Obituary: Adolfo Bioy Casares

Andrew Graham-Yooll
Wednesday 10 March 1999 01:02

THE WRITER Adolfo Bioy Casares will perhaps be known best outside of Argentina as the friend and co-writer of Jorge Luis Borges, a friendship that began in 1935 and lasted a lifetime.

But Bioy Casares was a stylist and for this literary ability and for his considerable output, he won the Cervantes prize, Spain's equivalent to the Nobel prize, in 1990.

His main novel, The Invention of Morel and other stories (La invencion de Morel), published in 1940 in Buenos Aires and by the University of Texas in 1961, won him the prestigious Buenos Aires Municipal Prize the following year. The book is now a classic in Argentine and Latin American literature. It is an exercise in the use of all the imaginative resources of the novel, eventually to result in a story about curiosity and ideas more than about events. Critics also place his Dream of the Hero (Sueno de los Heroes, published in Buenos Aires in 1954, and by Quartet in London in 1987) - which the film maker Sergio Renan took to the screen two years ago - as his best novel.

However, Morel has almost become a synonym of the author, as it was his best known. Diary of the War of the Pig (Diario de la Guerra del Cerdo, published in Buenos Aires in 1969, and by McGraw-Hill in New York in 1972) was the third of his main fiction titles.

Along with Borges, Ernesto Sbato and Manuel Mujica Lainez, Bioy Casares will probably remain, after the likes of poet Leopoldo Lugones and very few others, in the gallery of literary giants produced by Argentina in this century.

Bioy Casares said his life was about fantasy because in a country where politics had everything to do with personal whim, fantasy was the only reality. He enjoyed a way with words which at times seemed self-deprecating. His writing had ranged from the sublime, in Morel, to the ridiculous, as in "A Brief Dictionary of the Posh Argentine" (Breve Diccionario del Argentino Exquisito, 1978). Solemnity, he once told a friend, is what people confuse with being profound.

Even in his old age, after the death of his wife, Silvina Ocampo, in December 1993, and before that of their only daughter, in a road accident, he was still able to conjure a mixture of mischief and scandal. Two years ago he published a collection of love letters from his youth. Unfortunately, when he went to London in the early Nineties to deliver the annual "Borges Lecture," organised by the Anglo-Argentine Society, he was too frail and ill to show much of that lifelong spark.

Born as the First World War broke out, but into a comfortable land-owning family, Bioy Casares started out studying law, then moved to the school of philosophy and letters at the University of Buenos Aires. But he often said that what he enjoyed most was playing tennis. He played the game until he was 74.

This self-irony was almost out of style with the society he grew up in, but which he managed to manipulate to his own benefit. He belonged to a generation where the upper middle and wealthy classes indulged in extended travel to Paris, Rome and London and other European capitals which they felt were at the heart of the arts and literature.

His social group was for many years Argentina's establishment writers and artists who had as their core the magazine Sur, founded and led by his sister-in-law, Victoria Ocampo, better known than his wife, but considered the lesser writer of the two sisters.

His friendship with Jorge Luis Borges was not only long, but has entered Latin American literary legend. With the pen names H. Buston Domecq, B. Suarez Lynch, and B. Lynch Davis, they produced a series of satires on contemporary customs and a series of crime stories.

Between 1945 and 1960, Bioy Casares and Borges ran a publishing venture which started with the writings in translation of Cecil Day-Lewis and included Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells and Henry James. And together they compiled numerous anthologies and a series of annotated classics. As Borges increasingly lost his sight, Bioy Casares became his eyes in their joint output.

Surprisingly for an age that requires publicity to ensure glory, Bioy Casares generated attention by saying that he was not interested in fame. When he was asked why he had agreed to pose in a credit card (American Express) advertisement last year, his rejoinder was that he had been offered a very interesting figure which he found extremely difficult to refuse.

Andrew Graham-Yooll

Adolfo Bioy Casares, writer: born Buenos Aires 15 September 1914; married 1944 Silvina Ocampo (died 1993; one daughter deceased); died Buenos Aires 8 March 1999.

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