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El lado de la sombra (The Shadowy Side).

The cover shows a man's head made of jigsaw puzzle pieces, some of which fly off, leaving a less precise but more colorful image of the same man beneath. The drawing, Jigsaw Head by John Martin, captures beautifully Bioy Casares' concept of the human psyche. The precariously held together outer image is disconcerting, not only because it threatens to come undone at any minute, but also because it masks complex, enigmatic, exciting dimensions of the personality.

A close friend of Jorge Luis Borges, with whom he often collaborated, Adolfo Bioy Casares has been a major voice in Argentine literature for decades. With Borges, he revitalized the detective story and contributed to the flowering of a new, post-surrealist literature of the fantastic in which fantasy and reality are blurred.

In El lado de la sombra Bioy Casares returns to some of his favorite themes: the uniqueness and duplicability of the individual; the impossibility of real communication; the contradictory effects of love; the magic in everyday existence. He imbues even the most mundane situation with a mysterious, otherworldly quality. Originally published in 1962, the stories in El lado de la sombra exemplify the extreme subjectivity of the "new narrative," which would later become a hallmark of the literature of the "boom" era. The collection has not been reissued in its original form until the present Tusquets edition.

Not surprisingly, several of the stories revolve around trips. Traveling frees the spirit, explains Bioy Casares at the beginning of "Un viaje o El mago inmortal" ("A Trip or The Immortal Magician"). It exposes the individual to new experiences and predisposes him to accept the mysterious and inexplicable. "If you want to die, the fastest means is routine, sweet routine," he writes. "On the other hand, if you want life and memories, travel. But just one thing: travel alone ... kiss the wife and kids good-by ... and disappear into the blue beyond."

The traveler in "Un viaje o El mago inmortal" is an Argentine businessman in Montevideo. From the very beginning of his trip, every woman who catches his eye becomes the center of an erotic fantasy. As if by destiny's design, he finds himself in a luxury hotel where two gorgeous nymphs from the Berliner Ballet, also guests, leave him dizzy with desire - unsatisfied desire. Exhausted but too excited to sleep, he wanders through the streets, stopping at a movie theater to take in a pornographic film. At last wanders back to the hotel and falls into bed, only to be awakened a while later by a couple making love ferociously in the next room. Mindful of their every move, the traveler imagines the woman in great detail. When, the next morning, he tries to catch a glimpse of her, he is amazed to see no one but a little old man named (of all things) Merlin emerge from the room. What went on the night before? Did the erotically aroused traveller imagine the whole thing? Or did Merlin, the immortal magician, fabricate the scene? As usual, Bioy Casares offers no explanation, but makes his readers active participants in the narrative process by forcing them to reconstruct and interpret the action.

In "El lado de la sombra" Bioy Casares uses travel to explore the notion that every individual is in fact a replica of other individuals - that is, that no one is entirely unique. A traveler in distant lands runs across an old friend who tells him a sad story of his lover and her cat, who were killed in a fire. After their deaths, the characters in his story reappear one by one in different places. If at first the premise seems far-fetched, we have only to remember that both mythology and psychiatry describe archetypes that spawn countless imperfect doubles.

In "La obra" ("The Work") travel becomes the agent that frees the artist to create - but not until he is able to sublimate his fascination with a beautiful woman in order to produce art. The traveler in this story is a writer who retires to the beach in order to work on a piece of fiction. Infatuated with his landlord's wife Viviana, he is unable to put pen to paper. Wandering around the beach, he meets Bramante, a tough old sea-wolf who rents tents to tourists during the high season. When Viviana dies brutally at the hands of Bramante's son, the writer realizes that the old man, much more than he, understands the nature of human existence; from the sea he has learned that changes in circumstance are inevitable and often unpredictable. The individual's only defense against misfortune is his work. Bramante's work is the beach; the writer's is the piece of fiction that he is finally able to produce after Viviana's death.

Bioy explores the secrets of the personality in several stories. In "Un leon en el bosque de Palermo" ("A Lion in the Woods of Palermo"), for example, the knowledge that a lion is loose frees the members of an upper-class health club from their bourgeois inhibitions. The danger in the air creates an atmosphere in which the normally well-behaved men and women yield to primitive instincts.

Love is the subject of many of Bioy Casares' stories, although its manifestations are often strange and paradoxical. In "Carta sobre Emilia," an enamored artist comes to accept that love and possession are two different things. Precisely because he loves his beautiful model Emilia, he consents to share her with another man rather than lose her. "You will say that to have her as I have her is not to have her at all," he writes to his rival. "Is there any other way to have someone? Even though they may live together, parents and children, man and woman, don't they know that all communication is illusory and that each individual is in fact isolated in his own mystery?" Love, then, is letting go. Love is the opposite of control; it is allowing the other person to live his own mystery without interference.

If love produces magnanimity in "Carta sobre Emilia," it has the opposite effect in "Paradigma," a tale that starts out as an archetypal love story and turns into a nightmare. Two young lovers defy the girl's cruel father and plan to marry. He is a political activist. She is devoted to her invalid mother. In fairy-tale fashion they defy all odds and escape together. But instead of a happy ending, their blind selfishness produces a bloodbath that results in the death of several of the young man's comrades and leads to the death of the girl's mother, as well.

In many of these stories, one feels that the invisible hand of fate guides the action. "Cavar un foso" ("Dig a Pit"), one of the most fascinating tales, produces the kind of tension we expect from a good detective story. Raul and Julia Arevalo murder a rich old lady in order to save their failing business. Caught in a pit of guilt and duplicity, they dig themselves deeper and deeper - until there is no way out but death. The circular structure of the story reinforces the sense of claustrophobia; no matter which way Raul and Julia move, they arrive at the same fatal point - and the walls are closing in.

Perhaps the most otherworldly of the tales is "Los afanes" ("Daily Work"), in which the protagonist, Eladio Heller, a scientific genius, invents a means of transferring his own mind and his dog's to two nickel frames. The system works until Eladio, whose body dies when his mind leaves it, begins communicating with his widow's new suitor, thereby provoking a disaster.

Tusquets has done a service to the reading public by making El lado de la sombra available in the form in which Bioy Casares originally conceived it. The collection is certainly a classic of its genre. It is also a very good read.
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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:May 1, 1992
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