"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 9, 2014

"The Tunnel" by Ernesto Sabato (Book review)

The Tunnel  (Spanish: El Túnel) is a dark, psychological novella by Argentinian writer Ernesto Sabato, written in 1948. It tells about a deranged painter, Juan Pablo Castel, and his growing obsession with a woman named María. Castel stalks her after he notices her in a gallery studying one of his paintings with interest. Her attention to an apparently minor detail of one of the paintings (which other viewers usually miss) makes the artist take strong notice of her. After she has left the gallery, he starts obsessing about her.

By chance, some months later he sees her coming out of an office building in Buenos Aires and accosts her... she is willing to talk to him and meet him... they become friends. But during those trysts, the painter increasingly subjects her to a sort of interrogation about her life, forcing himself more and more into her privacy. He learns that she is married, but that her elderly husband is blind. He also hears that she once had a lover who killed himself. The more the unstable Castel learns about María, the more possessive and jealous he becomes.

[Ernesto Sabato - Photo Wikipedia]

That is why the story is called "The Tunnel:" a symbol for Castel's emotional isolation from society, his own private tunnel, the tunnel of his jealousy and obsession. Castel is rather introverted and narcissistic. Not surprisingly, he is also a strong misanthropist, which in literature is not so bad as in real life, for his harsh opinions of others offer readers secret pleasure. Take his caustic witticism about children: "I have always had a tenderness and compassion for children (especially when through supreme mental effort I have tried to forget that they will be adults like anyone else)."

We know from the first line of the book that this relationship will end in disaster, for Castel is telling his story from prison, just like Meursault in The Stranger by Albert Camus, published six years earlier. In fact, Camus saw similar existential themes in The Tunnel and enthusiastically supported the publication of the French translation. In my view, Sabato's novella is in many ways superior to the more famous one by Camus - if only, because his protagonist does have an inner life. His obsession is so intense that it becomes contagious. The book is full of energy. There are also really funny passages, such as where Castel has written a letter to María, hastily mailed it by express, then suddenly realized that he wanted to change something in the letter, tried to get it back from the post-office and ended up having a long row with a very bureaucratic post office employee.

We could say that Castel is already a prisoner before he is arrested: a captive of his existential loneliness, of his inability to really communicate, of his delusions and paranoia, leading him into a vicious circle. He finally murders María out of mad jealousy, because he feels she has been "disloyal" to him.

In this novella, Sabato brilliantly catches the intensity of passions where love brings not peacefulness but danger.

Ernesto Sabato (1910-2009) was active as writer, painter and physicist. Although he wrote little fiction (only three novels, including the present one) and was in the first place active as an essayist, he was very influential in the literary world throughout Latin America and won many international prizes. The Tunnel is his most famous work and has been rightly called "Camus on steroids."

The English translation of The Tunnel is available as a Penguin Modern Classic.