Category Archives: Sabato Ernesto

The difficulties of reading Russian novels in Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel

I’ve long since overcome my reluctance to read Russian novels, but I’ll admit that there was a time when they seemed impenetrable. At best, I’d have to draw up a list of characters in order to keep all the names straight–no easy task with those patronymics. Now I seem to have overcome these early difficulties. Was it just practice? The main point is that I identified and laughed at a section of Ernesto Sabato’s novel The Tunnel in which a few characters discuss this same issue. Since the narrator of The Tunnel reminds me of the narrator from Notes from Underground, it’s no coincidence the Russian novel mentioned was written by Dostoevsky.

In The Tunnel, the main character, painter Juan is in pursuit of Maria, the woman he’s obsessed with, and he travels to the country home of her cousin Hunter to find her. Here’s Hunter and Mimi Allende (“a skinny woman with a ridiculously long cigarette holder”) discussing art which leads to the subject of Russian novels. We start with Mimi and Hunter talking while the narrator listens:

After all to claim that one is original is really like pointing one’s fingers at the mediocrity of others–which to me seems in very doubtful taste. I am sure that if I painted or wrote, my art would never attract attention.

“I don’t doubt that,” Hunter said maliciously. “Then you would not want to write, let us say, The Brothers Karamazov.

“Quelle horreur!” Mimi exclaimed. She rolled her eyes heavenward, then completed her thought:

“To me, they are the nouveaux riches of the consciousness. Can you bear Russian novels?”

The last question, unexpectedly, was directed at me, but the woman did not wait for an answer; she rushed on, again speaking to Hunter:

“My dear, I have never been able to finish a Russian novel. They are so tiresome. I think there are thousands of characters, and in the end it turns out there are only four of five. Isn’t it maddening just when you begin to recognize a man called Alexandre, he’s called Sacha, and then Satchka, and later Sachenka, and suddenly something pretentious like Alexandre Alexandrovitch Bunine, and later simply Alexandre Alexandrovitch. The minute you get your bearings, they throw you off the track again. There’s no end to it; each character is a whole family in himself. Even you will agree that it is exhausting, even for you!”

Later there’s a discussion of mystery novels….

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The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato

How far might such a mania lead?”

Dostoevsky fans, stop right here. If you liked Notes from Underground, then this is your lucky day. At least that’s what I thought after reading Argentinean author Ernesto Sabato’s marvellous, wickedly funny novel, The Tunnel. In the introduction to Notes from Underground, Richard Pevear, who translated many Dostoevsky novels, uses the term “the dialectic of isolated consciousness” to describe the narrator’s obsessive, circular and rambling narrative. That term can also be applied to the narrator of The Tunnel, and even the title should echo a connection–although an explanation for the ‘tunnel’ does appear late in this brilliantly entertaining novel. The Tunnel is narrated by an obsessive, violently jealous man, an artist named Juan Pablo Castel who begins the novel with a frank confession that he has murdered his mistress, Maria Iribarne. So as we know the nature of Juan’s crime, the all-important question becomes why.

It takes just a couple of pages to know we are dealing with a loony:

To a degree, criminals are the most decent and least offensive people among us. I do not make this statement because I myself killed another human being; it is my profound and honest conviction. Is a certain individual a menace to society? Then eliminate him and let that be an end to it. That is what I call a good deed. Think how 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.

The purpose of Juan’s “account” he tells us is that he feels “animated by the faint hope that someone will understand me- even if it is only one person.” ‘Understanding’ Juan isn’t the issue here, however, and that’s one of the dark ironies of this tale. It’s easy to understand what’s behind Juan’s actions: madness, obsession, deranged passion, violent jealousy, and the desire to own & control another human being, but while we grasp Juan’s mental state, Juan’s “account” is really an exposition of his insanity. He condemns himself with every word.

Juan has a neurotic aestheticism that belongs in a Huysmans novel: ” I do not mind telling you that there have been times after I observed a particular character trait that I could not eat for a day, or paint for a week.” There are many things Juan loathes: the critics (“they are a plague I have never understood“) psychologists (“let’s not go into that“) people in general (“I have always looked on people with antipathy, even revulsion“), the beach, etc. Sabato’s narrator is unintentionally funny, and one marvellous scene has him trying to retrieve a letter from the post office only to be met with a wall of impenetrable bureaucracy. But at the same time, side-by-side with this humour, tension builds as the tale develops and Juan’s victim is drawn deeper, almost irresistibly, into a blatantly dysfunctional relationship which seems fated to end, inevitably, in violence.

