A frantic Venezuelan escaped convict heeds the advice of a cryptic Italian rug merchant in Calcutta and seeks refuge on deserted South Pacific island where he finds an empty museum, a swimming pool, and a library. Beneath them are wondrously colorful machines apparently left behind by the territory’s 1924 settlers. The island’s edible roots taste bitter and off-putting, as if the land possessed a conscience and used pungency to discourage interlopers. The convict, who tells his story in diary form, is soon bewildered by the strangeness of it all.
Then, suddenly, people appear. There’s a suggestive gypsy woman, Faustina, and her odd suitor, an inventor named Morel. But why is it that these busybody intruders can’t see wandering convict? Why isn’t the devilishly beautiful Faustina responsive to the convict’s gentle advances? Why, suddenly, do two suns appear in the sky? Why do events appear to occur in duplicate? Can it be that the moody and possessive Morel has done the unthinkable and created an immortality “projector,” a recording device “that can assemble disjointed presences,” script them visually, and put them on a literally death-defying loop? And if that’s the case, could the fugitive himself be the invention of Morel on an “island of artificial ghosts”?
Argentine Bloy’s fantastic fable, appropriately dedicated to his friend Jorge Luis Borges, is an ominous stroll into wonderland’s mirror. It deftly lays out the concept of holograms long before anyone thought to give virtual reality a visual animus. It poses an onslaught of “Matrix”-like questions in a time — 1940 — that predated today’s constant speculation about what might be the style and substance of artificial intelligence.
The fugitive distrusts his own perception of what’s happened, but he has no choice but to articulate it: “My companions and I are illusions; we are a new kind of photograph.”
Both Borges and Octavio Paz hailed the novel’s plot as “perfect,” giving substance and flesh to hallucination and symbolism. They’re right. Its tonal outline helped yield Alain Resnais’ 1961 film “Last Year At Marienbad.”