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By Malcolm Forbes


The Montréal Review, June 2011


Ernesto Sábato (by Fernando Vincente)


In his essay 'The Argentine Writer and Tradition' Borges talks of a 'rupture' between his country and Europe, New World and Old, and that 'we Argentines are cut off from the past'. Such detachment can be advantageous as it encourages rediscovery on the part of the Argentine writer, a re-delving into the history and culture of his own country, without the taint of European influence. But there is a downside to detachment, namely isolation, and Borges goes on to assert that the other effect of this sundering is a kind of decree of non-participation: 'We must understand that we are essentially alone and cannot play at being European.'

Borges' compatriot, Ernesto Sábato, adhered to this thinking with two of his three novels. He took the idea of a segregated Argentina and capitalised on it, bringing both the topology and the inhabitants of Buenos Aires alive in On Heroes and Tombs (1961), for many his masterpiece, and the later work, The Angel of Darkness (1974). However, it was his debut novel, The Tunnel (1948), in which he challenged Borges' notion by importing great strains of twentieth century European writing and blending them with his own unique and darker vision. The result is a heady and sometimes poisonous distillation of multifarious traditions and perspectives: a thoroughly Latin American spirit, but laced with European intoxicants. Although the action, such as it is, takes place in Buenos Aires and an estancia in the country, both locales are presented with scant geographical detail and in themselves have no bearing on the tale; change the odd calle and plaza and we could just as easily be elsewhere. Setting is practically superfluous, for on this one occasion Sábato is not interested in a cut-off Argentina but a cut-off Argentine. His protagonist is the painter, Juan Pablo Castel, and The Tunnel is his confession, a charting of the events which lead to his obsession with and murder of his lover. Through Castel's declaration, Sábato shines a light on a pitch-black soul, unflinchingly illumining for us a human being's descent into madness and depravity.

In some translations The Tunnel goes by the alternative title The Outsider, and to a degree Castel does resemble that other classic outsider in fiction, Meursault from Camus' L'Étranger (indeed, Camus was one of the first admirers of the novel, first championing it then commissioning it to a French publisher after Sábato failed to find one in Buenos Aires). But the more we read, the more we realise that Sábato has only taken Camus' outsider as a starting point, a mould from which he can etch in deeper contours and flesh out more facets. We see this clearly in both novels' first lines, where in only a few words both outsiders write their own mini-manifestos that testify to their outsider-ness. Camus' famous opening has Meursault inform us that 'Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know'. Sábato is less oblique, and goes for the jugular with: 'It should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed María Iribarne.' One is a hazy and indifferent recollection, the other a brazenly assertive acknowledgement.

Right from the start then, both authors lay their cards on their table, having their protagonists display their credentials to the reader and in doing so announcing to us what kind of novel we can expect. Both characters are outsiders who flagrantly oppose moral codes and wilfully seek societal exclusion (as opposed to those Kafka or Dostoevsky outcasts, banished by a society that calls the shots). Both are in fact killers, but after Meursault kills he manages to get a reduced sentence from the reader and bypasses the censure meted out to Castel. Meursault stays an anti-hero whereas Castel cannot rise above being a psychotic villain. The reason for this is that Meursault's aloofness is disarming. Castel, on the other hand, cannot be emotionally aloof. Once he gets involved with María he is unable to control his passions, and ultimately his jealousy and obsessiveness are his undoing. The corollary is a mounting loathing, both inward (with the increasing allure of suicide) and outward (regular utterances such as 'I scorn all humankind'). A dosage of Meursault's apathy would in fact dilute some of that passion but he is incapable of it. But it is this residual anger - Castel's excess - that makes for a fascinating, if troubling, character study.


Ernesto Sábato was a physicist before he became a writer. He was born in Buenos Aires Province in 1911 and obtained his PhD in Physics from the Universidad Nacional de la Plata. It was during a research fellowship at the Curie Institute in Paris that he met and mixed with writers and painters, artists who would provide inspiration for his future writing. Years later he abandoned science after feeling he had immersed himself too long in the realm of reason and not artistic expression. In a 1990 interview for The UNESCO Courier he said 'All that was missing in my purely scientific work - the Mr Hyde that every Dr Jekyll needs if he is to be a complete individual - I found in German romanticism and, above all, in existentialism and surrealism'. He turned his attention to writing, chiefly book reviews and essays, and in the early 1940s much of his work appeared in the literary magazine Sur. Along with the vocational change, Sábato also performed a political U-turn, abandoning his communist ideals after growing disenchantment with Stalin's regime. In his entry on Sábato in Cultural Amnesia (2007) Clive James notes another volte-face, that Sábato, 'like Borges, sat down with the generals' - but before we have time to vent our vitriol he swiftly adds, 'But I remember that he stood up again'. As if in atonement, in the eighties he swapped art for cold fact when he presided over CONADEP, the National Commission of the Disappearance of Persons, which investigated the fate of the desaparecidos and other Dirty War victims of Jorge Rafael Videla's military junta. He died in April of this year, just shy of his hundredth birthday. Two days before his death, Penguin Books began celebrating his immortality by releasing The Tunnel as a Modern Classic.

For someone who involved himself so long with science, it is interesting that this former occupation seldom seeps into Sábato's creative work, unlike, say, Conrad and Melville the ex-sailors and their subsequent seafaring tales, or Hemingway who poured in all the clutter, vocations and recreations, of his past lives. There is no science to speak of in The Tunnel. It is as if Sábato drew a line under it before moving on and commencing his new profession of choice. But, tellingly, The Tunnel does feature a protagonist who is a painter, Sábato's other pursuit, and the one to which he devoted the last years of his life. Juan Pablo Castel's problems begin after he spots a woman studying one of his paintings entitled Motherhood at an exhibition. She intrigues him because, to his eye, she seems to be the only one who understands it. She is lost in thought as she inspects a small scene in a squared-off corner of the picture, and one overlooked by the critics. Despite possessing a mind like a calculator 'constantly computing', Castel cannot think why he painted his 'small window', but he convinces himself that the girl can help. Art experts certainly won't. They may have lauded him so that he is now a famous name and recognisable face, but Castel spurns celebrity and scorns his critics - they are 'cretins' who spout 'unbearable jargon', 'charlatans' who are not qualified to judge him.

Castel is gauche and nervy, suffering from 'habitual timidity', and admits he has always been bad with women. However, as this woman has the power to unlock his art and explain its essence (and, thus, his own mind) he decides he has to find the courage to confront her. He follows her and speaks with her but botches the encounter by frightening her with an assault of blundering questions. During the exchange Castel tells us he feels 'grotesque'; suddenly the whole situation appears to him 'preposterous', 'ridiculous beyond belief'. She flees from him, and he spends the interim time before he sees her again wallowing in pity, berating himself for his bungling.

Sábato has moved on from having Castel announce to us point-blank on page one that he is a killer, and his warped back-up justification that 'criminals are the most decent and least offensive people among us'; now he lets the reader do the work, allowing us to judge for ourselves by highlighting for us Castel's actions and overreactions. 'I must find her,' Castel repeats aloud, unable to suppress his hysteria: 'I must, I must!' (A similar manic repetition occurs later when he writes her a letter 'that said merely, 'I love you, María, I love you, I love you!'') As with other literary existential hero-villains, Castel is prone to numerous black moods and sees misfortune not as a one-off blow but a long-lasting blight that can render one's existence pointless. The same words pock-mark his thoughts as he ruminates on events, relays conversations in his head and sinks deeper into depression: 'My calm was absolutely absurd'; conversations with María are 'absurd' and 'ridiculous'; he chides himself for thinking 'absurd' things about her, and his 'moronic deductions'. Much later, when María begins to doubt their relationship she delivers a crushing pronouncement, claiming their 'lovemaking was not only futile, but harmful' - two adjectives that in actual fact summarise Castel's outlook on life.

