Thursday, June 12, 2014

The TunnelThe Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ernesto Sabato's "The Tunnel" (1948) is an intense, dark, psychological novella that portrays, with clinical accuracy, one man's obsessive love for a woman (I am not using the term 'obsessive love' just as a characterization but rather as a psychological syndrome). The obsession leads the man to killing the woman, which we learn in the very first sentence.

During an exhibition of his paintings in Buenos Aires, Juan Pablo Castel, a highly respected artist, notices that a woman looking at one of his works focuses on a small fragment of the picture, which he himself, unlike critics and other people, considers most important. Juan Castel's overactive mind instantaneously manufactures a strong bond between himself and the woman. He is shattered when the woman disappears, and for several months he only thinks about her. When he sees her again on the street, he begins stalking her. Then, in an unforgettable scene, he manages to engage the woman, named Maria, in a conversation.

Juan Castel is utterly selfish; he despises other people and he frequently despises Maria, even if he thinks she is the only person in the world who can understand him. He constantly analyzes events, words, moods, and facial expressions, interpreting them in a way that suits him the best at the given moment. He thinks his reasoning is logical, but most of the time the volatile train of his thoughts deludes him into alternating between feeling happiness and despair.

Juan wants to possess Maria completely and totally. Even more than the physical relationship, he desires to control her mind, to make sure that she deeply loves him, and that her manifestations of love are authentic. He will not be happy until she becomes exactly like the vision of Maria that he has created. When he eventually realizes that while he lives inside a dark and lonely tunnel where he has spent his entire life, Maria lives in the freedom of the outside world and will not focus solely on him, he has no choice other than punishing her for his loneliness.

Mr. Sabato's writing is taut, economical, and precise (I have read the book in a good, non-English translation). It reminds me a little of J.M. Coetzee's style, which may be due to their similar backgrounds (Sabato had a Ph.D. in physics and Coetzee has a B.A. in mathematics and also a Ph.D. in linguistics). I am not sure what I love more about "The Tunnel" - the insightful observations of human psychology or the wonderfully tight writing. I find one passage jarring though; the author has included a superfluous six-page conversation about mystery books, which in my view breaks the precise rhythm of the narration.

Four and a half stars.

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