Most people would agree that Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are the major practitioners of magic realism, but even though they work the same generic terrain, their methods are markedly different.
Garcia Marquez's world of flesh and blood is filled with characters possessing supernatural powers. Objects are transformed in crescendos of images or materialize out of nowhere, as is the case with the galleon in the jungle of "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
His powerful themes grow out of closely observed human behavior over the breadth of his weighty novels.
Borges, on the other hand, is more austere, focusing on philosophical concerns in short stories built around a postulate that attracted his exegetical mind. Garcia Marquez is devoted to elaborate, almost Baroque narrative tapestries, Borges to foreshortened summaries of elegant ideas. Garcia Marquez says, "Look!" and amazing things appear. Borges creates a situation and then asks, "What if?"
"The Dream of Heroes," a story of appearances and deceptions, belongs in the Borgesian mode, and Adolfo Bioy Casares' debts to his old friend and collaborator are evident on almost every page.
It is 1927, the suburbs of Buenos Aires. Emilio Guana, the 21-year-old protagonist, is obsessed by an event that soon becomes his destiny. During Carnival, Guana wins a bet and decides to spend the money on a debauch with his friend and sometime counselor, Dr. Valegra, hoping that his prestige will be enhanced by this largess. After three nights of carousing, Guana and his companions enter a club where he meets a mysterious masked girl. They dance, but she soon disappears, and that single event marks him like a brand.
As the narrator says, "After the adventure Guana was never the same." The next day he wakes with only a hazy memory of what happened, but it is enough; from that moment until three years later, when he wins another bet and insists on repeating the earlier experiences in the hope of finding the girl once again, Guana moves toward his destiny with chilling inevitability.
These events unfold in a realistic world of decaying factories, dilapidated stucco houses and tango bars, but most interestingly in Guana's relationship with his mentors. Guana vacillates between the influence of two older men: Dr. Valegra, a faintly sinister figure devoted to violence, and Taboada, the Sorcerer, "who knows more than many doctors with diplomas." When Guana falls in love with Clara, the Sorcerer's daughter, it would seem that he has acted to end his obsession with the masked girl. Instead he unwittingly runs into her arms. Love and marriage are no match for the past, not even when Taboada says, "You went on a kind of journey and now you are full of a sense of loss like Ulysses back in Ithaca or Jason remembering the golden apples . . . That journey . . . was neither entirely good nor entirely evil. For your own sake and for that of others, do not repeat the journey."
Up to this point, "Heroes"--after Guana's encounter with the masked girl--evokes the familiar image of a stone cast into a pond and its rings spreading toward shore. But the most inventive aspect of the novel comes when Casares reverses the action three years later and Guana replays the original event, which is then enlarged and tragically completed. Repetition becomes the agent of fate in this circular narrative, but there is a further irony here, another kind of repetition because Casares' style and structure are clearly derived from his master. Moreover, the novel resonates with Borges' stories, "Theme of the Traitor and Hero," as well as his metaphysical lyric on Argentine machismo, "The South." And so, while "Heroes" is an impressive work in the Borgesian tradition, it at once commands our admiration for how it is made and, in doing so, places Casares in Borges' shadow.
Published simultaneously with "The Dream of Heroes," "Diary of the War of the Pig" is less successful. In the latter novel, the old people of Buenos Aires are being systematically killed or maimed by violent youth gangs egged on by a fanatic named Farrell, who inflames them by way of fireside chats on the radio. The problem is that Casares presents the action exclusively from the inside, through the point of view of an old man, Vidal, and reports made to him by his cronies. Despite some vivid scenes of a friend of Vidal's being thrown from the upper tier of a soccer stadium and an attack on mourners at a funeral, Farrell never appears, nor does Casares provide any way for us to understand how the government enables Farrell's policies.
Writing a novel based on the theme of society's unjust treatment of its elderly members is not exactly new, and Casares fails to show how the mind of the opposition works, as J. M. Coetzee does so compellingly in "Waiting for the Barbarians" and George Orwell in "1984." Mindless terror, as the dirty war demonstrated, always has a mind behind it, even though it may be demented.
In my judgment, Casares hit .500 with these two books, not a bad average for anyone. As for the echoes of Borges' style and methods, my guess is that it would be almost impossible not to continue hearing the master's voice in your head even after he died. There is something wonderfully Borgesian in that.
DR, THOM DOWER