Troubled Narrators, Troubled Times

It should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed Maria Iribarne. I imagine that the trial is still in everyone’s mind and that no further information about myself is necessary.                        

WITH THESE PLAIN WORDS, Ernesto Sabato begins his novel The Tunnel, published in Argentina in 1948. The narrator is addressing us from jail, and though he says that nothing more about him need be known, he immediately proceeds to tell us the story of how he came to kill Maria, the woman he loved. His story is stark, a story of obsession and death, and if you saw this book sitting in the crime section of a bookstore, you’d think it belongs there. We have, in essence, a whydunnit, a story that builds considerable suspense through its analysis of motive; but curiously, you won’t find Sabato on any crime-fiction shelves.

Sabato, born in Argentina in 1911, was a writer whose life spanned a century. He won numerous prizes for his writing. Among them were the Buenos Aires Municipal Prize for his 1945 essay collection One and the Universe, a warning about the dehumanizing effects of science, and the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, awarded to him in 1984 for lifetime achievement in writing in the Spanish language. His two other novels, On Heroes and Tombs (1961) and The Angel of Darkness (1974), are both huge in scope. Like his contemporary Jorge Luis Borges, he’s considered a giant of 20th-century Latin American literature. But also like Borges, he was fascinated by the crime/mystery genre, and in The Tunnel, his first novel, Sabato displays this fascination clearly. In this short work, we are in a dark world described by an unhinged man, a world crime-fiction readers will recognize as noir.

Alone in his cell, Juan Castel spins his narrative. That he’s a murderer telling his story from jail puts him in a certain tradition; one can’t help but think of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, published six years earlier, when one first meets Castel. Indeed, Camus admired Sabato’s novel and helped get it published by Gallimard in France. Despite sharing an existential framework, the voice of Castel differs markedly from Camus’s narrator, Meursault. While Meursault is dispassionate about nearly everything, even his girlfriend’s advances, Castel has fire in him. He’s a painter, and through his art and the confession he’s written, he’s seeking understanding and empathy:

I thought that what I wrote might be read by a great many people now that I am a celebrity, and although I do not have many illusions about humanity in general and the readers of these pages in particular, I am animated by the faint hope that someone will understand me — even if it is only one person.

The problem, as he says in the second chapter, is that the one person who could have understood him is the person he killed.

Castel describes how he met Maria, an encounter that reveals how anxious he is. At an art show in Buenos Aires, he exhibited a painting called Motherhood. For most of the show, nobody notices the one tiny portion of the picture he thinks most important:

In the upper left-hand corner of the canvas was a remote scene framed in a tiny window: an empty beach and a solitary woman looking at the sea. She was staring into the distance as if expecting something, perhaps some faint and faraway summons. In my mind that scene suggested the most wistful and absolute loneliness.

A woman he doesn’t know is the only person who stops to absorb the window scene, staring at it for a long time, and that’s all it takes for Castel to develop a full-blown obsession with her. He watches her studying his painting and wants to call out to her, but fear prevents him from saying anything. After she disappears into the crowd, he’s afraid he’ll never see her again. She does not return to the exhibit. The show closes. Months go by. But Castel continues to think only of her and paints, as he says, “only for her.” We know that when he finally does meet her, the emotional investment he has put in this woman will lead to a fraught relationship.

Noir to the bone, The Tunnel does not engage the reader through its portrayal of a likable character. What grabs and holds your attention is the narrator’s voice, which betrays the workings of a fevered, tortured mind. Castel is a man at once haughty and self-loathing, calm and overwrought. These fluctuations in his temperament are reflected in his narration, which is both concise and circuitous:

After examining this possibility in detail, I abandoned it. I never go to art exhibits. For a painter, this may seem a bizarre attitude, but there is a logical explanation, and I am sure that if I decide to give it, everyone will agree that I am right. Well, I may exaggerate when I say “everyone.” No, I know I exaggerate. 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.

Castel is at odds with everyone. He especially detests other painters and, even more than them, critics. “They are a plague I have never understood,” he says. As his story goes on, he repeatedly interrupts the plot to express his views about any number of topics (art, psychology, language, human nature), and he admits his compulsion to justify everything he does. Bilious yet funny, and essentially friendless and loveless until he meets Maria, he’s totally self-absorbed. He’s one of fiction’s great solipsists, and his rambling, bitter, alienated voice marks him as a direct descendent of the original existential monologuist: Dostoevsky’s Underground Man.

