Silvina Ocampo + Adolfo Bioy Casares

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate
by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo

translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell
Melville House; 134 p.

In describing his collaborations with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges said, “we have created between us a kind of third person; we have somehow begotten a third person that is quite unlike us.” That working relationship between Borges and Bioy Casares has emerged as a kind of platonic ideal of collaboration: in a recent onstage interview, the composer Osvaldo Golijov used their model to describe his work with fellow composer Gustavo Santaolalla. Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, a short 1946 novel by Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo, offers an opportunity to see a very different collaboration between two talented writers and critics — some of whom may be less known to American audiences. It’s both a meditation on a genre and an almost archetypal example of that genre, but within those confines, it contains surreal imagery and literary playfulness. Its mood is comedic, but that comedy may conceal a starker philosophical inquiry. The third writer created out of Bioy Casares and Ocampo’s collaboration has much to reveal; that they may bring renewed attention to two underrated writers and critics is an added delight.

If Bioy Casares’s name rings a bell, it’s likely due to his short novel The Invention of Morel, in which a man arrives on a seemingly deserted island, only to find it occupied by what appears to be a group of occupants reliving the same actions on a cyclical basis. Eventually, he sublimates himself into a sort of virtual environment; the novella was the inspiration for the film Last Year at Marienbad, and its influence can be be seen on works as recent as Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, in which Douglas Gordon’s art installation 24 Hour Psycho appears to unnaturally draw in two of the books’ characters. Silvina Ocampo’s name may be less familiar to American readers. In their introduction to a 2010 translation of her short novel The Topless Tower, James and Marian Womack note that “[t]here seems to be no clear reason for Silvina Ocampo to be less well known in the English-speaking world than the other two Argentinian writers with whom she is most often associated” — namely, Borges and Bioy Casares.

Reading this short novel, one can quickly find a blend of the two collaborators’ sensibilities. The obliviousness of narrator Humberto Huberman echoes Bioy Casares’s later novel Asleep in the Sun, in which the residents of an urban neighborhood remain largely oblivious to a series of covert experiments, involving madness, sanity, and body-swapping. And the isolation of the setting — a hotel where the sands are slowly and inexorably rising — has its precedent in Ocampo’s work. The Topless Tower focuses on a nine-year-old boy named Leandro who is magically transported into a prison-like tower, where his only companionship comes from stylized characters summoned through his paintings. Here as well, solitude and the surreal comfortably coexist.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is, at its core, a whodunit. But it’s also self-aware from its opening pages. “When will we at last renounce the detective novel, the fantasy novel, and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre is fed by unreality?” So declares Huberman in the novel’s first chapter. Huberman immediately emerges as someone with a need to be the smartest person in the room and a fondness for arsenic. “May nobody call me an unreliable narrator,” Huberman will declare late in the book — though it seems a bit late for that. His indifference towards middlebrow culture is palatable throughout; he’s also fond of making observations like the following:

…once again I had to concur with so many an impartial observer that the likeness between my facial features and Goethe’s was authentic.

Huberman is less an unreliable narrator than a frustratingly pompous one; he’s the person who you’d hate to be trapped in a conversation with at a party, who’d talk your ear off even as you knew he held you in utter contempt.

“[I]n this encapsulated paradise,” Huberman writes in the book’s first chapter, “I shall begin to write the story of the murder at Bosque del Mar.” At an isolated hotel, Huberman is at work on an adaptation of Petronius’s Satyricon, with the setting updated to contemporary Argentina. At the Hotel Central, Huberman learns of the shifting geography around him — the first indication that reality, in this work, has a touch of surrealism present.

Two years ago, our lobby was on the first floor; now it’s the basement. The sand rises constantly. If we opened your window, the house would fill up with sand.

Later, Huberman will describe the weather in language normally used to convey the mythological, or otherwise supernatural:

[I]t was as if a gigantic, supernatural dog, out on the deserted beaches, were grieving all the world’s sorrow. The wind had come up.

The name of a nearby shipwrecked sailboat hammers the point home: the unfortunate vessel, whose isolation will become a plot point later in the story, was christened the Joseph K.

Bioy Casares and Ocampo are not exactly subtle with their nods towards their influences. Establishing one satirical novel of society and one master of the oblique and surreal as reference points early in the book helps establish the tone. The literary nods continue as Huberman meets two young women also staying at the hotel: Emilia, a “dangerous music-lover,” and Mary, a translator and editor of mystery novels for “a prestigious publishing house.” Huberman’s sympathies are largely with her; later, upon discovering numerous books in her quarters, Huberman will observe that “a warm burst of sympathy throbbed in my chest.”

This is not, however, the tale of an unlikely connection between bibliophiles. Soon enough, Mary will be found dead; the guests’ attempts to discover her killer will serve as the bulk of the novel’s plot. Huberman acts as both narrator and would-be detective for what follows, treating his fellow guests as suspects, then noting that he “found this amusing as well.”

The second half of the novel largely follows Huberman’s own suspicions and theories about possible motives and opportunities, contrasting them with the official investigation also underway. The comic gulf between the two leads to much of the book’s spark; Huberman’s fondness for literary references also powers through a good chunk of it. He describes one character as “an escapee from a Russian novel, and discusses The Man Who Laughs and The Magic Mountain with one of the officials investigating the crime. And while Huberman never breaks the fourth wall, some of his observations wink a bit too knowingly. “Like a benevolent crime novelist,” he notes, “I restricted myself to dispensing appropriate emphasis.” And later he observes that “[c]omplicated crimes were the province of literature; reality was more banal.”

For a novel with murder at its center, the tone of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is surprisingly light. Much of this comes from Huberman’s own voice: the position of an aspiring omniscient narrator. And Bioy Casares and Ocampo are able to mine abundant comedy from that eternally useful comic figure: the person who believes themselves to be far smarter than they are. Huberman’s intake of arsenic also leads to questions — specifically, why he seems to be taking poison recreationally. Historically, arsenic has been used as a treatment for syphillis, psoriasis, and cancer — given Huberman’s tone throughout, one of the first two seems most likely.

There’s a different spin that could also be taken on Where There’s Love, There’s Hate — and it’s one that gives this brief, breezy book a grimmer tone. For all his pompous tendencies, Huberman’s intellect is never really in question. And yet, when faced with a murder, his first instinct is to become more aloof rather than to participate in the investigation. Can Where There’s Love, There’s Hate be read as a parable of intellectual paralysis? It’s tempting, but that may go too far in the allegorical direction. Regardless, however, it does suggest darker currents below the otherwise comic surface of this work. And, like the surreal landscapes that the guests of the Hotel Central observe and traverse, it’s a nagging reminder of the world’s more uncontrollable elements, suggesting that this deftly constructed collaboration offers more riddles than one might expect.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.

Tagged with →  
Share →