Book | The Tunnel – Ernesto Sabato

Another slim novel to the table, but by no means one that leaves you feeling unsatisfied. I have way too many on the go at once so I enjoy a nice short read now and again to help me break things up and get through my more sizeable books with more energy. Yum.

The protagonist of Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel writes a brisk and frank account of himself from his jail cell as the murderer of María Iribane. We warm to our anti-hero, Castel, as we sympathise and relate to his absurd condition, of his amusing misanthropic reactions to everyday life, his incompatibility with social norms and his over-the-top methodical approach to confronting problems – at one point he makes a numbered list of possibilities he could take when he decides to confront the girl he ends up killing.

But Castel’s over-analytic and hyper-logical mind makes him exhaustingly paranoid and we endure the full extent of his obsessive and terrifying perspective and all measure of compassion for Castel is lost: for six months he fantasises over seeing for a second time María, a woman who passingly comments on a minute detail in one of his paintings, a detail which Castel prides himself in. Castel’s obsession lends itself to chilling levels of control and manipulation as he finds her again and worms his way into her marriage and her life, subjugating her physically and mentally to his volatile interrogations:

‘Because isn’t it obvious’, I continued implacably, ‘that if you show that you feel nothing, that you feel no passion for him, if you show that making love is a sacrifice you offer in return for his love for you, your admiration for his greatness in spirit, and so on, Allende would never go to bed with you again. In other words: that he keeps coming to you proves you are able to deceive him, not only about your love, but even your own feelings. You are able to give a perfect imitation of pleasure.

Maria was weeping silently, staring at the floor. When she could speak, she said, ‘You are incredibly cruel’

Castel’s obsessive thoughts lead to all sorts of doubting and wavering about his love for María, the love that he has invented between the two of them, so that you wonder whether the entire relationship has any basis in truth and that it could all be the twisted projections of Castel. These fabrications he invents for himself lead to the cause of María’s death, where María is ultimately murdered because she had understood him.

The Tunnel is quick and creepy. Like most Latin American literature I have read, it has a particular intensity that is absent from other Western literature and Castel’s unique and succinct insight makes one very wary of what goes on in the minds of others.

I sat pondering the idea of the absence of meaning. Was our life nothing more than a sequence of anonymous screams in a desert of indifferent stars?

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4 responses to “Book | The Tunnel – Ernesto Sabato

  1. Pingback: The Outsider – Albert Camus | The Word in Edgeways

  2. Pingback: One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez | The Word in Edgeways

  3. I just read The Tunnel and I loved it. Castel is definitely an unreliable narrator and his explanation is not to be trusted. I have read several reviews online trying to see if anyone came to the same conclusion I have, but, so far no one else has… which means I could be way over-analyzing the few details provided… And I would like to know your opinion because I find your insight that Maria was ultimately murdered because she did understand Castel to be dead on. That’s brilliant. I have not read that anywhere else, but I agree completely. I found loneliness and isolation to be a major theme in the book. He was content in his isolation until Maria came along and could see through him and he felt they must be together, but she wasn’t just his and he did not understand her as she did him and that made him feel more isolated and alone than before and he went mad.

    I think there is something else even more subtle going on… Again, this could be way off base, but I believe Castel’s unreliable account of what took place leaves out a truth about Maria that he was too ignorant to see… a truth revealed to the reader through his tale even though he, himself, never understood it. I believe Maria was not Hunter’s lover at all, I believe she was his mother. There are several clues to this conclusion, but, like I said, so far I have found no one else online that believes this.

    Here are a few of the clues that lead me to believe this:
    -the references to her age. She looks younger than she is, and she never does tell him, and he found it to be important, but didn’t know why. Perhaps this has more to do with his feeling isolated… But it seemed like an important clue to the truth of her.
    -the story she told him on the cliff about the episodes with her cousin when she was a child. I believe she was confessing that she was raped by her cousin and Hunter is her son. Of course, Castel is too busy fantasizing about throwing her from the cliff and admittedly states that it was a “priceless confession” and “like an idiot [he] had missed it”.
    -Hunter’s behavior. He does not seem like a jealous lover at all. He seems like a jealous son who feels his mother is making a mistake.
    -the painting itself. It is called Motherhood even. And the foreground, a mother playing with her child, was never the intended focus according to Castel. It was the woman in the distance through the window… isolated and staring out to sea. The truth that Maris was Hunter’s mother was right in front of his face, but he did not see it… He only saw her as something distant and isolated.
    -Allende calling him “fool” and how it affected Castel. While on prison, he analyzes the meaning of the word over and over…but “some obscure instinct” prevents him from understanding. He doesn’t really want to know the truth.
    -the title. I have read other reviews that state the tunnel metaphor could be about the birthing canal and how, once we go through it, we are all isolated and basically alone. Castel tries to become one with Maria through sexual intercourse, but it never completely unites them. The bond between Hunter and Maria, if he is her son, is one that Castel will never have with her and he senses it, even when he doesn’t understand it, and it fills him with envy.
    -Her name and her motherly behavior. Maria (Mary) is the universal symbol of motherhood. Several reviews I have read point this out. It is clear that she comforts Castel like a mother, such as when she caresses his head on her lap as his mother used to.

    Perhaps I am reading too much into the story… Did this idea ever cross your mind? Do you think it is possible? Maybe it doesn’t even matter and the intent was for the individual reader to create their own meaning, as in existentialism. Still, I would like your point of view on this matter if you have the time. 🙂

  4. I don’t think there are sufficient clues in the narrative to imply that Mariai is Hunter;s mother; by the same token neither is there enough evidence that she is indeed his (current) lover, might be, might be not: the point is that Castel reaches paranoid certainties through what he thinks is a rigorous logical examination of facts, the most blatant example being when he concludes that she is a prostitute because the prostitute’s expression during intercourse “is the same” as that of Maria.
    I agree that he is quite obviously an unreliable narrators; there is no obscure meaning in calling “fool” a persom who resorts to solving his emotional turmoil by committing murder, not to the reader anyhow.
    Of course,the portrayal of this very unreliability and paranoia, in other words, the “creepiness” and what is profoundly human about it, is the novel’s greatest strength and what makes it enduring, not the by now trite philosophising about how life is absurd, people don’t understand etc.

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