The Tunnel by Ernesto Sábato

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.

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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)

ALOD 2014

The Tunnel is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy.

34 thoughts on “The Tunnel by Ernesto Sábato

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Love the sound of this Jacqui – I’m sure I’ve read about it a bit this year. Great review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. You’d like this very much I’m sure. While The Tunnel feels distinctly Latin American in style, its existential crisis theme has something in common with a few of the European books you’ve enjoyed.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    You really seem to have have brought what this novel is about in just a few paragraphs Jacqui.

    The story here sounds so very gripping. I do find stories of this level of obsession disquieting.

    I think that when a novel reveals its ending early it can actually increase its appeal.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian, It’s quite a short, tightly controlled novella so it’s probably not too hard to capture. The fact that the murder is revealed from the get-go works very well here, and it’s surprising gripping. It becomes a question of why (and how) Castel does it, what pushes him over the edge prompting him to murder this woman. He behaves bizarrely at times, and there’s some dark humour even though it is a chilling and unsettling tale!

      Reply
  3. MarinaSofia

    I’m pretty sure I’ve read this one, although it was quite a while ago and maybe not in English (although certainly not in Spanish!). It certainly captures that obsessive tunnel-vision very well…

    Reply
  4. realthog

    What a superb review of a book that sounds absolutely engrossing. I’ve been trying not to add anything to my TBR list, but I may have to make an exception for this one. Not sure if I should thank you or not! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, John. It is a terrific book, and there’s a good chance that you’d really like it (although I feel a bit guilty for saying so!).

      I’m on a break from book buying at the moment with the aim of allowing myself five new ones once I’ve read twenty from my tbr. That way I’ll have cleared fifteen net if all goes to plan. In the meantime, I’m keeping a new wishlist for possible future purchases instead of running off to buy them straight way.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not very familiar with him, I must admit, but it looks as though he wrote quite a few essays and press pieces. A couple of other novels exist, but the Tunnel is the one I’ve seen in bookshops (and it comes with an intro by Colm Toibin). I picked it up after seeing Bellezza’s review.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s great – really haunting, but it’s also darkly comic at times as Castel doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And yes, he does sound logical at times, but he takes his line of thinking to the extreme, and that’s how it starts to tip over into obsession and paranoia.

      I think you’re right, there is a real skill to keeping the reader engaged and gripped by a story when the ending is revealed in the opening pages. It’s very cleverly done.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I hadn’t realised you’d reviewed this, but I’m delighted to hear you liked it! I’m heading over to yours to take a look at your review. That section on the Russian novels is very funny; I haven’t read The Brothers Karazamov, but it did remind me of some of the names in Dostoevsky’s The Double.

      Reply
  5. Bellezza

    As I think back on reading this, I remember feeling equal parts horrified and compelled to keep going. It’s like watching a train wreck; you know it’s something terrible, but you can’t look away. I thought Sabato’s writing was exquisite, I thought he captured the mind of a crazy person so well, and the last quote you put in your post still sticks in my mind from when I read it in the book. What a mind blowing thought!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know you mean by that description, like a terrible event is unfolding in front of your eyes, but you’re unable to tear yourself away despite the horror of it. I found myself veering between a mix of emotions on reading this novella. I felt disturbed and chilled by Castel’s actions, but then I couldn’t help laughing at those painfully funny scenes where he was rehearsing what to do and say on meeting Maria. And the whole business over the letter was hilarious too, but in a excruciating way. In the end I felt haunted by his account, especially the closing scenes where you get a real sense of his dislocation from the rest of society.

      I loved the writing and that final quote (anonymous screams in a desert of indifferent stars) is brilliant. I recall it from your review – it’s the one that prompted me to read The Tunnel!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s an eye-catching quote, isn’t it? I thought it a terrific book but found it chilling one minute and painfully funny the next. I’ll head over to yours later to take a look at your review.

      Reply
  6. Richard

    Having half loved and half hated Sabato’s other so-called classic, the uneven <On Heroes and Tombs, a few years back, I haven’t been in any hurry to revisit him although parts of this novel’s writing do sound appealing. You did pick a quintessential Doom title to close out with, though, Jacqui! Thanks for participating in my Argentinean event–I’m glad that this and most of the other titles you read for it proved so appealing to you. Cheers!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The writing here is great, Richard, but I fear The Tunnel may elicit similar feelings to those you experienced on reading On Heroes and Tombs. I was gripped by The Tunnel but found it chilling one minute and darkly comic the next, albeit in an excruciatingly painful way. It is very short and focused though, so you might want to give it a go at some point! I’d be curious to hear what you make of it and how you see it fitting within the wider context of the Argentine lit you’ve read.

      It’s been a pleasure to join your celebration over the past few months, and I’ve discovered some great books – loved the Casares/Ocampo novella, and I’ll try another Aira next year! Thanks for hosting and dropping by again.

