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  • RJ Smith

WHAT'S GOOD: The Tunnel (1948), a Novel by Ernesto Sábato



Juan Pablo Castel is a painter living in Buenos Aires. Lonely and disaffected among the ‘charlatans’ of the art world, Juan Pablo feels no one understands him and that no one ever will.


One evening a young lady strolls into the gallery where he is holding an exhibition for a painting entitled Maternity. Something about the woman catches Juan Pablo’s eye, and as she inspects his painting he watches her, transfixed.


The painting features a lady in the foreground. “But in the upper left corner," the narrator says:


through a small window, there was a small, remote scene; a lonely beach and a woman who was looking at the sea. It was a woman who looked like she was waiting for something, perhaps some muted, distant call ... the scene suggested an anxious and total aloneness. No one noticed that scene; they passed over it as though it was something unimportant, only decorative. With the exception of one person, no one seemed to realise that that scene constituted something essential. It was the opening day. Some unknown woman stopped for a long time in front of my painting without paying much attention of the large woman in the foreground that was watching a baby play. Instead, she was staring at the scene in the window, and while she was doing that, I was certain she was shut off from the rest of world; she didn’t even notice the other people who passed by, or stopped in front of the painting

Thus sets in train an obsession which leads Juan Pablo to become “the painter who killed Maria Iribarne,” as he confesses in the book's first line.


Juan Pablo returns home after the exhibition, his mind in a state of turmoil. He anguishes over if and when he will see the mysterious woman again, and what he might do if he does.


Several months later, Juan Pablo sees Maria walking on the street. He follows her into a building and summons the courage to confront her. She is initially unsure of who he is, but when Juan Pablo turns to walk away, defeated, she runs after him and asks if he is the painter from the exhibition.


“You remember it?” he asks. “I remember it constantly,” she says. But a moment later she flees the scene without explanation.


The next day Juan Pablo waits for Maria outside the building and when he sees her tells her he needs to see her again, as much to understand what he sees in her as what she saw in the painting. She agrees, and Juan Pablo’s hopes of salvation grow.


He calls her home two days later and is told she has left Buenos Aires for the country, but left Juan Pablo a letter at the house. He arrives and Allende, a blind man, presents himself as Maria’s husband. Allende hands Juan Pablo the letter which reads I am also thinking of you.


“Nothing urgent?” The old man asks. “No, nothing urgent,” Juan Pablo responds, horrified at the perfidy of which he has unwittingly become a part.


Juan Pablo is told that Maria is at a family farm with Hunter, a novelist with whom Juan Pablo immediately suspects Maria is involved, given how suddenly she left Buenos Aires to be with him.


Hunter fades into the background for the month following Maria’s return from the farm, however, during which time she spends nearly every day with Juan Pablo.


But the question of Maria’s fidelity soon returns. Maria says she does not love her husband anymore, but confesses the two still have a sexual relationship. Juan Pablo is devastated. He leaves Maria and goes to a bar where he gets drunk and contemplates suicide.


Soon after, Maria invites Juan Pablo to the farm where she is with her cultured friends including Hunter. The scene is reminiscent of Zverkov’s goodbye party in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, the shame and alienation absolute.


To make matters worse, Juan Pablo's fears about Maria and the novelist, who resembles a younger, handsomer version of Maria's embattled husband, are realised.


This is a threshold event for Juan Pablo. He had met the only person in Buenos Aires who understood his work, and by extension, himself, who turns out to be the most disloyal and incomprehensible of them all.


Juan Pablo returns to drinking, and in the fog of his intoxication sends Maria a letter criticising her for having relationships with three men at once.


Soon after he threatens to kill himself if Maria does not see him. She agrees, but never shows up to their appointment.


“What are you planning to do, Juan Pablo?”
“I have to kill you, Maria. You left me alone.”

Juan Pablo’s madness reaches its zenith. He travels to the farm in the middle of the night and kills Maria. He then returns to Buenos Aires and confronts her husband, remonstrating him for allowing her to carry on her affairs.


The old man flies into a rage and runs around the room trying to strike Juan Pablo, who leaves the house unharmed and turns himself into the police.


In prison Juan Pablo reflects on his painting. Only one person understood it, leaving him alone in a profounder sense that the isolation of his prison cell.


The Tunnel is a not a story of death or romance but dislocation, of being misunderstood by the many and mistreated by the remaining few.


The book is in the tradition of the finest works of psychological literature from Dostoyevsky to Camus via Kafka and Zola.


Sábato shines a light on the dark recesses of his own mind, and examines the danger of taking passions to their logical endpoint.



What’s Good are reviews of under-appreciated and misunderstood works.

© 2020 RJ Smith.