Sábato also adds deft ironic flourishes to emphasise Castel's delusions. He is grateful for being able to curtail his chaotic thoughts, for 'If I could not do that, I think I would soon go mad'. With great subtlety Sábato invites us to mock his creation: he won't soon go mad, he is already mad. In a similar instance, Castel breaks off from chasing after María; he scoffs at his hastiness, asking himself, 'Why charge down the street like a madman?' Early on Castel is in denial, and would like to have us believe he is all the time in control. His is a rational mind (that calculating machine) and so as to be able to meet María again and win her round he has spent months 'reasoning and analyzing and classifying hypotheses' (perhaps the nearest we get to science in the novel). But spending so long dreaming up myriad scenarios and rehearsing lines that fit to them is far from rational behaviour, as is saying to María the morning after her first, fleeting, scary encounter with him, 'Promise me you will never leave me again. I need you. I need you very much.' Castel is writer of his own confession, and presumably editor too, and as a result he is blind to the discrepancies. To his credit, though, he doesn't edit his emotions. Perhaps that wayward mind cannot recognise the frenzied modulations in fury, those flashpoints which upset his precarious mental equilibrium and cause simmering passions to boil over. At one point he slips on the mantle of the schizophrenic nineteenth-century hero by blaming his rage on an inner demon, one which has hijacked both his conscience and his will and is now wreaking havoc:

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. While one incites me to insult a fellow being, the other takes pity on him and accuses me of the very thing I am denouncing. While one urges me to see the beauty of the world, the other points out its sordidness and the absurdity of any feeling of happiness.

Once again a positive feeling or experience is annulled and dismissed as 'absurdity'. Such a malevolent alter-ego is of course pure Jekyll and Hyde, but the 'abominable acts' perpetrated by a riven personality - acts or crimes that are chronicled - put us more in mind of Stevenson's precursor, James Hogg. In The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner the beleaguered hero breaks off from informing us of his desire to 'slay' his persecutor to insert a caveat: 'Should any man ever read this scroll, he will wonder at this confession, and deem it savage and unnatural'. Castel would rather highlight his despair than ascribe such incriminating adjectives to his actions, but again Sábato always ensures that savagery and unnaturalness undergird his character's exploits and utterances, and that his demented mind is made manifest, both from what Castel chooses to confess and what he omits.

The Tunnel is a remarkably easy novel to sum up: man meets woman, man becomes obsessed by woman, man kills woman. But Castel also comes close to killing himself. As mentioned, it isn't long before he is so torn apart by his distorted ideal of María that he considers suicide as an option. He has regularly bewailed his lacklustre lot, whilst at the same time condemning those around him who seem 'vile, sordid, stupid, greedy, gross, niggardly'. When María doesn't answer his calls he plummets to his lowest ebb and talks of 'a frenzy to obliterate everything'. He walks down to the docks at night, stares into the dirty water and remarks on how effortless it would be - 'the seduction of suicide lies in its easy oblivion.' This kind of crisis-point is symptomatic for this kind of character in this kind of novel: the shattered, angst-ridden existentialist hero hitting rock-bottom is a necessary rite of passage which shapes their later developments and brightens or dulls further their already bleak Weltanschauung; for some unfortunates, though, it is no turning-point but a dead-end. But it is worth noting here that such a juncture was also inevitable for Sábato. It is a feat in itself to be within reach your own centenary, but it was especially miraculous in this writer's case, for Sábato spent much of life prone to thoughts of suicide. We can only speculate as to how much of what he gives Castel to chew on here reflected his own perception:

In spite of everything, man clings desperately to existence and, ultimately, prefers to bear life's imperfections, the torment of its sordidness, rather than dispel the mirage through an act of will. It also happens that when we have reached the limits of despair that precede suicide, when we have exhausted the inventory of every evil and reached the point where evil is invincible, then any sign of goodness, however infinitesimal, becomes momentous, and we grasp for it as we would claw for a tree root to keep from hurtling into an abyss.

