A Certain Kind of Beauty:
Ernesto Sabato's The Tunnel

"All we had to do was look at each other and we knew that we were thinking, that is, feeling, the same things.

Of course, we paid dearly for those moments, since everything that happened afterward seemed gross or dull. Anything we did (talk, drink coffee) was painful, because it pointed out the brevity of those instants of communion."


A common feature of many of the greatest novels of the past two hundred years has been for the tale of a great and heinous crime to be focalized through the very obviously damaged and/or deranged consciousness of the criminal, and the book therefore serves as an extended examination of the motivations and repercussions that relate to the criminal act. There are particular sub-divisions within this broad genre, from the inexplicable existential murders of Crime And Punishment and The Outsider, to the perverse psychology at play in Lolita, and the schizophrenic struggle of Selby’s The Demon. It is a lineage of darkness and of confusion, as writers explore the machinations of the human soul, and explore our capacity for violence and malevolence via moments where this has been exhibited on a grand scale.

From within this form, the novel that emerges as the darkest and most disturbing is The Tunnel, written by the Argentine novelist Ernesto Sabato in 1948, and immediately acclaimed by both Camus and Thomas Mann amongst others. The Tunnel is a very short novel, and perhaps cannot be considered the same calibre of artistic achievement as timeless masterworks like some of those mentioned above, Crime And Punishment, Lolita, etc. However, the crucial difference that makes it more interesting (and terrifying) from a psychological and/or moral standpoint is that, unlike the other books cited, the criminal act in The Tunnel is neither explicated nor justified (as in Lolita), nor attributed to a deficiency in the subject (The Demon), nor simply incomprehensible (Crime And Punishment, The Outsider). Nabokov offered a Freudian explanation for Humbert’s mid-life mental and sexual condition by suggesting his development was stunted in those areas by the trauma of losing his teenage sweetheart. This proposes that Humbert is an isolated, damaged case, and so logically there is a ‘norm’ of human mentality and behaviour from which he has diverged on account of the tragedy that befell him as a young adult. In The Demon, Selby’s protagonist conceives and speaks of his actions as the manifestations of another entity, whose consciousness has become entwined with his own and that he must submit to, as though it is a matter of his mental health and, again, that he is the anomaly in this world and that there is something exceptional and something corrupt in this condition. Whereas the murders committed by Mersault and Raskolnikov are more spontaneous, symbolic acts seemingly designed to question the effects of modern society on the individual, and can be argued not to emanate from the characters’ psychology at all, but to be indicative of a random and baseless human capacity for violence and murder.

Sabato’s narrator, the artist Castel, stands alone among these fellow miscreants in that his misdeeds are never explained, nor attributed to anything. Yet nor are they spontaneous or inexplicable. The darkness of The Tunnel comes from the fact that the cause of and motivation for the brutal murder of his mistress Maria is simply human nature. As you read the book, you see that Castel is a largely rational, fully-functioning person, who becomes obsessive over Maria, and although he cannot explain the way he treats her or how his feelings are escalating, murder is the natural ending for this story. It is the logical evolution and evocation of his personality and character, long before the act actually occurs. Sabato doesn’t offer childhood trauma or a medical/psychological malformation to justify the savagery of Castel, but nor is this portrayed as a bizarre and transient flight of violent fancy. Castel is a successful artist who tries to find a safe haven in a society he loathes through the act of possessing Maria, but the realization of the obvious truth that he can never truly know or control the mind of the woman he loves sends him into a spiral of hate that inevitably must end in her death. It is a fascinating study of how a human can fail to handle the basic truths of the human condition, how someone can consistently behave in a manner that is at once both self-defeating and utterly identifiable, and of what the human conception of love really is.

The intrigue of Castel’s character is due to his own continual struggle to perceive and understand himself. Even his early attempts at defining himself as a physical everyman underline this:

I am made of flesh and blood and hair and fingernails like any other man. (p3)

This gives a sense of an immediate strangeness, listing the physical elements of a body in such a fashion, almost as though he was examining a corpse. Castel may be correct in what he says here, but it is already evident that the manner in which he conceives and speaks of himself is not the way that “any other man” would.

As the early pages proceed, his mental state is revealed further through the comments regarding his alienation from his own social nexus. He quite rationally explains why he feels he, as an artist, cannot and should not be criticized by mere laymen, and complains of his peers as “identical people interminably parroting identical conversations”.

Castel best encapsulates this feeling of alienation by describing his inability to relate to others:

Experience has taught me that what seems clear and evident to me is never so to my fellow human beings. I have been burned so many times that now before I justify or explain anything, I mull it over a very long time; almost inevitably, I end up withdrawing into myself and not opening my mouth at all. (p9)

This calls to mind a similar sentiment from Sadegh Hedayat’s 1936 novel The Blind Owl:

In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people and have realized that my best course is to remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself for as long as I can.

In both novels, this form of withdrawal and a lack of faith in the people around the narrator can be seen to contribute towards their violent acts towards others. That Castel also feels this “fearful abyss” is beyond question, and in his case this phrase could also describe the void he feels between himself and Maria, and indeed between his outward behaviour and internal rationalizations of this.

Castel does initially try to explain his actions in schizophrenic terms – much like the inner duality noted already from Hubert Selby Jr’s 1976 novel The Demon – here referring to the prospects of saying some vicious words to Maria:

Behind the person who wanted the perverse satisfaction of saying them, stood a purer and more compassionate person … Even as the words left my lips, that suppressed person was listening with amazement, as if in spite of everything he had not seriously believed the other would say them. (p78)

However, Castel soon seems to disavow this theory. Once his mistreatments of Maria increase in their frequency and their malice, he is merely questioning himself, with no attempt at either justification or explication:

Besides, I acknowledged that the only thing in the world I really wanted was for Maria to come back to me. But if that were so, why not say that, why hurt her feelings? (p113)

It is as though Castel is passing through different phases of understanding: firstly trying to forego blame for his behaviour by blaming it on a demonic presence within himself that he has no jurisdiction over, then progressing beyond this psychological fallacy towards plain confusion over what it is that impels him, and finally to his most disturbing realization:

… I do remember that instead of asking Maria’s forgiveness for the letter (the reason I had called), I ended up saying worse things than those in the letter … Naturally this did not come about illogically … I was soon exasperated by the long-suffering tone of her voice. (p119)

It is clear that there’s no real explanation for his actions; these are the natural manifestations and evocations of his innate being. He has been a successful, well-adjusted person until middle-age, but has now found a woman and a relationship that ‘exasperate’ and frustrate him so wildly that he cannot control his behaviour anymore. Castel considers it ‘not illogical’ that Maria’s “long-suffering tone” is sufficient provocation for him to abuse her in this way, and this again hints at the darkness at the core of this book; how human nature can produce this type of relationship, arising from nothing more than an antagonism created by two different characters/personality types.

Whereas the reader can observe and track the descent of Castel’s character, from pompous and disaffected artist through to self-justifying abusive partner, it is an interesting feature of the narrative that, by contrast, so little of Maria is revealed. Even in a first-person narrative such as this, you would expect to gain a level of understanding of the object of the narrator’s affections via their interactions, his speculations, and the natural process of him learning more about her personality, beliefs, and emotions. This is decidedly not the case in The Tunnel. Maria remains shrouded in mystery throughout, as we (and Castel) fail to learn much about her background, current status, her own motivations and desires, and what it is that makes her remain in Castel’s orbit. Castel obsesses about her relentlessly, but it is a fixation based on his quest for possession of her, on his desire to excavate her mind and effectively own her consciousness. It is not the more common and natural desire to get to know her as a person, to gain a full appreciation of her character, her soul. In a way, the effect of the lack of characterization of Maria is that it enhances the characterization of Castel. That he is so obsessive about her without really making a concerted effort to learn about her on her own terms, and how in the text she is only ever permitted to be seen in relation to him, his mania and his desires, demonstrates how Castel is not really obsessed with Maria as a person, but with an idea of humanity that he cannot understand or come to terms with. He wants to own her, and cannot rationalize why a person is unable to truly ‘own’ another.

The innate ‘unknowability’ of another is of course a central tenet of existentialism, although in The Tunnel this concept is also applied to Castel himself. When his desire to murder her is first discussed, it is done without forethought or forewarning, appearing suddenly at a time when they are lying peacefully and lovingly together:

Contentment and blackness were circling in my mind as I listened to Maria’s voice, her marvellous voice. I was falling into a kind of spell. The sunset was firing a gigantic smelter behind the western clouds. I knew that this magical moment could never be repeated. ‘Never more, never more,’ I kept thinking, as I felt myself seduced by the vertigo of the cliff and the thought of how easy it would be to drag Maria with me into the abyss. (p104)

Again, the darkness of Castel’s mode of thinking is evident here. Unlike The Demon, there is no struggle between competing factions within his mind, and unlike The Outsider, he does not suddenly appear to be committing a murder without knowing why. Castel is happy, but along with that happiness comes a “blackness”, because he knows these “instants of communion” are as close to a true possession of Maria as he can ever get, so the desire for murder arises simply and logically from his unwillingness to accept that with human beings, this form of knowledge and ownership of another can never be possible.

Rather than trying to come to an understanding of this truth, Castel battles to cogitate his way around it via bizarre attempts at logic. Obviously his attempts do not provide the succour he seeks, and leave him furious and frustrated. His assessment of Maria is as follows:

Several words came to mind in answer to the question I had asked myself. Those words were: Rumanian, Maria, prostitute, pleasure, pretence. I reasoned that those words must represent the essential fact, the profound truth, from which I must begin. I made repeated efforts to place them in the proper order, until I had arranged them in this terrible but irrefutable syllogism: Maria and the prostitute had the same expression; the prostitute was feigning pleasure; Maria, then, was also feigning pleasure: Maria was a prostitute.

