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The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato (thoughts)

August 2, 2012

As regular readers know, I have a thing for both older and international books. Which means that when I’m browsing Netgalley, reissued classics tend to catch my eye, and if they’re written by an author outside of the US or UK, I’m almost sure to read them. That’s how I learned of The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato, an Argentine novel originally published in 1948 and now released in a new translation done by Margaret Sayers Peden.

It’s an odd little book, told in a stream-of-conscious style from the perspective of an artist living in Buenos Aires. We know from the opening chapter that Castel is now in jail for the murder of a woman; this is his explanation of how it happened. Sabato has a powerful writing style that immediately put me inside Castel’s head, and his narrative tone remains consistent throughout. The tension between Castel’s obviously insane acts and his personal feeling of being a rational creature is The Tunnel‘s strongest aspect; I do love a good unreliable narrator, and Sabato has created a great one. The urgency of the recounting pulled me along, and that combined with its shortness led to me finishing the book in just a sitting or two.

I can see how The Tunnel takes its place in the existential literary tradition; it certainly belongs to the same family as Camus’ The Stranger and has shades of Crime and Punishment and I’m sure Kafka (who I haven’t read). Castel reflects on the human condition on more than one occasion. It also felt universal in its setting; Buenos Aires could have been substituted by any other large city without many changes. This is a novel located in the character’s mind, rather than in any actual geographic place. While I am a reader who enjoys a strong sense of place, particularly when that place is international, I think in this instance the generality helps Sabato achieve his aims. This is a novel produced by a writer who has honed his craft and knows exactly what he wishes to accomplish.

That being said, this was a four-star novel for me rather than five, for one simple reason: gender. I’ve noticed I often have a problem with the way women, and sex, are portrayed in novels by Latin American men, and The Tunnel is no exception. I understand that Castel is insane, and that since we’re seeing the story from his viewpoint, it’s inevitably going to present a warped image of his victim (who was his lover). But as a woman, I find it tiring to spend so much time in a mind steeped with machismo and misogyny. Since this is the first novel I’ve read by Sabato, I shall give him the benefit of the doubt and not assume Castel’s attitudes are his own. But just reading the plot summaries of some of his other works leads me to believe he used female characters solely as sexual objects, rather than showing them to be people in their own right. And if that is indeed the case, it’s a shame.

I would definitely recommend this one to those who enjoy mid-century ‘classics’ or psychological thrillers or fiction that explores philosophical ideas. I think it could be a great pick for the right kind of book club too: short but thought-provoking.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (I picked this rather than C&P because I’ve blogged about it, but I think any Dostoevsky would be a great comparison!)
  • Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber (A page-turning, literary psychological thriller also told from the point of view of a not entirely stable narrator.)
  • The Collector by John Fowles (A powerful book about a man who, as the ultimate in objectifying women, kidnaps a girl to ‘collect’ her: the best part is that in the second part the girl gets her own say. Yay to a male author writing female characters who aren’t silent victims!)
5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2012 8:20 am

    This really does sound intriguing, and I shall be adding it to my wish list. But I think I’m going to be adding The Collector in an even higher position! Now off to read your review of it, because I must have missed it before.

    Btw, Eva, it’s just so wonderful to see you back. Truly. :)

  2. August 2, 2012 4:55 pm

    I liked this book, but I was glad that it was short. I got kind of tired of the narrator; his head just wasn’t a pleasant place to be, and it got tedious after a while. The depiction of Maria didn’t really bother me, mostly because he, as you say, Castel was so clearly unhinged, and treating her as a object was part of that. So in the context of this novel, it didn’t bother me, but I know what you mean about it not being pleasant!

  3. August 4, 2012 8:42 pm

    This is on my wishlist, so I’m glad to see a good review of it. I also am intrigued by unreliable narrators–they make for interesting reading. I’m going to have to check out the Fowles as well–thanks!

  4. August 6, 2012 3:00 pm

    I do think this is a small problem in Latin american fiction ,the machismo of it sometimes ,I feel it does reflect the society thou especially in this book that is 60 years old ,all the best stu

  5. boardinginmyforties permalink
    August 31, 2012 10:22 am

    I like an unreliable narrator and all of the questions it brings up for me as a reader. This does sound like it would make for a good book club discussion.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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