The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, foreword by Colm Tóibín
Ernesto Sabato died recently, just two months short of his one hundredth birthday. He was regarded as one of the greats of Argentinian literature, having written three novels and many more essays. A physicist, he worked at the Curie Institute in Paris where he met the Surrealists, then MIT, before having an existential crisis and abandoning science for writing. The Tunnel was his first novel, published in Spanish in 1948 and becoming a big hit in France – Albert Camus was a fan.
I knew none of the above before reading this short novel which has recently been given the new Penguin Modern Classics treatment, I was attracted to the story of a murderer telling how he met and killed his victim.
Juan Pablo Castel is an artist, convicted for the murder of Maria Iribarne. He decides to tell the story of exactly what happened between them – not to offer explanations, but in telling the details of their relationship, that people could understand him. He claims it is not out of vanity, but it is clear from the start that the man has a monstrous ego, and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.
Is a certain individual a menace to society? Then eliminate him and let that be an end to it. That is what I could call a good deed. Think how much worse it would be for society if that person were allowed to continue distilling his poison; think how pointless it would be if instead of eliminating him you attempted to forestall him by means of anonymous letters, or slander, or other loathsome measures. As for myself, I frankly confess that I now regret not having used my time to better advantage when I was a free man, that is, for not having done away with six or seven individuals I could name.
Castel appears to hate everyone. He allows his psychoanalyst to take him to a meeting…
Some I knew by name, like Dr Goldenberg, who had recently made quite a name for himself in the course of treating a female patient, they had both ended up in a mental institution. He had just been released. … The way he praised my paintings, I knew that he despised them.
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 tings we know well. But I have still another reason: THE CRITICS. They are a plague I have never understood. … There might be some excuse for listening to the opinions of a critic who onced painted, even if only mediocre works. But that is just as absurd; because what could be reasonable about a mediocre painter giving advice to a good one.
He first sees Maria at a gallery. She is staring at his painting, but at a small detail rather than the main picture. Castel has distilled all the meaning of the painting into this little area, and she appears to have understood that unlike everyone else. Her fate is sealed.
Castel stalks her, contrives meetings, and eventually confronts her before forcing her into an affair with him, but the more he finds out about her life, the more he begins to get jealous. Each time she appears to break it off, he persuades her to come back, but he can’t cope with her having her own life too, and one day he can’t stand it any more.
Castel is vile and nasty, an egotist and an utter snob. He is also totally unreliable. He doesn’t set out to make us like him at all; my loathing of him grew page by page. Maria is harder to understand – why did she let him force her into an unsuitable relationship? I could only assume it was the attraction of a bit of rough, but she was stupid not to break it off properly at the first sign of trouble.
The grimness of Castel’s obsession is leavened by occasional glimpses of black humour. In one scene, which would be Pythonesque if it hadn’t preceded them, he tries to retrieve a letter to Maria back from the postmistress with whom he has recently left it. But these scenes don’t make up for his virtual lack of redeeming features. I didn’t like Maria either – but then we only heard Castel’s side of the story. Frankly, by the end of this short novel, I didn’t really care much. This novel has a certain power and grip, but by wallowing in Castel’s miseries so much it lost its drive for me. At 140 pages it was too much of a bad, good thing. (6.5/10)
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I received my copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine programme.
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The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato