by Ernesto Sabato
“I am a sick man...I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
"True!--nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? - Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart
"It should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed Maria Iribarne." - Ernesto Sabato, The Tunnel
Ernesto Sabato writes about an artist, Juan Pablo Castel, narrating his own story about desire and obsessive love through the lens of madness. I would describe the nature of the narrator, but let me quote his own assessment from early in the book:
"My brain was in pandemonium: swarming ideas, emotions of love and loathing, questions, resentment, and memories all blended together or flashed by in rapid succession." (p 47)
Juan had just discovered that his beloved Maria Iribarne was married to a blind man. He thinks, "why hadn't she warned me she was married?" There is much he does not know about Maria in spite of his longing for her; a longing that leads him to the brink of despair.
This story, set in Buenos Aires, is told from the narrator's point of view, but the narrator, like the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, is deranged, living in an internal world that is filled with discontinuities with the outside world of other people because it is based on his own delusions rather than the real world. His thoughts seem to bounce between two poles represented by moments of acute focus on reality contrasted with a bizarre world where he understands no one and they do not understand him. All of this is enhanced by increasingly complex dreams. He wants to be with Maria but when she seemingly rejects him, by leaving for the "estancia" in the country, he retreats in to a world of "absolute loneliness". He describes this world:
"Usually the feeling of being alone in the world is accompanied by a condescending sense of superiority. I scorn all humankind; people around me seem vile, sordid, stupid, greedy, gross, niggardly. I do not fear solitude; it is almost Olympian." (p 81)
The novel is short with only thirty-nine short chapters over less than one hundred fifty pages. Even so it is complex and suspenseful although it begins with the seemingly straightforward declaration from the narrator that he is "the painter who killed Maria Iribarne." The obsessiveness of his love for Maria is demonstrated by both his stalking her, watching from a distance, and his imagining what she must be thinking, often extrapolating delusional thoughts from a brief note that she has written. For example, when she writes him the note "I think of you, too. Maria" he immediately begins to wonder if she was nervous and whether the note betrayed "real emotion" followed by exuberance over the signature. The simple act of her signing her name led Juan to a feeling that "she now belonged to me." (p 49)
The narrator gradually becomes more intense in his thoughts about Maria. This is accompanied by difficulties relating to the few other people he encounters in the book; symbolized by the disintegration of his painting and by references to the increasing turbulence of the sea.
The story is not without humor demonstrated best by Juan's encounter with a postal clerk who will not return to him a letter he has written to Maria. He demands that it be returned because he left out an important thought. As a reader you almost feel sympathy for Juan as his entreaties are blocked by the petty bureaucrat, but this lighter moment does not last long and the urge to sympathize melts away as he returns to his delusional world.
Ernesto Sabato has created a mesmerizing story of a man who has lost touch with reality and his obsessions over a married woman who eludes his grasp. He is an artist who cannot abide this world so he creates a world of his own. When the two worlds collide the consequences are grave. His narrator shares the sickness of Dostoevsky's narrator in Notes from Underground along with the life of urban denizens found in the works of Hamsun and Kafka among others. Brilliant in its evocation of this modern world it raises questions for any reader who dreams of other realities or shares, even in a little part, questions about the nature of the real world around himself.
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