Juan is a well-known, highly respected painter when he meets Maria, the elusive woman who becomes the object of his obsessive love and paranoia. Juan first sees Maria at an art show where he exhibits a painting in Buenos Aires.  In the foreground of the painting is a woman and a child, and Maria is transfixed–not so much by the whole painting–but one particular corner of it:

In the upper left-hand corner of the canvas was a remote scene framed in a tiny window: an empty beach and a solitary woman looking at the sea. She was staring into the distance as if expecting something, perhaps some faint and faraway summons. In my mind that scene suggested the most wistful and absolute loneliness.

No one seemed to notice the scene: their eyes passed over it as if it were something trivial, mere embellishment. With the exception of a single person, no one seemed to comprehend that the scene was an essential component of the painting.

After Maria leaves Juan is devastated that he lacked the courage to talk to her, and he becomes depressed. At the same time, intrigued by Maria’s attention to the detail of his painting, he begins to be obsessed with her:

Throughout the months that followed I thought only of her and of the possibility that I might see her again. And in a way I painted only for her. It was as if the tiny scene of that window had begun to expand, to swallow up that canvas and all the rest of my work.

In Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, the narrator spends many hours plotting revenge against an officer for some imagined slight, and it’s this same sort of thinking at work in The Tunnel. After the art show, Juan experiences insomnia while he racks his brain over the possibility of another encounter with Maria. He asks himself “How the hell is it that some men manage to stop a woman and start a conversation with her, even an affair?”

I envisioned scenes in which she spoke to me–for example, to ask about an address, or where to catch a bus–and from that opening, during months of reflection and melancholy, of rage, of abandon, and hope, I constructed an endless series of variations. In one I was talkative, witty (something in fact I never am); in another I was taciturn; in still another, sunny and smiling. At times, though it seems incredible, I answered rudely, even with ill-concealed rage. It happened (in one of those imaginary meetings) that our exchange broke off abruptly because of an absurd irritability on my part, or because I rebuked her, almost crudely for some comment I found pointless or ill-thought out. I felt bitter after these frustrated encounters, and for several days I would reproach myself for the clumsiness that had caused me to lose my one opportunity to establish a relationship with her. Fortunately, I would realize that everything was imaginary, and the actual possibility still existed.

Of course, they eventually meet, and through the relationship Juan begins his descent into madness.

Juan is the classic unreliable narrator, and regular readers of this blog know I have a weakness for this narrative form. As Juan tells his story, he spins a tale of justification, obsession, and paranoia, and of course since this is Juan’s version, we only get his side of things. Nonetheless,  there are tantalising glimpses of Maria, the only woman on the planet unfortunate enough to catch his attention and to become the vessel for his neuroticism and obsession. Here’s Maria being interrogated by Juan about her husband, Allende:

“You always twist my words, and pervert my meaning,” Maria protested. “When I said I had married him because I loved him, I didn’t mean I don’t love him now.”

“Ah, then you do love him.” I parried swiftly, as if hoping to prove she had lied in answer to earlier questions.

Maria was subdued and unresponsive.

“Why don’t you answer?”

“Because there doesn’t seem any point. We’ve had this same conversation too many times before.”

“No, this is different from the other times. I asked you whether you loved Allende now, and you told me yes. But I seem to remember that not too long ago, at the port, you told me I was the first person you ever loved.”

Again Maria did not answer. What irritated me about her was not only that she contradicted herself but that it was almost impossible to get her to say anything at all.

The Tunnel was rejected by several publishers but was finally published in the French magazine Sur in 1948. Camus read it and “commissioned” the novel for Gamillard. In the introduction, Colm Toíbín explains that Sabato chaired the commission to “investigate the crimes against human rights”  committed during  the years of Argentina’s military junta.

Translated by Margaret Sayers

Copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley. Read on the kindle.

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