Tuesday 24 January 2012

The Tunnel - Ernesto Sabato

'a sordid museum'

translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

I can't remember who it was now who recommended this but it sat on the shelf, as any good classic should do, until such time as I fancied it, not sure of course exactly what it was beyond Robert Coover's precis on the cover 'the brief, obsessive, sometimes delirious confession of a convicted murderer' and the appearance of the word 'existentialist' on the back. I do know that my excursions into Southern American literature have always been interesting at the very worst, and sometimes downright exhilarating. I'll place Sabato's first novel at the lower end of that spectrum, a book that has occasional moments of caustic wit, moments where the reader laughs in spite of themselves, but which remains a cold read with a chilling narrator who is not just unreliable but downright deluded.

"It should be sufficient to say I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed Maria Iribarne", an opening sentence that provides us with perhaps the only certainty in this novel and a clear indication that what will follow is a confessional. Holed up in prison after his trial Castel determines to set it all down so that we (and that includes him) might understand why he killed. But this isn't really a novel about motivation or the application of logic (though god knows he tries), as we follow our narrator on a tour of the art scene in Buenos Aires and his pursuit of the one woman he feels may understand him we also go on a journey into the dark recesses of his mind, a place where anger, jealousy, intolerance and loneliness combine to leave him with no choice other than to destroy his one hope of salvation.

I...would characterize myself as a person who prefers to remember the bad things...I remember so many catastrophes, so many cynical and cruel faces, so many inhumane actions, that for me memory is a glaring light illuminating a sordid museum of shame.

Not perhaps the most encouraging introduction to your guide but it is at least honest (he does also give an early get out clause to those wearied by his dark digressions - 'Besides, anyone who wants to stop reading this account may do so now. He should know immediately that he has my unqualified permission.') and fair warning for what is to follow. To describe Castel as an unsympathetic narrator would be an understatement, in fact he's so unpleasant that it may stop some people from enjoying the book at all. He first sees the woman he will kill at an exhibition of his own work. She spends some time looking at a painting and in particular a detail in one corner of a solitary woman staring through a window at the sea. Then all of a sudden she is gone and Castel is left dejected, miserable and forever altered. Having not taken the opportunity to speak to her how can he hope now to find this stranger amongst all of the inhabitants of Buenos Aires. What follows is a rather hilarious section in which he hopes to bump into her again, haunting his own exhibition, hoping for a chance meeting in the street, all the while paralysed by his own insecurity and all the scenarios he has played out in his head. Eventually they do meet again and what follows are a series of tense, enforced meetings where Castel's fervour is always at the highest pitch as he seeks to convey why Maria is so important to him and his work.

...think of the captain of a ship who is constantly charting his position, meticulously following a course toward an objective. But also imagine that he does not know why he is sailing toward it. Now do you understand?
When they see each other more frequently Castel analyses her every move, gesture, smile and silence. One minute he is happy that she loves him, the next he is convinced she deceives him. They argue incessantly and after one such confrontation when he has called he something terrible (we presume 'whore') he weeps, begs forgiveness, berates himself but then becomes suspicious when she no longer shows distress but smiles at him instead - 'No woman should be able to shift moods so quickly; unless there was a certain truth to what I had said.' In another conversation when he speaks with cruelty once again we get an insight into the split in his personality.

Before the words were out of my mouth, I was slightly repentant. Behind the person who wanted the perverse satisfaction of saying them, stood a purer and more compassionate person preparing to take charge the minute the cruelty of that sentence had reached its mark...Even as the words left my lips, that suppressed person was listening with amazement, as if in spite of everything he had not seriously believed the other would say them. And with each word he began to take over my consciousness and my will, and he was almost in time to prevent the sentence from being completed. The instant it was (because in spite of him the words came out), he was totally in control, demanding that I beg forgiveness, that I humble myself before Maria and acknowledge my stupidity and cruelty...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.
There is a claustrophobia to this relationship which is in direct contrast to the loneliness of the narrator. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that one begets the other. So lonely and isolated is Castel that he attaches undue significance to Maria, deludes himself as to what they share and finally destroys the one person who might have been able to help him. The tunnel of the title is an image that could be used to illustrate many different things, all of which Castel the artist has envisioned. I felt slightly oppressed by it as a reader and perhaps that is because, as he slowly realises, that Castel never really escapes from it.

...it was as if the two of us had been living in parallel passageways or tunnels, never knowing that we were moving side by side, like souls in like times, finally to meet at the end of those passageways before a scene I had painted as a kind of key meant for her alone, as a kind of secret sign that I was there ahead of her and that the passageways finally had joined and the hour for our meeting had come...What a stupid illusion that had been! No, the passageways were still parallel, as they always had been, only now the wall separating them was like a glass wall, and I could see Maria, a silent and untouchable figure...No, even that wall was not always glass; at times it again became black stone, and then I did not know what was happening on the other side...I was even convinced that during those moments...the whole story of the passageways was my own ridiculous invention, and that after all there was only one tunnel, dark and solitary: mine, the tunnel in which I had spent my childhood, my youth, my entire life. And in one of those transparent sections of the stone wall I had seen this girl and had naively believed that she was moving in a tunnel parallel to mine, when in fact she belonged to the wide world...


Francesc Bon 24 January 2012 at 11:10  

Hello William.
I read this book in Spanish. I choose a very unappropiate day to read it, as I was at the swimming pool having a sunbath whilst my children and wife were swimming, hangin' round.
Simply I wanted a short book that took me onlya a pair of hours to read. Maybe I have to try again. But I found it was not so goog written, and about the plot... so asfyxiating, so claustrophobic. Not my cup of tea, as you use to say.

William Rycroft 24 January 2012 at 13:53  

Thanks for the comment Francesc and I know exactly what you mean. This is very much not a book for the beach! In fact I'm not sure what the optimal reading environment is for it. It is very claustrophobic and I'm not sure anyone would really 'enjoy' reading it. I'd be happy to stand corrected though...

stujallen 26 January 2012 at 18:00  

It maybe is a book for a dark Night I have to admit Will I ve not read him got this and another from him on my tbr to get to at some point ,all the best stu

Annabel (gaskella)h 30 January 2012 at 15:22  

This had some good moments, but he was so repulsive and also made Maria seem awful that I couldn't enjoy it fully.

A-Z 2 February 2012 at 14:27  

In terms of environment, I read most of Sabato's The Tunnel on the train, on my way to and from work. I found Sabato's writing and narrative very effective and would indeed class it as one of last year's best reads (one of the top 10, at least)..

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