This passage is singular for two very different reasons. Firstly, it is entirely redemptive in quality, and consequently stands as a speck of incongruous and surprising light at the end of The Tunnel. Secondly, and sadly, it comprises a rare lapse in tone, for this feels less like Castel soliloquising and more like an extract from one of Sábato's essays. The quotation touches on despair and its limits, along with the last-minute choice to save and redeem ourselves. This encapsulates Kierkegaard, the so-called father of existentialism, who in 'The Sickness Unto Death' gives an example of us shouting for water or eau-de-cologne if a person faints - 'But for someone on the point of despair it is: get me possibility, get me possibility... A possibility and the despairer breathes again, he revives.' Castel makes a rod for his own back by depending too much on pre-arranged possibilities rather than spontaneity, and runs rings around himself compiling lists of them. 'I am totally lost in any unexpected or unplanned situation' he declares, and he can only confront María after he has 'prepared a number of logical, or at least possible, courses of action'. Possibility will align him again with her and in doing so assuage that despair which has the power to corrode his being and obviate his drawing up a more drastic course of action.

Castel, then, is a character who is a painter who more than once contemplates suicide. This is as much of himself as Sábato is prepared to bestow on his protagonist. There is, however, an interesting end to a chapter which is over before it begins, but which almost reveals more of Castel's creator. Castel's insomnia gets the better of him (another existential trait: these people think too much) and he can't even bring himself to sketch. Instead he heads out to Café Marzotto - 'I suppose you know that people go there to listen to tangos, but to listen to them the way a true believer listens to Bach's Saint Matthew Passion.' Sábato was a tango aficionado and alongside essays on politics and philosophy he wrote informed pieces celebrating this most sensual of dances (in actual fact arguing the contrary, that it is really the only 'introverted, even introspective' dance). The chapter ends abruptly here, and it is as if Sábato is reining himself in, aware that he is on the verge of exposing too much. As cerebral as the tango might be, it is no pastime of Castel, and his expertise and interest can only go so far. We get the Bach comparison which is the limit to Castel's knowledge, and then Sábato retreats back into the shadows.


Sábato got it right first time with The Tunnel. His second and third novels are weighty, portentous affairs, the dynamism of the Buenos Aires backdrop quashed by leaden prose and the characters stifled by the airless, philosophical dialogue they are made to spout. The Tunnel, by contrast, is a clean, lithe read, and Castel's account is beguiling because for a confessional it is conversational. By rights the narrative should suffer and sag every time he flips out and melts down, but Sábato performs the trick of describing hyperbolic emotion and mental disintegration with measured, clear-headed language - unencumbered prose to complement the unburdening of the soul. Camus achieved the same perfect poise six years prior and this deceptively slight style underscores further The Tunnel 's immediacy to The Outsider. Both books are powered by sparse writing, a judicious economy of words providing ample momentum to cover each existential memoir. Both books benefit from being barren-plained and virtually unpopulated, with thought and thwarted deed compensating for the lack of local colour to which we are usually accustomed.

That's not to say The Tunnel is consistently effective. These thoughts of Castel's, while providing a refreshing counterpoint to those of our level-headed, run-of-the-mill protagonist, and a neat alternative to a novel fuelled solely by action, are too much and come too often. Simply stated, Sábato is over-reliant on them. We have seen our fair share of indecisive procrastinators in literature from Hamlet on, and their scuppered self-analysis and pensive to-ing and fro-ing only works when it is not entirely rudderless and, by extension, when the author is able to cap it and afford his character a renewed sense of direction through a cathartic burst of clarity. Sábato prefers to let Castel stew. For most of the novel he is 'filing and classifying ideas', sifting ontological thoughts, drafting contingency plans, wrestling with his 'sterile reasoning, my savage deductions'. We the reader are continually being told, not shown, how he feels. When he pauses for thought the narrative pace becomes sluggish; when his thoughts coalesce the narrative stalls. The result is that Castel gets nowhere fast, but the reader also, since we have elected to follow him and his every non-move. In these sections Sábato comes across more as a painter than a writer, applying layer upon layer of thought and supposition, thick and messy coats of tormented reflection. Worse still, he has mixed success with the imagery that amplifies this thinking: we get the humdrum ('My thoughts were like an explorer lost in a misty landscape') to the bizarre ('My thoughts were like a blind and clumsy worm being borne along in a speeding automobile') and only occasionally the brilliant ('My brain is in constant ferment and, when I get nervous, ideas roil in a giddy ballet'). If only Sábato could have re-read one of his own sentences - 'My doubts and questionings were engulfing everything, like jungle vines curling around trees in a park, choking the life from them' - to see what kind of simple but effective metaphor he should always have been aiming for, but also to realise the vitiating effect such a surfeit of soul-searching has on the narrative.

