When I think about existentialist fiction, I tend to think of three names: Albert Camus, Simone De Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre, all of whom are French. In fact, while I know plenty of people consider the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkagaard and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky precursors to the three aforementioned names, to me there’s still something quintessentially French about existentialism.
After reading Argentinian writer Ernesto Sábato’s The Tunnel, I realize how wrong I was.
Camus himself, along with Thomas Mann and others praised this novel when it was published in 1948, according to the back cover of the penguin classic translation. At first, I thought it was because it was an Argentinian version of perhaps the most famous example of an existentialist novel, Camus’ The Stranger. But despite certain similarities, The Tunnel quickly proves to be a unique creature that it totally itself. It may feature a melancholic, introspective narrator who feels alienated from the world, but this same narrator has the violent intensity of a Dostoevskian hero and is possessed by the kind of violent jealousy that made things work out not-quite-so-well for Othello, never mind poor Desdemona (incidentally, both Dostoevsky and Shakespeare are discussed in the text itself). Plus, the whole story is framed as a murderer’s confession, reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, though the prose is more direct and far less linguistically playful. It is a brutal story, with a “hero” whose irrationality and increasingly overt misogyny makes it increasingly difficult to sympathize with.
Despite the uglier sides of Sábato’s protagonist, The Tunnel is a powerful story that manages to combine the best elements of existentialist classics that are more well known in the United States with the unique literary qualities of Argentina and a bit of some other, unquantifiable quality that makes it so memorable. But more than the intensity of the story itself – and its many sentences you’ll want to memorize because they capture so much truth in so few words – what I appreciate most about The Tunnel is that it has expanded my understanding of existentialism’ nature and effect in literature. Existentialism itself is tricky to define – Camus, who most people associate with the movement, actually considered himself an absurdist – so it’s impossible, and unnecessary, to come up with any concrete definition, which could only unfairly simplify a complex subject. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind this philosophy because its effect has been global, uniting artists in the Netherlands, Russia, Germany, France, Argentina and more. This background enriches the novel, making it feel both unique and part of a deeply influential tradition.
The Tunnel both draws on and transcends its influences to become something truly original, and I can’t wait to read more of Ernesto Sábato’s work as soon as possible.
So go read it. Now.