something similar, and so it was interesting to read his words about Dream of the Heroes.

I also ask about the edition you reviewed because the edition I read was borrowed from a library and the English translation now seems to be out of print.

I’m glad that Casares’ prose is indeed dream-like in the original Spanish and it didn’t acquire this quality in translation. Unfortunately, however, much of the humour was lost (I must add that I’m not all that receptive to literary humour at the best of times, so maybe it was only lost on me).

Thanks for a great response.

21 09 2011
Alex

As I’m quite a sentimental wretch, I actually like Heroes best of all Casares’ works I have yet read. It seems somehow more human than, for instance, Morel – which I found relatively cold, bloodless and boring – and the frankly impenetrable A Plan For Escape. I realise that Heroes can seem a bit mawkish, but it appeals to the romantic in me.

Asleep in the Sun is another favourite, as is the short story About the Shape of the World. Photographer in La Plata was enjoyable at times but ultimately strangely unsatisfying, as was War of the Pig. Not sure if that’s in part down to the English translation or not.

In any case, it’s great to see a fellow non-Argentine / non-Spanish speaker (I presume?) reading Heroes and other works by Casares. He’s incredibly overlooked on a global scale, tending to be overshadowed by his vastly more famous old mentor. I do think that in some ways, though, he’s a better author than Borges – and I think Borges recognised that – because his work does seem warmer, more humorous, more human at times. Casares seemed more at ease writing characters, whereas Borges’ works more often than not come closer to ornate little curios whose main purpose is to showcase some conceit or another. I suppose this goes some way toward explaining why the older man wrote short stories rather than novels. I love both authors dearly, in any case.

23 09 2011
beaucine

Unfortunately, I must disappoint you! I´m actually Argentine and I discovered Casares a few years ago when I decided to return to Buenos Aires after leaving for California at the age of nine. He is incredibly underrated, I agree, even here in Argentina. His novels are widely available at most bookshops, but he is nowhere close to Borges, who is practically a national institution, our literary Maradona. Behind him, in importance and cultural relevance, is not Casares but Ernesto Sabato, another writer who has remained nearly invisible at the world stage. Abaddon, el Exterminador was praised in France during the 70s, and Camus reportedly loved his debut novel The Tunnel (perhaps because The Tunnel is hugely indebted to The Stranger), but I don’t think many people, especially in the English-speaking world, have even heard of the man. Which is a pity, since On Heroes and Tombs, widely-regarded as his masterpiece (I prefer Abaddon, but that one is more difficult, even tortuous), could have been, should have been, an international hit, what with its intricate structure, its book-within-a-book (sometimes published separately as Report on the Blind), its nakedly emotional prose… Sabato is sometimes labeled as the anti-Borges precisely because he was all raw confession and pain and despair. Humorously, Sabato includes Borges as a character in two of his novels. Which is a lot because he only wrote three.

That said, I do find Borges strangely emotional. He makes labyrinths, this is true. But they are obsessed labyrinths. He is like the filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, who recently passed away. Or rather, Ruiz is like Borges. They build densely layered and referential works that float on a universe of self-conscious fiction, feeding off other works of art, bouncing on their archetypes and motifs… and yet all this literary or cinephilic gamesmanship is somehow tortured, a little mad. Like a feverish clock-maker, there is passion in the intricate design. The structure of the “little curio” is where the emotional strength comes from. I don’t think any other author captures the infinite abandon that follows immersion into a work of art, into literature. The infinity of imagination, of dreams. Borges doesn’t have many interesting characters (I count one, maybe two, from what I read so far: Emma Zunz and The Immortal), while Asleep in the Sun, for instance, seems to only have interesting (or at least charming) characters, and it has a lot of them. Even Dream of the Heroes has stronger characters than much of Borges. But maybe that’s because there is only one character in Borges, the reader. Anyways, I probably agree with Harold Bloom: If you start reading a lot of Borges, you become something of a Borgesian. But, at the same, Borges is also limited. He always wounds you the same way, whereas Shakespeare wounds you a hundred different ways. But what a wound!

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