Tunnel Visions

Philip Horne

Troubled countries usually cause troubled minds in their writers, as do troubled families or systems of belief: but while being so troubled may be a powerful incitement to literary production, it may equally get in the way of real achievement. Writers can find themselves facing a dilemma, a choice between fidelity to their own passionate confusions and the possibly spurious lucidity of analytic detachment. The duties of a citizen will clash with those of an artist when both realms seem to call for full-time devotion, and writing can be propelled towards propaganda in the desire to avoid political irrelevance or the accusation of it. To create further fictions, in a nation already infested with political lies, risks complicity and redundancy.

It was political pressure applied by the Peron dictatorship that forced Ernesto Sabato, who was born in Argentina in 1911 of Italian descent, to resign from his chair of theoretical physics not long before the publication in 1948 of his novel El Tunel (translated previously – like Camus’s L’Etranger – as The Outsider). After a decade of work on radiation he became a full-time writer partly because disillusioned with the scientific point of view, partly because the Peronists forced him out of his professorship, and partly, as he put it, ‘so as not to die of sadness in this distressed nation’. Sabato has since become known, in the blurb’s words, as ‘a champion of social justice’. His first novel, however, in spite of his political engagement, is not a polemic concerned with national politics, but what Le Soir rightly if ripely called ‘a beautiful poem of madness and death’. It is indeed a striking and impressive work, which makes one hope for English translations of his two later novels, Concerning Heroes and Tombs (1961) and Abaddon the Exterminator (1974).

The novel’s hero and narrator begins with the intriguingly insufficient statement that ‘it should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed Maria Iribarne’: the rest of his first chapter speculates on the unpredictability of memory, argues for the bumping-off of individuals who are ‘a menace to society’, and proves the terribleness of the world with the image of a pianist in a concentration camp being ‘forced to eat a rat – a live rat’. We are clearly, as in The Good Soldier or ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, in the presence of a mind not right; and as the work advances we may also think of Beckett, with his protagonists obsessively calculating distances and probabilities. Castel falls in love with Maria when he sees her raptly gazing at a corner of one of his paintings. Maternity, at a detail which shows a woman on a desolate beach. This passionate attention seems to promise him authentic contact with another human being – something for which his solipsistic soul has yearned – and he spends months hunting the streets of Buenos Aires for her, his head crossed by insane trains of thought, forlorn hopes that they might have a friend in common (though he doesn’t yet know Maria’s name), or that she’ll speak first when they do meet (thus sparing his shyness). He does find her, and, though married, she begins an affair with him. His fatal instability soon becomes all too clear: that she betrays her husband for him makes Castel only more demanding and suspicious: as he tells her, ‘I have never forgotten that Desdemona’s father warned Othello that a woman who had deceived her father could deceive another man.’ As in Browning, the obsession with union and possession, here arising from a profound existential loneliness, leads to morbid distrust and destructive cruelty. Castel’s life has seemed to him an oppressive tunnel, but one from which Maria will allow him to find release into her ‘parallel passageway’. By the end, that seems ‘a stupid illusion’, his solitude is ‘unredeemable’, and ‘after all there was only one tunnel, dark and solitary: mine, the tunnel in which I had spent my childhood, my youth, my entire life.’

At times in his confessional narrative, written from a madhouse cell in an attempt to make contact with a sympathetic reader, Castel is agonised by self-rebuke: ‘It was I who killed you, I, who saw you mute and anxious, but could not touch you through the wall of glass. I, so stupid, so blind, so incredibly selfish and cruel!’ His inability to sustain a settled union with someone else is naturally matched with his schizophrenic failure to achieve any unity within himself. He is doubled up in the pain of self-division, and Sabato sees a real pathos in Castel’s contortions: ‘How many times had that damned split in my consciousness been responsible for the most abominable acts? While one part of me strikes a pose of humaneness, the other part cries fraud, hypocrisy, false generosity.’ Such moments of tortuous lucidity, and the fact that Castel’s madness takes the form of a severe if irrational craving for evidence and computation make The Tunnel’s progress towards the darkness of its disastrous terminal point all too concise and too clear for our comfort.

A character in the book, of whom the evidence-gathering Castel is pathologically jealous, expounds in conversation a project for a novel which applies helpfully to Sabato’s.

I think that something similar to Don Quixote could be done with a mystery: a satire of a detective novel – just as the Quixote was a satire of the chivalric romance. Imagine an individual who has spent his life reading mystery novels and has reached such a point in his madness that he believes the world functions the way it does in a novel by Nicholas Blake or Ellery Queen. Then imagine that this poor fellow set off finally to solve crimes, and to act in real life the way a detective in a mystery novel does. I think such a book could be entertaining, tragic, symbolic, satirical ... beautiful.

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