It’s remarkable how much crime fiction derives from Dostoevsky, specifically Notes from Underground, even though Notes is a novel that contains no crime. In Notes, we have the seeds for so much later first-person noir, above all psycho noir: that strain of noir centered around a mentally disturbed protagonist. Like Dostoevsky’s unnamed narrator, psycho noir narrators talk at you and spend a lot of time explaining the reasons behind their actions. Their perceptions may be askew, motives convoluted, rationalizations unending, but there are often precious kernels of sharp social commentary mixed with these ramblings. As a reader, you almost root for them. Yes, they are hopeless outsiders, but they speak an acid-laced truth about the ways of the world. You have to acknowledge their brutal honesty, the way they see through hypocrisy and custom. They might be self-serving, but at a bare minimum, as they tell their stories you come to understand what makes them tick.

Up to a point you stand with them no matter how twisted their actions or atrocious their crimes. Take Jim Thompson’s Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, his Nick Corey in Pop. 1280, or Charles Willeford’s Richard Hudson in The Woman Chaser, classic examples of crime-fiction protagonists derived from the Dostoevsky model. Willeford was quite conscious of this lineage and wrote a long essay called “New Forms of Ugly” about it. In this piece, he describes “the immobilized hero” in modern literature and says that “the pattern of the modern immobilized hero was established in Notes from Underground.” As Willeford puts it, these works show “the frenetic, endless, and impossible attempt to escape from the restriction of the self, the personality, into a freedom that simply does not exist.” Willeford mentions such writers as Hermann Hesse, Walker Percy, and Saul Bellow in this piece, and one need only recall their troubled characters to know what he is talking about. Think of the fierce, spiritual strivings of Harry Haller in Steppenwolf or Walker Percy’s moviegoer looking to squelch his sense of ennui through obsessive film watching. Think of Henderson the Rain King, in which the protagonist says I want, I want, I want, and embarks in middle age on a wild trip to Africa to fill a hole inside himself. Even a laugh-fest of a novel like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is nothing if not a portrait of an immobilized hero: Portnoy’s entire hilarious, sexually explicit tale is a monologue narrated from his psychiatrist’s couch.

In both crime and literary fiction since Dostoevsky, escape from the demons within, or the void within, or the sheer confusion within, is a paramount motif, and Castel is a character who tries to engineer this escape. He is desperate to leave the constrictions of his own self behind. He wants to start afresh through love; the idea of freedom lies there. But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t escape his personality because he can’t get a handle on himself. It’s not that he’s oblivious to his mental and emotional problems: he’s a highly self-conscious human being. But this self-consciousness brings him pain:

My mind is like a dark labyrinth. Sometimes there are flashes, like lighting, that illuminate some of the passageways. I never know why I do certain things. No, that isn’t right. […] It isn’t that I don’t reason things out. Just the opposite, my mind never stops. But think of the captain of a ship who is constantly charting his position, meticulously following a course toward an objective. But also imagine that he does not know why he is sailing toward it. Now do you understand?

As with the best psycho noir, The Tunnel contains a bracing tension between the way the narrator tells his story and how he behaves in that story. Sabato obtained a PhD in physics before turning to writing, and while studying in Paris in the 1930s, he discovered the Surrealist movement. He became friends with the Surrealists and would drink with them at night after doing his fellowship research work at the Curie Institute during the day. He eventually gave up science to write full time, and the Surrealist concern with the interplay between reason and unreason permeates The Tunnel. Castel has an analytical mind, but he applies his faculties in a way that leads him to irrational conclusions.

There’s a conversation Castel has that alludes to Nicholas Blake and Ellery Queen, and a romantic rival of Castel’s states his theory that the “mystery novel represents in the twentieth century what the romance of chivalry represented in the time of Cervantes.” The discussion turns to imagining a man who acts “in real life the way a detective in a mystery novel does.” No one is alluding to Castel, but he is like a detective without an actual case. He obsessively analyzes every gesture and vocal inflection Maria makes, trying to figure out the thoughts behind her movements and comments. “Does she have a lover?” he wonders. When is she telling him the truth and when is she lying? His thought process makes him sound like a parody of a sleuth, a demented Ellery Queen. Listen to him here, using the rhythm and syntax of logic to make an insane point:

Several words came to mind in answer to the question I had asked myself. Those words were: Rumanian, Maria, prostitute, pleasure, pretense. 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 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.