A second difficulty emerges, that of realism. By definition the existential hero is allowed to drift in his moral vacuum, scoffing at the codes and laws that bind the lesser mortals around him - or the rest of humankind that Castel so detests. In this kind of fiction Castel is a type who thrives on his isolation, even if that thriving is regressive and degenerate. He only represents a small section of society and therefore any madcap antics or abnormal reasoning on his part is acceptable, providing he stays resolutely different to us. Thus when Camus' Meursault severs all last ties to his ethical code and pumps four bullets into his Arab adversary we don't question the unreality of his bathetic reaction: 'I realised that I'd destroyed the balance of the day and the perfect silence of this beach where I'd been happy.' This man's death is like a fly in the ointment, an inconvenience which has now ruined Meursault's day! Equally unpredictable and just as coolly deranged, Castel kills María and then races off to inform her husband of it. We give both outsiders carte blanche to operate in this way and don't pick them up on their absurdity. The problem is when they begin interacting with others. María represents the real world, a native of the land of the sane, and so acts as the ideal foil to Castel. But instead of remaining intrigued from a distance she succumbs and falls for him. Sábato pairs an innocent realistic heroine to his guilty absurdist villain and the matching, while ultimately doomed, has the far graver difficulty of being implausible.

Take their second encounter: why does María let him grab her by the arm 'almost brutally' and march her down the street? Later Sábato has him verbally threaten her: ''If I ever suspect you have deceived me,' I raged, 'I will kill you like a dog.'' As he becomes wracked with suspicions he begins grilling her, accusing her of the most preposterous dishonesties. His cross-questioning is dogged and cruel with no hint of an acquittal in sight: he refuses to capitulate and, perversely, María continues to let him twist her words and pervert her meaning. On another, artistic, level, his haranguing doesn't work. Like the agonised introspection, Castel's 'interrogations' are an exercise in stasis, with each new line of attack another turgid session of numbing nit-picking that sucks up page after page and doesn't bring the narrative further forward. ''I thrive on details, not generalities,'' he says by way of justification, but that doesn't let him off the hook. Again the reader feels dragged along like the back-end of a pantomime horse, compelled to see out this farce to the end. During one clash Castel doesn't let up about a man he believes was María's former lover. ''He was a nihilist,'' she tells him, before adding, 'Something like your negative side.'' This is unintentionally funny. Castel has no symmetrical makeup, he is pure negativity (if his composite had any share of positivity it would be poor ballast for he would be lopsided). Secondly, even if he did only have a negative side, María should be nowhere near it for she is too switched on, too wise and too real to let herself be threatened by his behaviour or contaminated by his vision.

And what a vision it is. For this nihilist, life has no governing moral framework or legal and religious laws that need to be obeyed. Life is purposeless. If Castel possessed some positivity he may have derived an existentialist's sense of freedom from it and enjoyed exploring a multitude of options; instead, his blanket negativity shrouds him in darkness.

There are times I feel that nothing has meaning. On a tiny planet that has been racing toward oblivion for millions of years, we are born amid sorrow; we grow, we struggle, we grow ill, we suffer, we make others suffer, we cry out, we die, others die, and new beings are born to begin the senseless comedy all over again.

