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A Russian Doll and Other Stories.

In the world of Bioy Casares people are unique yet duplicable, the line between individuals and even species is blurry, and God appears in the most unexpected places. Originally published in Spanish in 1991 as Una muneca rusa, this new collection of seven stories is vintage Bioy Casares: the fantastic goes hand-in-hand with the mundane and the dead serious with the deadpan.

Like much of Bioy Casares' fiction, many of the stories in A Russian Doll involve travel, for it is the author's belief that travel liberates the spirit, allowing it to accept bizarre new experiences. In the title story, an Argentine traveler runs into an old friend in a less-than-elegant hotel in Aix. An admitted fortune-hunter, the friend recounts the bizarre story of his efforts to woo the daughter of a rich factory owner. At the beginning of his adventure, he visits the surprisingly well appointed apartments of the hotel owner, a widow who offers to lend him her late husband's dinner jacket. While there, a Russian doll catches his eye. The widow explains what everyone knows about Russian dolls: they are arranged by size, one inside the other, so that "when one breaks, the others are left." The significance of this seemingly superfluous observation is not obvious until the end, when the wooer's greed leads him to make some bad decisions in terms of his long-range plans. Fortunately for him, when the biggest, most beautiful "doll" is gone, another one is left to take its place--and he is perfectly happy to settle for second best.

In "Our Trip (A Diary)" Bioy Casares treats the same subject from a different perspective. The story consists of a series of fragments from a travel diary, each of which recounts episodes from the demise of a marriage. In every scene, the location and the woman's name are different. Here, as in "A Russian Doll," women are interchangeable and therefore expendable. The misogynistic undertones of these stories is undeniable, but Bioy Casares' real focus is the universality and duplicability of human experience. No matter where or who they are, men and women face certain obstacles to communication that undermine their relationships.

Communication is also one of the main themes of "Underwater," but here Bioy Casares makes his point through surrealistic imagery. Aldo Martelli is a very ordinary notary public whose main interests are his health and fishing. Recovering from a bout of hepatitis, Martelli visits the lake region in the South, where he falls in love with Flora, a fascinating young woman who is the niece of an experimental biologist. When Martelli learns that Flora had another lover before him, he is overcome with jealousy. Flora admits readily to the previous affair. She explains that her former admirer was a much older man, whom her uncle accidentally turned into a salmon in an effort to rejuvenate him. Flora proposes that Martelli and she allow her uncle to turn them into salmon as well, so that the three of them can live together in the lake. Martelli claims to take the proposal seriously, but it is clear from his endless observations on the state of his health and his concern with comfort that he will never consent to spend the rest of his life splashing around in cold water.

In spite of the hilarity of this outlandish tale, which Bioy Casares narrates with detached seriousness, at its core are the fundamental problems of male-female relationships. To what extent is each member of a couple willing to give up his or her "self" to satisfy the other? Clearly, Flora and Martelli are two different species. Ironically, she is the hot-blooded lover; he, the "cold fish." Is true communication between two such different creatures possible? It may be true that opposites attract, but can mere fascination lead to an enduring relationship?

Not all of Bioy Casares' stories deal with love. In "Cato," the author ponders the politics of repression and shows how fanatics of all ilks exploit the artist. In "A Meeting in Rauch" he mocks the avarice and spiritual emptiness of a young middle-class businessman, so obsessed with making a deal that he fails to recognize God when the Almighty hitches a ride from him.

For more than five decades Adolfo Bioy Casares has been a moving force in Argentine fiction. A Russian Doll and Other Stories is a testimony to his enduring narrative skill, undiminished after all these years. These are engrossing, elegant tales, and Suzanne Jill Levine has done an exquisite job of rendering them into English.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Words:754
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