Book Reviews

Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel

by Shawn Rossiter

Buenas Aires is a metropolis at the end of the world. To the west, the pampas stretch, seemingly without ripple, towards the Andes; to the south, the rugged terrain of Patagonia thrusts itself up and down toward Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic; and to the east the sea rolls undisturbed until it reaches Melbourne. Yet despite being at the end of the road, Buenas Aires grew into a thriving metropolis during the 20th century, and became home to a booming art community. In the visual arts, the city has produced some fine artists, including the visionary Xul Solar, and the artists of the New Figuration movement; these remained local heroes, however. Its writers, on the other hand, have conquered the world. Julio Cortazar went to France to do it, but his Hopscotch was one of the most experimental and influential novels of the 60s; Jorge Luis Borges remained in Argentina, but from there became a worldwide phenomenon whose influence continues today. The lesser-known figure of Argentina’s literary triumvirate is Ernesto Sabato, an author better known in Europe and Latin America than in the Anglo-Saxon world. His death this year, at 99, has managed to amplify the hum associated with him for the past half century into a respectable buzz.

Sabato is the author of only three published novels. A depressive, he says he burns in the afternoon what he has written in the morning. He first garnered international attention when friends pushed him into publication with a short novel that matched the existentialist mood of the times and attracted the attention and endorsement of writers like Albert Camus, Thomas Mann and Graham Greene.

The Tunnel is the story of Juan Pablo Castel, a prominent Argentine painter who becomes so obsessed with a woman who admires his work that he – and this is no spoiler since the fact is laid out in the very first sentence of the book – kills her.

Castel first sees Maria at an art opening where she has become engrossed with a small element in one of his paintings —  an element overlooked by everyone else but one the painter considers the key to the entire piece. That this unknown woman might have understood this part of the painting, and thus looked into his soul, strikes the painter so forcefully that he becomes immediately obsessed. An aloof intellectual convinced of his own greatness and, as becomes evident in asides throughout the text, disappointed with much of humanity, he is also painfully shy and is unable to introduce himself before she leaves.

Castel can think of nothing but tracking down this unknown woman. When staking out the exhibition for its remainder proves unsuccessful, he spends the next few months imagining the many possible ways the pair might meet in the dense metropolis. When they finally do — purely by chance rather than the complicated stratagems Castel has analyzed in the interim – Castel’s abrupt and erratic behavior almost sabotages the long-awaited opportunity, and the encounter is only saved by Maria’s admiration for the painter. The two become lovers, of a sort. Castel is brusque and demanding, Maria evasive and taciturn. His overworked mind finds complications where non exist; and where they do – Maria is married, and she spends an inordinate amount of time in the country with her male cousin Hunter – he tortures himself with the possibilities.

Ultimately, Maria declares that furthering their relationship would only hurt both, and Castel threatens suicide; when Maria does not show up at a planned rendezvous, he tracks her down at Hunter’s estancia and kills her.

All of this we learn from Castel himself, as he sits in his prison cell. He declares his intention to outline the circumstances of the murder as straightforwardly as possible, but the narration is anything but. On certain points Castel promises further elucidations that never materialize; other times he agonizes over details or possibilities that remain to him, and the reader, obscure. Rather than any reliable insight into outside circumstances that led to the murder of Maria, the narration gives the reader a view of the machinations of Castel’s overworked mind. That mind can be tiresome, and ultimately monstrous, but in brief flashes also pitiable and witty.

The Tunnel’s unreliable narrator is a descendant of the characters in Dostoevsky, the only author named-dropped in the novel (during an episode in which a minor character, in one of the novels more playful moments, remarks on the constant permutations of personal names in Russian novels : ” I think there are thousands of characters, and in the end it turns out there are only four or five.”) Its existential atmosphere is a sign of the times –- it was published in 1948. Albert Camus’ appreciation of the novel is understandable considering its similarities to his own The Stranger. But where Camus’ murderer Mersault is marked by his absence of justification or introspection – his Bartleby-like quality – Sabato’s Castel overflows with both. Castel is a fascinating figure, but a frustrating one to spend too much time with. He is a man driven by his loneliness to clothe himself in intellectual self-abuse and drink the poison of his own narcissism.

Though a finely written book, with prose that is crisp and a structure that is sophisticated, The Tunnel may not read as well now – when we would consider the narrator’s problem more medical than existential – as it did when it was first published. It is a novel, like Catcher in the Rye, for the young. Sabato, however, remains a figure of note. His two other novels are both worth reading. On Heroes and Tombs, considered his masterpiece, is an evocative portrait of the Argentine capital and its people; in it Sabato has his compatriot Borges appear so that he can take him to task for what he considered the frivolous nature of his prose work. Sabato has himself as a character in his last novel, The Angel of Darkness, a mixture of fiction, memoir and theory that reads at times like a novelistic setting for what Sabato was best known for, the essay. Sabato’s skills and interests were varied. He earned a PhD in physics and worked on nuclear energy before turning to writing, and throughout his life has been active on the political left – most notably he presided over the investigations of the killings committed during Argentina’s “dirty war.” Consequently, his essays, which have ranged from science and metaphysics to politics and the tango, may remain his most notable literary heritage.


The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.

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