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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Tunnel

Ernesto Sábato

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To purchase The Tunnel

Title: The Tunnel
Author: Ernesto Sábato
Genre: Novel
Written: 1948 (Eng. 1988)
Length: 145 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Tunnel - US
El túnel - US
The Tunnel - UK
The Tunnel - Canada
The Tunnel - India
Le tunnel - France
Der Tunnel - Deutschland
Il tunnel - Italia
El túnel - España
  • Spanish title: El túnel
  • Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
  • With an Introduction by Colm Tóibín
  • Previously translated as The Outsider by Harriet de Onis (1950)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : stylish but disturbingly twisted

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 21/5/2011 Anthony Cummins
The Independent . 29/4/2011 Boyd Tonkin
London Rev. of Books . 4/8/1988 Philip Horne
The LA Times . 4/12/1988 Christopher T. Leland
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/8/1988 Martin Kirby
Sunday Times . 3/7/1988 Paul Taylor
TLS . 1/6/1988 Jason Wilson

  From the Reviews:
  • "A perverse effect of the candour in Castel's retrospective account is that it almost makes you forget he's a murderer (and a rapist, it becomes clear). His pithy misanthropy offers readers an uncomfortable, reckless pleasure as the Buenos Aires art scene (...), the city's postal service and people who give to charity all come in for a caustic kicking." - Anthony Cummins,The Guardian

  • "(T)his brief, fierce breakthrough novel (...) belongs among the existential landmarks of postwar fiction." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "If, in the time since its publication, some of the rhetoric of this novel, written in the years of existentialism's full flower, strikes the ear as curiously overwrought, the power of Sabato's story remains. Too, he delivers several satisfying satirical thrusts at the vagaries of the life of the urban intellectual that retain a remarkable contemporary resonance." - Christopher T. Leland, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Some of today's readers may find Castel's descent into insanity a trifle romanticized. Still, in this fine new translation by Margaret Sayers Peden, Mr. Sabato's novel retains a chilling, memorable power." - Martin Kirby, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Tunnel is an intelligent, perceptive, but unexceptional tale of the warped, demented logic of an obsessional mind and of the kind of possessive love which can only quell its compulsive suspicions and jealousies by killing its object. (...) (W)here ambiguity would deepen the mystery of the novel, Sabato makes matters plain." - Paul Taylor, Sunday Times

  • "The resulting confusion redeems this novel from its pat thesis. (...) The translation catches the laconic urgency of Castel's murder confession but some of its solemnities have with time become comic, so that some scenes read -- at least in English -- like a spoof on the misunderstood artist." - Jason Wilson, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In the opening paragraph of The Tunnel the narrator sums up the essentials:

     It should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed María Irbane. I imagine that the trial is still in everyone's mind and that no further information about myself is necessary.
       It's a good tease: in fact, readers of course know nothing of these fictional characters or this trial. But admitting to murder is a good hook -- and Castel is only too happy to then provide further information about himself, and what led him to murder.
       Castel claims to have his own reasons for writing an account of what happened -- not for additional fame or notoriety, but rather in the: "faint hope that someone will understand me". María was -- or could have been -- such a person, he believes, but clearly that didn't work out, and in this account he tries to explain what went wrong.
       Castel first met María at an art exhibit, where he saw her lingering over one of his painting, Motherhood, lost in a scene in the corner of the painting (which he thinks: "suggested the most wistful and absolute loneliness") that everyone else seemed to overlook. Surrounded by friends, admirers, and critics who are largely or solely superficial, he sees in her instead a kindred spirit. Someone who gets it.
       Much later, she too confesses that the moment when she saw the painting sparked something in her:
I sensed that we were alike, you and I, and that you, too, were searching blindly for someone, a kind of companion in silence. From that day I have thought of nothing but you.
       But if this is a tale of mutual obsession, Castel remains the active pursuer, repeatedly chasing her. And María tests the waters cautiously, often keeping her distance, even fleeing. Of course, her situation is more complicated. She's married -- to a blind man -- and it seems there have been, and are, other men in her life, too. Castel can't get over his suspicions and jealousy, the idealized María, meant to exist just for him, doesn't ..... The inevitable consequence is, of course, a violent crime of passion.
       Castel claims he is looking for understanding, a roundabout way of saying he wants someone to be convinced by his justifications and explanations. Cleverly, his account neither shies away from his frenzied obsession with María nor focuses solely on it. In often humorous scenes of vapid conversation and society-mingling, Castel leads readers through a vacuous culture that deserves his (and our, as he tries to make his reader complicit) contempt; one readily understands his frustration with the level of discourse and thought surrounding him. So too in the opening chapter he expresses not regret for what he did but rather that he didn't kill six or seven other people while he was at it .....
       It is, of course, not a logical leap: the reasons -- if one can even call them that -- that he murders María are the familiar, basest ones. Dressed up, in a way, as yet another failure of someone to live up to his standards, it's not an excuse that will fly. Briefly, he saw her as a shining, fragile exception -- "an unreal child in a cruel world of ugliness and misery" -- but of course she couldn't live up to that idealized vision. And so he has to destroy her.
       It's an uncomfortable conclusion, not helped by María's coming freighted with a sense of doom and darkness to her from the first, warning Castel: "I hurt everyone who comes near me" (as if to provide yet another excuse for his eventual disappointment, and action). Indeed, it's really a quite ugly story, at its basic level -- artfully made to appear less horrific by Castel's biting take on society around him.
       Few of the people he associates with are great readers, and one even complains:
     Novels in this day and age ! They can write all they want ... but what fool would read one !
       The words are yet another slap in the face of Castel -- implying, surely, that his sort of art (his paintings) too are no longer necessities of the age either. Yet of course it is Castel's misguided fantasy-world beliefs, straight out of a novel, that prove fatal, to María and, in a sense, to himself. His jealous rage and his suspicion are hardly romantic, yet come straight out of fiction. He sees himself as a sort of romantic hero -- and he is, in a way -- yet it's not a role that fits in the world he's living in.
       Castel is no true existential hero. He yammers about being misunderstood, the lone figure, in a sea of mediocrity, with true understanding, but he's unable to make another a part of his world, undermining his relationship with María at nearly every turn. But a conventional relationship would presumably prove just as self-destructive for him .....
       The Tunnel is stylishly written, and surprisingly funny. Ultimately, however, it is too discomfiting to be entirely successful, its human sacrifice both too terrible and too casual.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 May 2014

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The Tunnel: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentine author Ernesto Sábato lived 1911 to 2011.

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