[on Kiran’s birthday, she is playing hide-and-seek with Sunil in a darkened house]
Kiran: [sensing someone behind her] Sunny? What are you doing?
[Kiran giggles… ]
Rahul: Happy Birthday!
[Kiran screams… ]
I have found the persona of an ‘obsessed lover’ highly intriguing. In fact, the earliest seeds of such interest were sowed in 1996, when I happened to watch Yash Chopra’s 1993 classic psychological-crime thriller Darr, starring Shah Rukh Khan, Juhi Chawla and Sunny Deol – a film that immortalized the dialogue, “I love you K-k-k-Kiran!”, and shot SRK to fame – even though he played ‘the villain’.
I was 11 years old at that time.
The film, in a nutshell is about a man (Shah Rukh/Rahul Mehra) pathologically obsessed by a woman (Juhi Chawla/Kiran), while this woman is in love with another man (Sunny Deol/Sunil Malhotra). Obviously, in the end, the hero kills the villain, and get the girl, we are (or at least I was) left with a sense of intrigue (and a peculiar sense of sadness) for SRK’s character – what exactly caused him to ‘be him’, to tip over the edge, to loose it.
To cut a long story short, the film deservedly won the National Award and was nominated for a host of other awards for Best Director, Best Cinematographer and yes! Best Villain.
No doubt a study of obsession in film and literature will yield countless results. Starting from Rumi’s passionate, all-foregoing lover to Nobakov’s Humbert Humbert, the list is long and quite interesting.
But like most peculiar novels of this genre (like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man to Camus’s The Outsider), Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel is an existentialistic exploration into the mind of a man pathologically obsessed.
Castel the painter has murdered Maria: the woman he loved, who alone understood him. From his cell, driven by “this damned compulsion to justify” his acts, he recalls their affair and the tensions that exploded in tragedy.
In his introduction to the Penguin edition of The Tunnel, Colm Tóibín sees Sábato as someone who was clearly influenced by writers such as Dostoyevsky and Kafka, an influence that is most evident in the dark canvas he sketched of the human condition. Tóibín notes: “[…] there are moments when the rules governing despair are so closely undermined or re-examined or dramatised that the entire enterprise of living or thinking seems deeply absurd”.
The novel recounts the complex relationship between the artist Juan Pablo Castel and Maria Iribarne Hunter, whom he first observes staring raptly at one of his paintings. He has the impression that this woman can see into his soul, that she is somehow capable of understanding the emotion behind his artistic creation. He is smitten immediately and does everything in his power to become Maria’s lover.
But sex, once achieved, does not have the desired effect: “All we accomplished was to confirm the impossibility of prolonging or strengthening oneness through a physical act.”
Castel is an obsessive individual whose disdain for others leads to a haughty aloofness. Like Camus’ Meursault, the anti-hero of The Outsider, he does possess an impressive lucidity when it comes to self-analysis, as is clear from the following lines: “Usually that 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.”
However, 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.”
A person who extols the virtues of solitude in this way, who constantly sees faults in the people he meets or observes walking along the streets of the city, whose distrust of human nature is evident in the jealousy and insecurity that characterize his dealings with Maria, is far from being an ideal lover or companion. As expected therefore, the darkness soon takes control and, clinging desperately to the misplaced suspicion that Maria is deceiving him with other men, he drives in a mad rage to the estancia where she is staying with her cousin, arrives in her bedroom and plunges a knife several times into her breast and stomach.
Castel is not comfortable in his own skin: “It also happens that when we have reached the limits of despair that precede suicide, when we have exhausted the inventory of every evil and reached the point where evil is invincible, then any sign of goodness, however infinitesimal, becomes momentous, and we grasp for it as we would claw for a tree root to keep from hurtling into an abyss.”
Camus once noted that the greatest choice facing man in an absurd world was whether or not to commit suicide. Sábato’s character grapples with similar existential choices. There is no sign of remorse in Castel as he reflects on his actions in prison. He watches the sun rising on a new day and thinks of those men and women waking up in Buenos Aires, eating their breakfasts and leading lives that might not be as devoid of meaning as his own was: “I felt that a black chasm was yawning inside me”.
In his passion, his intensity, Castel is the perfect lover; in his loss of reason, inability to feel compassion, his monstrous all-seething obsession – he becomes what Oscar Wilde referred to, “every man kills the thing he loves, yet every man doesn’t die” – the perfect anti-lover – akin to the anti-hero, who, even though has all the makings of a hero, is yet, nonetheless the villain.
Castel’s need to be understood, I felt, lies at the heart of most self-analytical, self-searching, self-reflecting existentialist narratives; shall that be Oskar Matzerath (Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum), Meursault (Camus’s The Outsider), Humbert Humbert (Nobakov’s Lolita) or extending further, Saul Bellow’s Herzog.
However, The Tunnel never emerges into the light, but instead drills deeper and deeper into the dark recesses of Castel’s unrepentant soul. Yet in spite, or perhaps because, of that, it is a compelling read.
Half Dostoevsky, half Sartre, this confessional crime novel unsettles with its psychological insights into the obsessive mind.
It reminds us that when we lost taut characterization, we also lost books that pricked our conscience with their discomfiting portraits of the human psyche pushed beyond rationality. Uncushioned by postmodern garrulousness, art disturbs with human truths.
The uncontrollability of human passion, precisely bounded, here comes across not as melodrama but as icy documentary. This novel does not promise safety, but Ernesto Sábato’s intensity plentifully rewards.