A Gripe about Ernesto Sabato's The Tunnel

Hello, everyone! I'm delighted to see you around in a new year, and I hope it will be a good one for you (and me as well)! I'd like to be able to say I have big plans for 2014, but right now my great ambition is to choose a good book to start my year with. I finished 2013 on a not-so-great note, with Sabato's The Tunnel, and I want to get the bad taste out of my mouth as soon as possible.

I read The Tunnel because it’s one of those books that are inescapable in my social circle. The author, Ernesto Sabato, used to be a physicist, and a rather successful one at that. He got a PhD in Theoretical Physics, a fellowship at the Marie Curie Institute, a position at MIT, the works. Then he quit and started writing and became successful as a writer, providing inspiration and hope for physics students with a taste in books and secret literary ambitions everywhere.

So I read The Tunnel fully expecting it to blow my mind. That didn’t happen: I think it’s a bad book and I also didn’t enjoy reading it. I will get around to reviewing it sometime soon, hopefully. In the meantime, I want to use this footnote to elaborate on the “not enjoying reading it” part. 

I realize that compartmentalizing my criticism like this may sound weird, since the intellectual assessment I make of a book and the experience of reading it can never be completely different things. But the peculiar thing about reading The Tunnel is that, even though I realized within the first few pages that I was not going to enjoy it, I had high hopes until the very end that it would turn out to be a good book. It had such good recommendations from people I trust (and I so wanted to like the writer) that I was sure there will be a great pay-off. I was waiting for, not hoping for, the twist or revelation that would illuminate the subject matter in an original way, making the obnoxiousness I was putting up with worth it. So now that I know there is no pay-off, I am amazed I managed to stand the torturously bad writing for so long, and I need to vent.

I want to focus on a few passages from a scene that I see as the lowest point of the book, writing-wise. You don’t really need to know anything about the story to see why this scene is bad, but I will give a little context. The narrator is “Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed María Iribarne.” This is not a spoiler, this is how he introduces himself. He sees María at one of his exhibitions, where she is the only visitor that pays attention to a small scene (a woman at a window) that is very important to him but goes unnoticed by everyone else. He becomes obsessed with María, convinced that she is the only person that understands his art and his soul. So when he sees her again by chance, he pursues her. These passages are taken from the scene of their second meeting, brought about by him stalking her workplace.
‘I need you very much,’ I repeated.
She did not reply, but continued to stare at the tree.
‘Why don’t you say something?’ I asked.
Never taking her eyes from the tree, she answered:
‘I’m nobody. You are a great artist. I don’t see why you need me.’
I shouted, almost brutally:
‘I tell you I need you! Don’t you understand?’
Eyes still on the distant tree, she murmured:
‘For now, I know that it has something to do with the scene in the window: you were the only person who paid any attention to it.’
‘I’m not an art critic,’ she said softly.
That infuriated me, and I shouted:
‘Don’t mention those cretins to me!’
'[...] No, I’m wrong. There was one other person who reacted to the window, but negatively. He upbraided me for it. It made him apprehensive, he said, almost nauseated. In contrast, you …’
Eyes straight ahead, she said quietly:
‘But … couldn’t it be that … that I had the same opinion?’
‘The same opinion?’
‘The opinion the other person had.’
My nerves were raw. I strained to see her expression, but her face in profile was inscrutable, her jaw tightly clenched. I replied confidently:
‘You think what I think.’
‘And what is it you think?’
‘Haven’t I been telling you I don’t know what I think? If I could say in words what I feel, it would be almost the same as thinking clearly. Isn’t that true?’
‘Yes, that’s true.’
Now I was silent. I was thinking, trying to see things clearly.
Then I added:
‘Maybe you could say that all my previous work was superficial.’
‘What previous work?’
You see what I mean? This is how I thought Great Dramatic Scenes should look like, when I was ten. This is writing that tells you something great and important is going on, but deliberately prevents you from seeing it, in an attempt to make it seem greater than life, impossible to put into words. Both characters sound like they are trying really hard to avoid having a conversation, asking for clarifications that shouldn’t be necessary (‘The same opinion?’, ‘What previous work?’) and jumping between lines of thought. (Someone suggested it could be an issue of translation, so I checked this scene out in the original Spanish. It didn't make much of a difference: the issue of this not being a good depiction of how people talk didn't go away).

You could argue that the way the characters talk here is part of the characterization, and I agree to an extent. For example, it is revealed later in the book that she was afraid of what this conversation might lead to and was pretending she didn't really understand his art in a unique way. But even that doesn’t explain why she continues the conversation at all, or why he asks dumb questions. If we accept this conversation as character driven, we can no longer accept the characters. We cannot be expected to believe that characters who talk like this can also hold down regular lives. In fact, we cannot be expected to believe they exist.

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