When he describes this thinking as an example of his brain working with “lucid fervor” and “crystal clarity,” we know we are dealing with a beautifully and masterfully ironic text.

But what would you expect of a man in prison? If Castel saw himself as he actually was, if he was able to temper his obsessions and control his self-destructive urges, he might not have ended up in a jail cell. He may be lonely there, but in the fictional world of convict murderers relating their stories and trying to justify themselves, he’s in excellent company. You might say he belongs to the existential jailhouse noir club. James M. Cain’s Frank Chambers from The Postman Always Rings Twice is in the group, and as Albert Camus said, Postman was a direct influence on The Stranger. These are narrators estranged from people, who suffer from an inability (or do they simply refuse?) to go along with the world. They are men who sweat their existential anguish.

Of course the heyday of existentialism, the post–World War II era, has passed. But that doesn’t mean that the jailhouse noir club is defunct. The convict narrator “let me tell you why I did it” tradition continues: a strong recent example is Les Edgerton’s The Rapist, published in 2013. This tour de force is narrated by Truman Ferris Pinter, who has been convicted of raping and murdering a young girl. For the length of the book we inhabit his mind, as cold and narcissistic a place as one will ever encounter. The novel reads as a cri de coeur from an utter sociopath, and yet, due to Pinter’s refinement and the beauty of Edgerton’s language, Pinter does make us see the world from his point of view (at least a little). Noir at its best makes you interact with this sort of “other,” the repugnant person, but you have to deal with that person on their terms. The Rapist is a textbook example of this. Pinter’s cultured, bookish sensibility and his audacious style bring to mind Humbert Humbert from Nabokov’s Lolita, as does the unreliability of his narration. Dreams and visions mingle with apparent reality, and Pinter never stops trying to convince himself, and us, of how superior he is to other people, how enlightened. But what comes through loudest and clearest, as it does from the Underground Man and from the existential jailhouse narrators of the 1940s, is the total isolation of a human soul.

Jail may be the place confining the physical bodies of Chambers, Pinter, Meursault, and Castel, but the essence of their imprisonment runs deeper. They’re imprisoned by the very fact of being alive. Nature and the universe are indifferent; sustained, meaningful communication between people is impossible. Nothing provides lasting relief from the apathy, anger, frustration, paranoia these immobile men carry inside themselves. What’s interesting is how each of them reacts in the end to his existential entrapment. Frank Chambers is hoping that his words will make clear that while he did commit one murder, he’s being executed for a death he did not commit. He wants the literal record of what happened in his life set straight. Meursault comes not to care in the least that society views him as a criminal. He achieves a kind of happiness by accepting the absurdity and indifference of the world and hopes that a large hateful mob will attend his execution, if only to provide a form of companionship before he dies. Pinter cannot accept how society sees him and approaches his execution in a state of delusion that reveals the full extent of his ego and arrogance. And Castel, who’s not facing execution? He’s come to the negative realization that he was born in a prison and will die there. He puts it like this: “that after all there was only one tunnel, dark and solitary: mine, the tunnel in which I had spent my childhood, my youth, my entire life.”

As for Ernesto Sabato, Castel’s creator, he would go on to achieve a renown and moral authority in Argentina that put him in a remarkable position. In December 1983, President Raúl Alfonsín selected him to preside over the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, the organization set up to investigate the claims that thousands of Argentinians had been disappeared and/or killed during the country’s military rule from 1976 to 1983. Sabato’s reputation as a figure of integrity who would gather data and remain nonpolitical made him the perfect choice to lead the Commission. The group came back in 1984 with a 50,000-page report called Nunca Más (Never Again), a document full of depositions from those who’d survived the kidnappings and torture. Sabato wrote the preface to this detailed report with the same clarity and vigor he brought to his fiction. It is a work, like The Tunnel, that has never gone out of print in Argentina.


Scott Adlerberg is the author of the novel Spiders and Flies and the novella Jungle Horses.