      Reply
  7. Scott W.

    I’m with Annabel – “appreciating the book but not liking it very much.” Though I found it intensely claustrophobic, I admired the impressive (even nasty) trick that Sabato plays by inviting the reader to share in so many of Castel’s critiques of the society around him – a filtering through the eyes of a madman. It’s about as chilling a portrait of machismo as I’ve read (The Tunnel came to mind when I was reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666). Sabato’s plunge into Castel’s obsession made this a book I wanted to hold at a distance, like the grotesque carcass of some unidentifiable animal I’d found lying about and wanted to discard while at the same time drawn to it by curiosity.

    [And Jacqui, many thanks for your inquiry about my whereabouts – I was back, then gone again, now back again, and I hope to return to posting soon].

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hello, Scott! I hope you had a great break, and I for one am looking forward to the resumption of your posts.

      The Tunnel – yes, it’s very cleverly done, isn’t it? I can understand your reaction as it is very chilling, and I felt quite haunted by those final pages in particular. Bellezza’s train-wreck analogy is a good one as there is something horrific about it, but it’s hard to avert your eyes. I’ll admit to finding it darkly comic at times though.

      Colm Toibin’s introduction is quite helpful in setting the book in a wider social/political context so I read it as a bit of a reaction to the mood in the country at the time.

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    Interesting that so many who have read it comment on appreciating rather than loving it – but I suppose it might not be entirely healthy to love a novel “cut adrift from reality by irrational levels of doubts and paranoia”! I’ve been meaning to read this for some time – hopefully your excellent review will spur me on.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it? It is a strange creature, although I liked it well enough to want to revisit the story at some point. I loved the painfully comic scenes, but then my sense of humour does tend to gravitate towards the dark side. You must read it, Grant!

      Reply
  9. Seamus Duggan

    I’ve looked at this a couple of times and will eventually buy it. Then it will join the pile of books I own and want to read. Someday I will read it, I hope. Although all I can see at the end of the tunnel is a big pile of unread books. But maybe The Tunnel will be part of my tunnel…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Well, The Tunnel does have brevity in its favour so it would be a quick read, one you could whip through in a couple of hours. I think you’d like it..

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. Emma

    I don’t remember Guy’s review, strange.

    This sounds intense, as intense as Hangover Square.

    PS: “the image of a solitary woman staring at the sea, her figure framed in a tiny window” makes me think of Muchacha en la ventana, a painting by Salvatore Dali even if the window there is not tiny.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I only discovered Guy’s review after he mentioned it in his comments, and as you might expect, his review is excellent. I think I’m somewhere between Guy and Scott when it comes to this novella as it is intense and not necessarily clear-cut. I found myself flipping between different emotions on reading this novella. I was gripped by Castel but found his actions chilling one minute and darkly comic the next, albeit in an excruciatingly painful way. I’ll have to reread it at some stage. I’d like to read Hangover Square next year so it’ll be interesting to compare the two.

      I just looked up the Dali you mentioned, and that’s a great image! I can see why you were reminded of it.

      Reply
  12. Max Cairnduff

    I had heard of this one, perhaps from Guy’s review, but had forgotten (or not known) that it was Argentinian. What’s the Argentinian thing that Richard mentions? Was there a blog event?

    It sounds horribly claustrophobic, but like it should be so which means that’s not a point against it.

    I’ve added it to my longer term TBR. It sounds like one I’d find interesting, but not pressing enough to bump others out of the way for now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, yes, the final scenes are particularly claustrophobic, nightmarish in a sense, but the novella as a whole is a blend of the obsessive, chilling and darkly comic. I think you would find it interesting (I’d hesitate to say ‘like’ as it’s not that kind of book if you know what I mean). Adding it to your long-term TBR/wishlist sounds like a good move to me.

      Right, the Argentinian thing: Richard (at caravana de recuerdos) has been hosting an event focusing on Argentinian and Uruguayan literature. I think it’s an annual blog event running from Sept to Dec, so I used it as a way of reading a few suitable novels from my shelves. Any books by Argentine or Uruguayan authors qualified, and I ended up reading and reviewing one each month: Andrés Neuman’s stories, Where’s There’s Love, There’s Hate, a novella by César Aira and The Tunnel. Even though the event has ‘literature of doom’ in the title, the books didn’t have to be dark or horrific. That said, The Tunnel was particularly apt and a good one for me to close with!

      Just thinking about it, you’ve reviewed a couple — the Bioy Casares/Ocampo and Thursday Night Widows. Feel free to let Richard know as he’s been posting round-ups with links to reviews and he might do a wrap-up at the end of December.

      http://caravanaderecuerdos.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/the-2014-argentinean-uruguayan.html

      Reply

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