‘Whore! Whore! Whore”’ I shouted, leaping from the tub. (pp122-3)

Of course, arriving at this conclusion, even if he maintains its veracity, can only serve to cause him pain:

The filthy bitch who had laughed at my paintings and the fragile creature who had inspired me to paint them, both, at a certain moment in their lives, had worn the same expression. 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. (p124)

This is the result of another failure to ‘know’ Maria. She is a person, and so cannot be understood by Castel’s logical wordplay or reductive labelling. He succeeds only in driving himself further into the depression of believing that no person can be pure or unique, and that the world itself is corrupt and all equally repugnant.

Castel’s lack of faith in the ability to know or be known is shown even in his attitude to language and grammar, where he laments the use of the definite article in everyday speech (“the Party, for the Communist Party; the Seventh, for Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony” – p11), deriding those who don’t use their full titles to express themselves with specificity. It is as though he seeks to deny knowledge itself via a refusal to recognize social/cultural norms.

His inability to really know Maria is illustrated by the following line:

It was so late I could not see her face, but I recognized her from the way she walked. (p58)

A sentence so reminiscent of Kafka’s very memorable observation from Letters to Milena:

It occurs to me that I can’t remember you in any precise detail. Only how you finally walked away between the tables of the coffee-house, your figure, your dress, these I can still see.

These excerpts pose the question of how much someone can really be known by another? And what is knowledge of a person, what does it actually mean to know someone? Castel described himself earlier in the book as being of “flesh and blood and hair and fingernails”, and is that all Maria can be to him too (or Milena to Kafka), just a collection of physical details, things that amount to the recognizable appearance of a person but without a strong sense of who that person actually is? Like Castel in the epigraph quotation, couples can perform actions together (“talk, drink coffee”), but true “instants of communion” are so brief and leave no lasting change or progress.

This impression of transience and unknowability leads to another disturbing question that is proposed by The Tunnel, as the text explores the very nature of love, what is considered to be human love as we know it, and if it is really capable of being shared in the way we believe.

Castel’s conception of love is based on “communion”, on the belief that he and Maria share both characteristics and an understanding of the world:

I felt what I so often felt from the first moment in the art gallery: that she was like me. (p52)

All we had to do was look at each other and we knew that we were thinking, that is, feeling, the same things. (pp64-5)

What Castel craves, what he perceives love to be, is the impossible ideal of knowing exactly the interior of Maria’s mind. Of course, this form of relationship is not possible, and leads to his vicious and violent actions to try and force it into being:

I would throw myself on Maria, seize her arms in an iron grip, twist her backward, and stare into her eyes, trying to force a guarantee that her love was true love. (p64)

Castel cannot find the truth he seeks in those eyes, and it is Sabato’s brilliant evocations of this mental state that gives The Tunnel such power as a piece of fiction. At times he writes wonderfully about the actual machinations of the paranoia within Castel:

I sometimes have had the sensation that someone was watching me, and, turning suddenly and not finding anyone, sensed that the emptiness around me was very recent, that something fleeting had just disappeared, leaving a slight ripple vibrating in the air. (p59)

Such feelings build to then create Castel’s final analogy, his great concept of the passageways that separate him from Maria, and she from him, and both of them from anyone else in this world: the ‘tunnel’ of the book’s title:

As if the passages had ever joined; as if we had ever really communicated … No, the passageways were still parallel, as they always had been, only now the wall separating them was like a glass wall, and I could see Maria, a silent and untouchable figure … No, even that wall was not always glass; at times it again became black stone, and then I did not know what was happening on the other side, what had become of her in those unfathomable intervals; what strange events might be taking place. (p133)

Castel has allowed his mind to deteriorate to the stage where he now has no hope left whatsoever. He has finally accepted that great existential truth that he is alone in his “passageway”, Maria is in another, and an impermeable “black stone” can separate them completely at any time. Castel does not and cannot be seen to become insane or lose all rationality, or to then act without any form of logic or control; it is the acceptance of this truth and his resulting retaliation against how things must be that create the true horror of The Tunnel.

Earlier in the novel, Castel remarks:

When we emerged from the trees and I saw the sky above the shoreline, I knew that sadness is inevitable. It was the sadness I always feel in the presence of beauty or, at least a certain kind of beauty.

The ‘certain kind of beauty’ is not explained in the narrative. It is the mystery of Castel, perhaps of people in general, that the sight of beauty can bring a sadness. More than anything else in The Tunnel, this sentiment lays bare the problematic complexities of our human psyche. ●