In an effort to immerse ourselves more deeply in the kinds of books we enjoy while also broadening our literary horizons, Jenny and I are devoting our reading in January to international crime novels. I kicked off the month with an Argentine classic in which the killer himself explains the events that led him to commit the crime.
In Ernesto Sábato’s 1948 novel The Tunnel, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, an artist named Juan Pablo Castel tells of his relationship with María Iribarne, the “one person who could have understood me” and “the very person I killed.” Juan Pablo first saw María at an exhibition of his paintings. She seemed to pay special attention to a small detail in one of the paintings that no one else seemed to notice but that Juan Pablo thought was important. He became obsessed with meeting this woman who seemed to see into his soul.
Eventually, he does meet her, and the obsession only gains in intensity. Have you ever had a crush on someone and found yourself analyzing every single thing that person does to the point of ridiculousness? That’s what Juan Pablo does. Every word María says and every thing she does gets examined and reexamined, with Juan Pablo convincing himself of her love or her deceit. The problem is that he doesn’t see the ridiculousness of his thought process:
Was I saying I was not a rational person? On the contrary, my mind is like a calculating machine, constantly computing. For example, in terms of what was happening that minute, hadn’t I spent months reasoning and analyzing and classifying hypotheses? And, in a way, wasn’t it my capacity for logical thought that finally led me to María?
Of course, real people don’t behave according to rules of logic, and Juan Pablo is making a mistake to try to analyze human behavior according to such rules. His use of logic is in fact highly illogical. Sometimes he seems to recognize this, but it doesn’t stop him from following his thoughts to their illogical logical conclusion.
Sábato immerses readers in Juan Pablo’s twisted thought processes and makes us sympathize with him for his understandable doubts and want to shake him for jumping to conclusions. And knowing from the beginning that somehow all these thoughts will lead to murder makes even the understandable doubts feel tinged with darkness. Whatever sympathy we might feel is fleeting because we know where the story is going.
The Tunnel is often described as an existentialist novel. I’m going to ‘fess up right now and tell you that I’ve never been able to quite wrap my mind around existentialism. On the few occasions that I’ve had reason to study it (when learning about Kierkegaard in modern theology class, for example), I’ve been able to understand it in that particular context, but when I see the term applied elsewhere, I can’t quite work out the connections—or maybe I think existentialism is something more profound than it is. Sometimes it seems to me that anyone who writes about the meaning of life and death ends up getting classed as existentialist, in which case the term is too broad to be helpful. Clearly, I need Existentialism for Dummies or the equivalent.
I think, in the case of this novel, the existentialism has to do with Juan Pablo’s feeling of alienation from others and his attempts to apply logic to life when it is too random for such rules to apply. Anyway, reading this did make me consider, for the first time, that it might be time to revisit The Stranger, which I read and loathed in high school. I did enjoy this, and I see that it has been compared to The Stranger, so maybe my tastes have changed.
Existentialist or not, I liked The Tunnel. It is a short book, and I wouldn’t have it be any longer than it is because I was starting to get impatient with Juan Pablo’s overthinking of every little thing. But it ended before I got good and fed up, so the book was a success for me.