Saturday, 21 May 2011

the tunnel [ernesto sabato]

Snr Sabato died recently. His is a name, like Bioy Cesares or Saer, that seems to live in the shadow of Borges. Consequently it was interesting to note that The Tunnel, originally published in Sur magazine, was championed by Camus and presumably was reasonably well known in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century.

The book has some of the playful internal machinations of a Borges story. It describes an artist's obsessive and ultimately catastrophic love for a woman whom he spies looking at one of his paintings in a way that leads him to believe she alone has grasped its significance, and hence the significance of his art and his self. Intriguingly, it's not the whole picture that Maria is looking at: it's 'a remote scene framed in a tiny window' in a corner of the picture's canvas. What does she see though this window? On the one hand she sees a vista of the sea, but on the other the artist decides she's seeing into his soul. Sabato's text is delightfully cryptic. Maria and the artist begin an affair, one which is plagued by his jealousy, but details remain sketchy and the 'truth' of her position is never revealed.

This deconstructed, playful approach to narrative, taking Kafka or Dostoyevsky's unreliable narrators a stage further, might be seen as pure modernism, in the vein of Borges's mindgames and Calvino's fractured narratives. But there are two aspects to the book which help to shift it onto another, less cerebral plane. Firstly, it is extremely funny. Castel, the book's anti-hero, has a raw, sardonic sense of humour. The author indulges his frequent asides as he muses on the role of the critic, for example, with scathing vindictiveness. His humour reflects his intelligence as an outsider and it's not hard to see how this voice seduced the likes of Camus.

Secondly, the book deals as tellingly with the subject of love and its lunacy as almost anything you could come across. Castel shifts from anxious passion to deluded paranoia. The way in which the book traces the stages of his ferocious and ultimately misguided love for Maria is masterly. It's not hard for love to become a disease rather than a life-force: the lover's unrealised obsession has more to do with themself, the subject, than the other, the object, even when the lover has convinced him or herself that the other is the one calling the shots. Sabato's occasionally incoherent narrative helps to illustrate the perils of the delusions of love, a world where clouds can look like bears, and the temptation (or dramatic need) to interpret information supersedes any rational appraisal of what's actually occuring. This way, Sabato, seems to suggest, madness lies, no matter how brilliant the lover might be (and perhaps the more brilliant they consider themslves, the more dangerous they become.)

With its humour and meditation on love, The Tunnel comes across as a brief, understated masterpiece. Whilst short, Sabato's text acts as a fascinating counterpart to Borges: the work of someone who shares the maestro's intellectual talents, but seeks to locate these within a more tragic, humane literary context.

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