Saturday, May 21, 2011

'The Tunnel' by Ernesto Sabato

Juan Pablo Castel is an Argentinean painter and a very, very strange person. We meet him after he has been convicted of the murder of Maria Iribarne Hunter, a crime he has freely admitted to. “The Tunnel” is Castel’s account of the events leading up to the crime and the reasons which impelled him to do it.

Ernesto Sabato’s short novel, written in 1948 and now re-issued in English translation (Margaret Sayers Peden, the translator, has done superlative work) is a brilliant account of a certain mind-set: alienation; over-intellectualisation; introversion – blended into insanity by an unchecked desperate need for love and an all-absorbing jealousy.

Castel first sees Maria absorbed by his painting “Motherhood” at an exhibition. She seems transfixed by an apparently minor feature of the painting: a remote beach and an isolated, lonely woman staring at the sea. It seems to Castel that Maria is the first and only person, apart from himself, who has really understood his painting, and by extension his inner self. Maria leaves shortly afterwards and Castel’s social maladroitness ensures that he passively lets her go.

There now follows a protracted stalking of Maria by the obsessed painter. They finally meet up and somehow a jagged and often violent relationship follows. Castel’s hopeless jealousy and suspicion will be familiar to anyone recalling their first teenage love affairs (but Castel is 38).

Whereas most of us learn trust and empathy, and have at least the minimal social skills to match, Castel can never make human contact. He flips between unbounded aggression and virulent self-loathing while the complex and damaged Maria seems to passively collude. We already know, of course, how it will end.

Sabato has accomplished an extraordinary portrayal of someone with, I suspect, something like Asperger’s Syndrome together with Neuroticism turned up to 11. Castel’s extremism makes perfect sense in its own terms and all of his utterly self-defeating actions ring horribly true. We cringe in recognition of our own similar relationship-disasters which thankfully were not so extreme. At 140 pages this beautifully written and translated book can be read in an afternoon: you might try reading it aloud to your significant other – if you dare!