This aimless roaming puts us in mind of Schopenhauer who believed we are always striving for the unattainable and never content with ourselves, the result being that 'existence is typified by unrest'. Castel's restiveness causes him to think excessively and his thoughts become fanciful and in the end destructive. As relentlessly pessimistic as his viewpoint might be, listening to Castel 'pondering the absence of meaning' makes for entertaining and strangely beautiful reading (''Was our life nothing more than a sequence of anonymous screams in a desert of indifferent stars?'' he asks himself). Sábato is spot on here, taking us deeper into Castel's diseased mind but without the glut of self-questioning and plotting.

From the too much to the just right. But there are instances where Sábato tips the narrative off the scale in the other direction and doesn't deliver enough. In one scene Castel is on a train, 'indescribably depressed' because María did not come to meet him. He sees from the window a woman standing by a house, watching the train as it passes. 'An opaque thought' crosses his mind: ''I am seeing that woman for the first and last time. I will never in my lifetime see her again.'' His thoughts continue, with the wonderment induced by this woman supplanting the misery caused by María. The woman is a stranger, glimpsed for only a second - 'But I could not rid myself of the thought that, for an instant, she was a part of my life that would never be repeated.'' The train has left her far behind and so it is 'as if she were already dead'. The scene is fleeting, flashing quickly past in keeping with the motion of the train, and the attendant ruminations are momentarily interesting. Indeed, there are echoes with that other grandee of existentialism, Sartre, who said in 'What is Literature?' (1947) that man is the conduit through which things are made manifest: 'With each of our acts, the world reveals to us a new face...if we turn away from this landscape, it will sink back into its dark permanence.' Castel loses sight of the woman and she disappears into the same void from which she also emerged. Sábato impresses here, with action and thinking short and sharp, but in other cases we could do with expansion, more mental unpacking and detailed mulling from Castel on what are really his snatched views of the real world. It is as if Sábato is attempting to insert oases of meaningfulness into Castel's overwhelming desert of meaninglessness, and for this we should commend him, but those observations that are over too soon lean more to the whimsical rather than the consequential, and read like half-baked ideas or petered-out thoughts.


At the end of the novel Castel commits his crime passionnel. This comes as no surprise to us because we have been informed of it in the novel's opening line. The Tunnel is therefore the opposite of a whodunit, more of a whydoit. It is up to the reader to decide if Sábato has furnished us with enough of a motive to justify his character's actions. We can certainly conclude that he is insane after reading that he is overcome by 'an uncontrollable desire to strike her, to claw her flesh with my fingernails, to strangle her with my bare hands and throw her into the sea'. This is rage, and not the lethargic apathy which plagues Camus' outsider. Sábato has us believe that Castel is too far gone to fit in with society. He is a hermit who dwells in a 'cave of filth', and only ventures out when he finds an ally in María. Meursault is an 'homme du midi ', a comically ironic epithet because he won't partake of the Mediterranean lifestyle. Whereas with Castel we get the impression he can't integrate, in Buenos Aires or beyond, because of his overriding loathing for mankind. 'My mind is a dark labyrinth' he explains to any reader still left doubting his outlook. The title of the novel starts to make sense here, and becomes more relevant in one of those gemlike asides that shine wanly in passages of foreboding murk: 'Dear God, how can you have faith in human nature when you think that a sewer and certain moments of Schumann or Brahms are connected by secret, shadowy, subterranean passageways.' Later, just before cracking-point, Castel reveals that he has always been stuck in such a passageway, ' the tunnel in which I had spent my childhood, my youth, my entire life '. Is this the unconvincing plea for clemency from a criminal who has never been taught the difference between right and wrong? Or the plaintive cry of a human being who has never been loved?

In the final pages Sábato ups the gloom with Castel floundering in his darkest hour as he waits for María to appear. It is night, so it is darker still, and he waits alone and in the shadows for a light to come on in the estancia. But Castel has reached his limit; if María was ever able to offer him light in the form of brief sanctuary from his tunnel, that time has gone and that light has been extinguished. He is back in a darkness of his creation, in the tunnel that will forever imprison him. The tunnel he alludes to is an existential conceit and one which works well to describe the cramped and claustrophobic rut he is in. What is especially interesting is the pervading darkness, both physically and tonally. As an offshoot from this, Sábato gives us a character in the book who is blind, María's husband, Allende. Castel tells us he doesn't like blind people at all, and that 'in their presence I have the same feeling I get when I see certain cold, clammy, voiceless creatures like snakes'. This sounds like an irrational fear but it is worse, it is repulsion. Castel may have been trapped in his tunnel all his life but his eyes have never grown accustomed to the dark, and pitch-blackness - total blindness - terrifies him. It must have terrified Sábato, too, for blindness reappears thirteen years later in On Heroes and Tombs, in the section 'Report on the Blind' where the old patriarch Fernando muses on his fixation with and terror of the sightless. If it was a fear of Sábato's as well then here is one more parallel we can find between the author's life and that of his fictional creations. He eventually succumbed to blindness in his last years and was declared unable to read and write. It lends especial poignancy to another of his statements from his interview with The UNESCO Courier. Asked about his shift from science to writing, he said 'Lifting my eyes from my logarithms and sinusoids, I looked on the human face, from which I have never since looked away'.

It is fortunate for us that he did make that transition. Although arguably more celebrated as an essayist than a novelist, his oeuvre displays a common craving to understand the human condition. He analysed humanity in his essays and explored it in his novels. (In his other great achievement, the Nunca Más ('Never Again') report, which revealed the atrocities committed during the generals' reign, he showcased the grimmest depths to which humanity can sink.) The Tunnel is exceptional for its author's ability to both analyse and explore humanity, whilst staying true to one of the commandments of novel-writing, never judging. Along with Camus, the novel received admiration from Thomas Mann and Graham Greene, and in places we can see in Castel flickers of Pinkie, Greene's own murderous outsider from Brighton Rock, published ten years earlier. On Sábato's death El País proclaimed him the 'last classic Argentine writer'. But one wonders if he always had faith in himself in his new vocation as fiction-writer, for there is a nice line where Castel apologises for his way with words and tries to cover his own back by saying, 'I am not a writer'. In a way he is right - Castel is first and foremost a painter - but in another way he is a writer, indisputably so, as is Sábato who is writing this confession for him and presenting it in a published novel. Henry James employs a similar ruse in Washington Square when Dr Sloper exclaims, 'I am not a father in an old-fashioned novel'. James was always in command, even with apprentice-work like Washington Square, but it could be that this is no postmodern trick of Sábato's: just as his painter has to down his brush and get to grips with a pen, so too must the erstwhile scientist find his feet as a writer.

And he did. Despite occasional bouts of heavy-handedness The Tunnel is a remarkably assured debut and a worthy admission to the Penguin Modern Classics pantheon. One wishes he might have written more novels and honed his craft even further - perhaps, armed with the Nunca Más findings, tackling the Dirty War as a theme, producing a latter-day masterpiece that encompassed the callous idiosyncrasies of the generals, the psychotic horrors of the death squads and the desolate grief of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. But while that might have improved him as a writer it would also have changed him, transformed him into a political one, and that wasn't what he envisaged for himself in fiction. Like Cortázar he was inspired by Surrealism (as opposed to Borges and his recalcitrance to dabble in any kind of reality) and its traces flow through his novels, those books which have nothing to do with physics and the laws of the universe, but rather those arbitrary laws that propel us to love and hate. In the same vein we could say that he eschewed Argentina's political upheaval for the upheaval of the human soul. The Tunnel embodies the new direction Ernesto Sábato took, and as he maps not a people's country but a single man's mind, it remains by far his most captivating work.


Malcolm Forbes is a teacher and freelance essayist and reviewer. He was born in Edinburgh and currently lives in Berlin.


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