The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato

The Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel (1948, 140pp) is an account of a murder.  ‘It should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed María Iribarne,’ the artist tells us in the opening sentence before recounting the events leading up to the crime, and the killing itself, from his police cell.  The existential themes of the novel along with a senseless murder remind one of L’Étranger, and Castel is prone to ‘Olympian’ misanthropy in ramblings reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man.  Sabato gives access to Castel’s febrile and paranoid state of mind in clipped, fast paced prose that mimics the narrator’s state of mind excellently.

Castel first encounters María at an exhibition of his work.  Unlike the ‘charlatan’ critics whom he cannot stand, she alone is transfixed by a small element of a solitary woman on a beach staring at the sea.  From that moment he becomes obsessed with María and spends his time plotting ways in which we he can meet her.  He plays out elaborate plans, chance encounters and imaginary conversations in his head.  As he tells us: ‘My brain is in constant ferment and, when I get nervous, ideas roil in a giddy ballet.’

The two enter into a relationship and it is here that Castel’s paranoid personality begins to really take hold.  He learns that she is married, to a blind man, and almost certainly has other lovers, including her cousin, Hunter, a dandy figure.  He is jealous and vindictive, turning small details over and over in his head, such as a simple one line letter reading, ‘I think of you too,’ María sends him

One possibility was that María enjoyed using her husband as a go-between.  Conversely, it might be the husband who received the pleasure.  It might be both.  In addition to the pathological explanations, there was one normal possibility: María wanted me to know she was married so I would see why we should not go on.

The rapid fire, thought mimicking sentences draw us into Castel’s way of thinking, often leading us to believe that he is acting logically, only to be reminded by the ‘pathological desire to analyse every action and every word’, that we are in the company of an unstable individual.  Note the repetition of pathological – and he is quite fond of analyse as well, despite an early showing of disgust for psychoanalysts, and groups of people in general.  Although we know of his crime and warped thinking, Sabato’s writing repeatedly pulls off the trick throughout the book of sucking us in to Castel’s mind in sympathy

This is true of a scene in which he tries to retrieve a letter from a post office, and the bureaucratic mess that it spawns which would not be out of place in Kafka.

“There is nothing we can do.  I cannot violate the regulation.”
“A regulation, as I am sure you know, must be logical,” I sputtered…
“But you did want to,” was her reply.
“‘Yes!’ I yelled.  “But, I repeat, I do not want to now!”
“Don’t yell at me; that’s very rude.  It’s too late.”
“It is not too late, because the letter is right there.”

This goes on for several pages.  The balancing is brilliant: we sympathise with Castel and the wall of petty regulations that he is up against, yet his ‘sputtering’ and rudeness cause us to switch allegiance to the woman serving him.  Eventually his letter is returned, but his standing outside for an hour so he can insult the ‘old harridan’ on her way home decides us

By now, Sabato has shown us that Castel is incapable of consistently coherent thought.  His inability to see himself clearly is matched by his inability to see the world around him and other people clearly.  He is occasionally aware of this: ‘How many times had that damned split in my consciousness been responsible for the most abominable acts? While one part of me strikes a pose of humaneness, the other part cries fraud, hypocrisy, false generosity.’  Yet despite these punctuations of lucidity there is no escaping the fact that Castel is heading through a dark tunnel, a tunnel to a terminus we already know of, but which is no less horrifying for it.

Things come to a head on a visit to the estancia, a country house, staying with Hunter of whom Castel becomes insanely jealous: ‘What cold that mean except there were things in her life as dark and despicable as in mine.  Might Hunter be one such vulgar passion?’  His thinking reaches tempest like levels of frothing, so much so that his solipsism leads him to miss a crucial confession of María’s, one that could have saved her life.

It is tempting to read this novel in light of Argentina’s dark past, and the political machinations that forced Sabato from his first career in physics.  I learned that Sabato would later chair the commission to investigate ‘disappearances’ during the 1970s.  He would write the subsequent report, entitled Never Again, which would lead to the trial of Argentina’s generals.  However, his earlier novel is not a political work nor an allegory for Argentinean suffering.  It is an intense, dark portrait of an unstable, possibly ill individual.  A man for whom finally finding love combined with an unceasing microscopic paranoid turning over of every triviality leads to the darkest of chasms.

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