Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to read a few books to fit with Richard’s celebration of Argentine (and Uruguayan) Literature of Doom which has been running from September to December. The last of my choices is Ernesto Sábato’s existential classic, The Tunnel (tr. by Margaret Sayers Peden) – it’s a book I picked up in July after reading Bellezza’s review for Spanish Lit Month.
First published in Argentina in 1948 and translated into English in 1988, The Tunnel is narrated by Juan Pablo Castel, a painter imprisoned for the murder of a woman named María. Castel has documented the story of his crime and promises us a truthful and objective account. He hopes that someone will understand him, ‘even if it is only one person.’ Tragically, there was one person who could have understood Castel, and that was María, the very person he killed.
And so Castel takes us back in time to the day when he first encountered María. Whilst attending an art exhibition, he spots a woman (who turns out to be María) gazing intently at a particular section of one of his own paintings: the image of a solitary woman staring at the sea, her figure framed in a tiny window. No one else appears to have noticed this crucial detail, only María, and consequently, Castel is immediately attracted to her. She disappears into the crowd before he can establish contact, but she continues to haunt his memories during the months that follow.
Castel dreams of a chance encounter with this mysterious woman, his head addled with thoughts of how to handle the situation should he meet her in the street. A nervous shy individual by nature, Castel is terrified by the prospect of striking up a conversation with an unknown woman so he rehearses various scenarios in his mind. And it is these thoughts which first alert us to the signs of paranoia in his narrative.
Eventually, he spots María in the street and follows her, and after a couple of excruciating (and somewhat terrifying) false starts, they begin an affair. In the belief that this woman is somehow essential to his existence, Castel quickly becomes obsessed with María pleading with her to stay with him. Shortly afterwards he discovers that she is married, and his mind goes into overdrive mode: if María is cheating on her husband while seeing Castel, what’s stopping her from seeing other lovers, too?
Then, what was the meaning of her comment ‘When I close the door they know I am not to be disturbed? Apparently it meant she often closed the door to talk on the telephone. But it was not likely she would close the door for trivial conversations with family friends: the reasonable deduction was that it was to have conversations like ours. But that meant there were others like myself in her life. How many? And who? (pg. 48, Penguin Classics)
As Castel experiences a growing desire to possess María exclusively, his behaviour becomes increasingly demented. He constantly questions María about her feelings for him, and signs of a deeper psychotic illness emerge as he accuses the woman of cruelly deceiving her husband for many years:
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. While one incites me to insult a fellow being, the other takes pity on him and accuses me of the very thing I am denouncing. While one urges me to see the beauty of the world, the other points out its sordidness and the absurdity of any feeling of happiness. It was too late, in any case, to heal the wound I had inflicted (this was assured with muffled, receding, smug malevolence by the other ‘I,’ who by now had been pushed back into his cave of filth); it was irreparably late. (pg. 78-79)
As the story progresses, Castel convinces himself that María is harbouring further dark secrets. He believes she is seeing another man, and as she repeatedly flees to her cousin Hunter’s country estate, Hunter becomes the prime suspect. With his suspicions mounting, Castel settles on the view that María has been lying to him, ‘feigning emotions and sensations’ and weaving a web of deceit.
The Tunnel is a terrifically chilling account of obsessive love, an insight into the mind of a man cut adrift from reality by irrational levels of doubts and paranoia. Sábato’s prose is very precise and controlled giving Castel’s inner voice a rational and logical quality which provides a striking contrast to his manic behaviour. In fact, there are times when it becomes easy to forget that we are listening to the account of a murderer.
This novel isn’t all doom and gloom, mind. There are several passages of mordant humour, including an acerbically comic scene in which Castel attempts to retrieve from the post office a registered letter he dashed off to María in a fit of pique. And here’s Castel on his fellow artists and art critics, clearly the lowest of the low:
More than any other, however, I detest groups of painters. Partly, of course, because painting is what I know best, and we all know that we have greater reason to detest the things we know well. But I have still another reason: THE CRITICS. They are a plague I have never understood. (pg. 13)
We know from the novella’s opening sentence that Castel kills María, and yet the story remains highly compelling. We want to know why Castel commits this act, what thoughts or images run through his mind in the immediate run-up to the murder. We understand that is Castel trapped in a tunnel of loneliness, dark and solitary, the one in which he has spent his childhood, his youth, his whole life. His obsession with María leads him to believe that she is travelling in a parallel tunnel adjacent to his own and that their paths will meet at some point in time. But in the end, Castel realises María is living behind an impenetrable wall; she has become someone he ‘could see but not hear or touch.’
I’ll finish with a couple of favourite quotes from this haunting novella as they typify this sense of alienation:
And in one of those transparent sections of the stone wall I had seen this girl and had naïvely believed that she was moving in a tunnel parallel to mine, when in fact she belonged to the wide world, the unbound world of those who did not live in tunnels; and perhaps out of curiosity she had approached one of my strange windows, and had glimpsed the spectacle of my unredeemable solitude, or had been intrigued by the mute message, the key of my painting. And then, while I kept moving through my passageway, she lived her normal life outside, the exciting life of people who live outside, that curious and absurd life in which there are dances and parties and gaiety and frivolity. (pg. 133)
‘Was our life nothing more than a sequence of anonymous screams in a desert of indifferent stars?’ (pg. 35)
The Tunnel is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy.