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Bulletin of Spanish Studies, Volume LXXXVI, Number 2, 2009

Irony, Satire and humorismo in


Sabatos El tunel
PAUL MCALEER
University of Manchester

For those who know something of Sabatos El tunel and the large body of
critical work concerned with it, the title of this article may raise an eyebrow
of surprise or perhaps curiosity.1 Since its publication in 1948 the novel has
constantly been written about in terms of its tragic structure, deep
pessimism and intense style of prose. Critics have highlighted, among
other things, its profound metaphysical content, its dark and arduous
imagery, the description of a hostile or indifferent Buenos Aires, and its
themes of solitude, frustration and emotional anguish that have led some
analysts to identify the novel with the existential philosophy and literature of
Europe.2 Given the overwhelming trend of this body of criticism it is perhaps
1 Ernesto Sabato, El tunel (Buenos Aires: Grupo Editorial Planeta, 2003 [1 ed. 1948]).
All quotations are from this edition.
2 From the volume of critical work written on El tunel the following studies have been
chosen because they represent the general trend of theoretical thought applied to the novel
over the last forty years. In general terms, the critical approaches can be placed under the
following two headings: the psycho-existential approach and the psychoanalytical. Critics
belonging to the former camp have read the novel as an expression of existential angst in
reference to the philosophical work of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Anderson Imbert,
for example, argues that Castels madness is un smbolo de una metafsica desesperada
(quoted in Fred Petersen, Sabatos El tunel: More Freud Than Sartre, Hispania [USA], 50:2
[1967], 27176 [p. 271]). Mariana Petrea from a different perspective states: consideramos que
la novela gira en torno al tema del abismo de la vida actual, sugerido ademas por la imagen del
ttulo. En este sentido, la soledad y la incomunicacion representan las caras de la Nada, las
consecuencias del quebrantamiento de la civilizacion moderna (Mariana D. Petrea, Ernesto
Sabato: la nada y la metafsica de la esperanza [Madrid: Ediciones Jose Porrua, 1986], 102).
Hugo Mendez Ramez meanwhile, in his article on El tunel and Onettis El pozo, asserts that
El tunel y El pozo se convierten en la metafora de ese mundo soterrado, alienante y
deshumanizado, mientras que Castel y Eladio son la metafora o encarnacion del hombre
moderno y su angustia existencial ante la inanidad de la vida (Hugo Mendez, El narrador
alienado en dos obras claves de la narrativa latinoamericana moderna, Hispanic Journal, 16
[1995], 8393 [p. 91]).
The following list is a sample of other critical works that consider the novel along similar
lines: Beverly J. Gibbs, El tunel: Portrayal of Isolation, Hispania (USA), 48:3 (1965), 22963;
Norberto M. Kasner, Metafsica y soledad: un estudio de la novelstica de Ernesto Sabato,
ISSN 1475-3820 print/ISSN 1478-3428 online/09/02/000227-25
# Bulletin of Spanish Studies. DOI 10.1080/14753820902783993

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difficult to imagine that Sabatos work contains even the slightest trace of
humour. However, at the risk of contradicting conventional and
contemporary wisdom, I intend to demonstrate in this study that El tunel
displays different modes of humour and, moreover, the literary phenomena
often associated with humorous texts: satire and irony.
There are, of course, possible pitfalls and dangers in reading a generally
accepted Latin-American tragic novel in such a way. Firstly, it opens the
English critic to the accusation of looking at the novel with a conspicuously
Anglo-Saxon eye. The English novel, after all, apart from a number of obvious
examples (Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte, Graham Greene at a pinch), is rarely
devoid of humour or a sprinkling of comedy in one form or another, and, of
course, the history of the comic novel is such that it might be seen as a national
institution. The danger, then, is that to an English reader a full-blown, ultraserious Latin-American tragedy might seem ironic or amusing because it lies
outside their sensibility or they read it out of context. Indeed this position may
be symptomatic of all readings of past texts from our own inescapable
postmodern perspective, let alone when we read those from another
culture. Given that this study also falls on the side of the existential
argument, it is also placed in a double-bind (since both the psychoanalytical
and existential readings could also be accused of doing the same thing, of
applying universal themes, that are in reality only European theories, to a
non-European text). However, the pervasiveness of psychoanalysis in
Argentina (and specifically Buenos Aires) and the popularity of the fiction
and essays of the French existentialists, Sartre and Camus, in the country and
Revista Iberoamericana, 58 (1992), 91103; William Nelson, Sabatos El tunel and the
Existential Novel, Modern Fiction Studies, 32 (1986), 45967; Albert Fuss, El tunel, universo
de incomunicacion, Cuadernos Hispanoamericanas, 39193 (1983), 32439; Gustav
Siebenmann, Ernesto Sa bato y su postulado de una novela metafsica, Revista
Iberoamericana, 48 (1982), 289302; Marcelo Coddou, La estructura y la problematica
existencial de El tunel de Ernesto Sabato, Atenea, 43 (1966), 14168.
As far as the psychoanalytical approach is concerned, Fred Petersen (article cited above)
attempts to explain the novels themes of isolation and madness through Freuds Oedipus
complex, dream work and the aggressive impetus of Castels sexual drive. Other critics explore
Castels manias in light of more specific mental illnesses: Augustn Segui, concentrating on
the four dreams of the novel, suggests that Castel suffers from various psychoses (Augustn F.
Segui, Los cuatro suenos de Castel en El tunel de Ernesto Sabato, Revista Iberoamericana, 58
[1992], 6880). James R. Predmores diagnosis for Castel is schizophrenia (Un estudio crtico
de las novelas de Ernesto Sabato [Madrid: Ediciones Jose Porrua, 1981]). Susan Stein, in turn,
detects evidence of hysteria in the novel, while Ana Ferreira applies Lacans notion of the
mirror stage to Castel and traces su falso ascenso al orden simbolico que remite Juan Pablo a
un sustituto del anhelado utero maternosu prision (Susan Isabel Stein, Polysemous
Perversity and Male Hysteria in El tunel, BHS [Liverpool], LXXIII [1996], 42745 [p. 445]).
For further psychoanalytical interpretations see also Ana Paula Ferreiras El tunel de
Ernesto Sabato en busca del origen, Revista Iberoamericana, 58 (1992), 91103. To my
knowledge, the only article that broaches the subject of humour in El tunel is Encarna Abe
llas study of parody in the novel. Abellas principal aim, however, is to show how the novel

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throughout Latin America have seen them become important cultural


influences and, hence, quite rightly relevant to the study of the regions
literature. As for the presence of humour, this article takes as its starting point
the oldest and most traditional form of Argentine literature, costumbrismo,
which, as we shall see, has since its beginning enjoyed close ties with
humorous writing. Moreover, it will be shown that the humour of El tunel is
not simply a (potentially misinterpreted) by-product of the novels tragedy but
an intricate and intrinsic part of its tragic and existential treatment of the
human condition. It will be read, in other words, in light of the themes and
humour of similar examples of absurd and serio-comic literature.
In this respect, the assertion that the novel is humorous, satirical and
ironic does not, of course, negate the arguments cited above. By using the
word humorous, I do not intend to suggest that the novel is in any way a
frivolous, felicitous or even a comic one. El tunel, on the one hand, is
unquestionably a serious and tragic text that explores the dark side of the
human condition through the pessimistic prism of existential philosophy.
The fact that any literary text may contain modes of humour or satire does
not necessarily mean that it is comic or void of tragedy or pessimism or has
nothing serious to say. Franz Kafkas Metamorphosis and Fyodor
Dostoevskys Notes from Underground are generally considered serious
examples of modernist literature that focus on mans isolation and his
incapacity to control the world around him. Yet, at the same time, critics
have highlighted the humour of these important texts and see it as an
intrinsic element of the tragic vision they express.3 The example, of course, is
parodies the type of detective fiction popular in Argentine literature during the 1940s
(Encarna Abella, Satira y parodia de la novela policial en El tunel de Ernesto Sabato,
Romance Linguistics and Literature Review, 1 [1998], 6675). In contrast with the focus of my
article, Abella does not attempt to correlate the role of humour, parody and irony with the
existential themes of El tunel.
3 Bakhtin links all Dostoevskys works to the Menippean satire and carnival,
emphasizing the importance of laughter in the Russians polyphonic prose and its seriocomic content. The Underground Man is explored with specific references to the Menippean
satire (Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevskys Poetics, trans. R. L. W. Rotsel [New York:
Ardis, 1973], 129). In his introduction to a collected study of modern comedy, Wylie Sypher
discusses the work of Dostoevsky and Kafka in the following terms: Kafkas novels are a
ghastly comedy of manners showing how the awkward and maladroit hero, K, is inexorably an
outsider struggling vainly somehow to belong to an order that is impregnably closed by
some inscrutable authority. Kafka transforms comedy of manners to pathos by looking, or
feeling, from the angle of the alien soul. He treats comedy of manners from the point of
Dostoevskys underground man and his heroes are absurd because all their efforts are seen
from below, and from within (The Meanings of Comedy, in Comedy, ed. Wylie Sypher [New
York: Doubleday, 1956], 124 [p. 14]). From a more postmodern perspective Patrick ONeill
defines Kafkas work as an example of a comedy of epistemology (Patrick ONeill, The Comedy
of Entropy: Humour, Narrative, Reading [London: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1990], 261). In his
work on modern comic fiction, James Wood highlights the cruel humour and anti-religious
nature of Dostoevksys novels, in The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (London:
Jonathan Cape, 2004), 4459.

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not a frivolous one. El tunel, let us remember, has often been compared to
Metamorphosis and Notes from Underground and, even without the critics
confirmation, the influence of these texts on Sabatos is quite clear.4 It can be
detected in his use of imagery, in the themes, the structure, the narrative
style, the characterization, and, as we shall see, the humour of the novel. The
very nature of which, in a similar way to the aforementioned novels, is
expressed in conjunction with El tunels own tragic vision.
But what do I mean by the term humour? And, to be more exact, what
kind of humour do Kafkas Metamorphosis, Dostoevskys Notes from
Underground and Sabatos El tunel share? Perhaps, given the complexity
of the concept as both extra-literary and literary phenomena and the
difficulties that some of the most famous thinkers have had in defining it,
it would be better to begin by referring to what I do not mean by the term.
First of all there is the definition of the noun given in the Oxford English
Dictionary: the ability to say or perceive things that are amusing and/or a
twinning of the comic and the sentimental.5 The second of which stands as
the generally accepted literary definition of humour: the subtle combination
of the sentimental (human sympathy or empathy) with the comic (the
ridiculous or egregious) usually associated with the humorous works of
Shakespeare, Dickens, Cervantes, Thackeray and others.6 My definition of
humour is at once less exact and more extensive and, due to the Janus-faced
4 La similaridad con Kafka es visible. Tal como el protagonista de La metamorfosis,
Pablo esta diciendo: no soy humano, soy distinto, soy dos personas, nadie me entiende (Angela
B. Dellephiane, Ernesto Sabato: el hombre y su obra [New York: Las Americas Publishing
Company, 1968], 99). Other critics who have identified similarities between Sabatos work and
that of Dostoevsky and Kafka are the following: Hannelore Hann, La metamorfosis de Franz
Kafka y El tunel de Ernesto Sabato, Revista de Cultura, 24 (1995), 8085; Tamara Holzapfel,
Dostoevskys Notes from the Underground and Sabatos El tunel, Hispania (USA), 53:3
(1968), 44046.
5 The full definition given by the OED is as follows: 7. That quality of action, speech, or
writing which excites amusement, oddity, jocularity, facetiousness, comicality, fun. 7a. The
quality of action, speech or writing which excites amusement; oddity, jocularity, facetiousness,
comicality, fun. b. The faculty of perceiving what is ludicrous or amusing, or of expressing it in
speech, writing, or other composition; jocose imagination or treatment of subject.
Distinguished from wit as being less purely intellectual, and as having a sympathetic
quality in virtue of which it often becomes allied to pathos (OED, 20 vols [Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1989], 486).
6 William Makepeace Thackeray, in his first essay on the subject defines humour in
this way: If humour only meant laughter, you would scarcely feel more interest in and about
humorous writers than the private life of poor Harlequin just mentioned who possesses in
common with these the power of making you laugh. But the men whose lives and stories for
which your kind presence here shows you have curiosity and sympathy, appeal to a growing
number of other faculties, besides our mere sense of ridicule. The humorous writer professes to
awaken and direct your love, your pity, your kindness*your scorn for untruth, pretension,
imposture*your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the unhappy (Lecture the
First. Swift, in The English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century [London: Smith & Elder,
1867], 159 [p. 2]).

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nature of the novel, more relevant to describing humour within it. Humour,
as I define it in relation to the novel, is in fact the result of a combination of
diverse literary modes, which induce the general effect of laughter,
amusement or a smile in the reader. Because of the general risible tone of
literary humour, the combination of literary modes will have to include at
least one of the following: the comic, the grotesque, the absurd, the
ridiculous, satire, irony, parody, farce, travesty, the burlesque, the
carnivalesque, the festive, and so on. At the same time, since the make-up
or ingredients of the modes mentioned are generally complex, that is to say,
as a product of their own distinct registers or styles of language, the
humorous text is also bound to involve a wide variation and combination of
non-comic modes: the poetic, the tragic, the sentimental, the romantic, the
mundane, legalese, journalese, street jargon and just about any other
register that exists.7 Thus any particular combination of these modes that
produces laughter, amusement or a smile in the reader (and presumably the
author) can be defined as humorous. The flexibility of this theory allows the
analyst of humorous texts an important advantage: to detect and explore the
different types of humour that make up a comic or humorous text, which,
unless it is peculiarly monologic (a feature alien to the modern novel
according to Bakhtin and Kristeva) will usually include a tapestry of humour
types.8 A comic or humorous novel, in other words, does not normally feature
only one type of humour; it is made up of a wide range of humour/s. Thus the
definition of humour given above, the twinning of the sentimental and the
comic, is not incorrect; it is simply one possible definition of many; or, in
other words, one type of humour. To give an example, Cervantes Don
Quixote is generally regarded as the paragon of sentimental humour in the
Hispanic canon, if not world literature, and from a certain point of view it
would be churlish to contradict such a view. A great deal of the Knight of the
Sad Countenances adventures are invested with this delightful mixture of
the sentimental and the comic. At the same time, however, there is a good
7 Interestingly, in his treatise on the dialogic nature of the novel, Bakhtin argues that
one of the most striking features of the comic novel is the continual use of and change between
distinct registers or as he defines them, speech genres. The comic style, insists
Bakhtin,demands of the author a lively to-and-fro movement in his relationship to
language, it demands a continual shifting of the distance between author and language, so
that first some, then the other aspects of language are thrown into relief (M. M. Bakhtin,
Discourse in the Novel, in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed.
Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist [Texas: Univ. of Texas Press,
1981], 302).
8 In her essay on Bakhtins theory of the novel Kristeva observes that the way in which
European thought transgresses its constituent characteristics appears clearly in the words
and narrative structures of the twentieth-century novel. Identity, substance, causality and
definition are transgressed so that others may be adopted: analogy, relation, opposition, and
therefore, dialogism and Menippean ambivalence (Julia Kristeva, Word Dialogue and the
Novel, in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi [Oxford: Blackwells, 1986], 3461 [p. 56]).

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deal of satire and burlesque in Cervantes work in which the sentimental and
the sympathetic are conspicuously absent. The episode in which Sancho
Panza is forced to cling for his life to the side of a ravine for the entire night
only to find out in the morning that the mortal drop he feared to be beneath
him is in fact nothing more than a shallow ditch is hardly sentimental. If
from anywhere, the comedy stems from the farcical and foolish behaviour of
Quixotes rotund manservant and the cruel eye of the author and the reader.
There are a great many more similar and different examples that do not
involve the sentimental in Cervantes novel, which along with Garca
Marquezs Cien anos de soledad is probably the most imaginative and
innovative humorous text in the Hispanic-speaking world, at least as far as
its authors use of humour modes is concerned.
However, the fact that the humour in a comic or humorous text is
constructed out of many different strands or types of humour does not
necessarily mean that any one text lacks an overall tone of humour; that one
type of humour does not predominate over the others, lending the text its
general character. The works of Dickens, Cervantes, Smollet, Fielding, Stern
and others are woven with many different strands of humour, but*apart
from perhaps The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy*from an overall
perspective the preponderant image projected upon their individual
tapestries is one that seems to be made out of the sentimental and the
comic. The works of Swift, Quevedo, Nabokov and in general the picaresque
tradition again contain many types of humour, but the predominant tone of
their humour is that of satire. Sabatos El tunel while involving a subtle,
though by no means extensive, blend of humour modes, also contains three or
four predominant types of humour. The types, their characteristics, their
various sources (the constructs and situations from which the humour stems),
and their relationship to the novels delineation and profound exploration of
the existential condition will be the principal focus of this article.
Perhaps it is because the humour of El tunel does not, at first sight, at
least, fit in to the generally accepted definition of humorismo that the novel
has never been discussed in relation to the term by Hispanic critics. As we all
know, humorismo and its derivative humorstico can be employed to denote
two distinct meanings. It can mean, depending on the context, the blend of the
sentimental and the comic, and/or may simply refer to something that is
purely comic (lo comico) or amusing (gracioso). The confusion and hybrid
denotations of the term (the same confusion that exists in the English
language) has led a handful of Hispanic critics, writers and academics to
attempt to define it, all of which would exclude the types of humour or
humorismo in El tunel. (I equate the two terms here deliberately since my
definition of humour [in literature] can easily be applied to the term
humorismo: humour as I have defined it, therefore, equals humorismo.) In
his essay Para una teora de la humorstica, Macedonio Fernandez,
repudiating theorists who include irony, sarcasm and satire in definitions,

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claims that [todos] no han visto que el signo afectivo constante de la tematica
de la risa es que la esencia de lo sucedido sea alusion a felicidad.9 Humorismo,
according to Fernandez, has two faces: lo comico realstico [sic] and the
conceptual, which is superior to the latter but has one essential thing in
common with it, la referencia hedonstica that can be associated with a
utopian moment or the sentiment (or illusion) of happiness in the reader.10
Interestingly, the Chilean well known for writing humorous novels, Enrique
Araya, is another writer who associates humorismo with una sugestion
optimista.11 On the other hand, Alfredo Bioy Casares, Florencio Escardo,
Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Marcos Victoria, and Arturo Torres-Rioseco define
humorismo, from their relative perspectives, in the conventional way: a blend
of the sentimental and the comic or of the serious and the comic.12 Finally a
large body of work too diverse and extensive to cite here has suggested that
9 Macedonio Fernandez, Una teora para la humorstica, in Teoras (Buenos Aires:
Ediciones Corregidor, 1997), 260305 (p. 261).
10 Fernandez, Una teora, 305.
11 Enrique Araya, Humor y literatura: conferencia (Santiago: Ediciones Ateneo, 1993),
13.
12 Aldolfo Bioy Casares, while he avoids giving a strict definition, suggests that
humorismo es una forma de cortesa, but the majority of the examples he gives are humorous
anecdotes involving scenes of death, linking his notion of humour loosely to that of Freud
(Alfredo Bioy Casares, El humor en la literatura y en la vida, La Gaceta, 232 [abril de 1990],
26). Florencio Escardo, who denies a place for laughter, irony, satire and it would seem
comedy in his definition, says this of humour: el humorismo, pues, es una seriedad mucho mas
seria que la seriedad. Se puede ser serio en serie [ . . .] De ah tambien que la amarga sea uno de
sus componentes mas reconditos; tiene la tristura de todos los caminos de regreso y la
melancola es uno de los integrantes mas escondidos pero mas logicos de humor. Humorismo,
according to Escardo, is also invested with a corrective quality but above all entails una
actitud optimista (Florencio Escardo, El humor y humorismo, La Nacion, 20 de febrero de
1989, p. 7). Alfredo Bryce Echenique, in his inaugural speech to the Julio Cortazar conference
in 2002, distinguishes between the humorist and the satirist: En estos dos no se origina el
sentimiento de lo contrario. Si se originara, se volvera amarga la risa provocada en el primero
al advertir cualquier anormalidad; y la contradiccion que en el segundo es unicamente verbal
se volvera efectiva, sustancial, y por tanto dejara de ser ironica; y desaparecera la
indignacion, o cuando menos la aversion que esta en toda la satira. Humour and irony, both
associated with ambiguity and the irresolute, also consiste en el sentimiento de lo contrario,
suscitado por la especial actividad de la reflexion que no se oculta, que no se convierte [ . . .] en
una forma del sentimiento, sino en su opuesto, aun siguiendo paso a paso a ese sentimiento
como la sombra sigue el cuerpo (Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Sobre el humor y la irona, La
Nacion: Cultura, 14 de mayo de 2000, pp. 14 [p. 3]). Marcos Victoria argues more
conventionally that the important ingredients of humour are comedy and el amor o la
simpata (Marcos Victoria, El humorismo en la literatura argentina actual, in Variaciones
sobre lo sentimental [Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1944], 23055 [p. 230]). Arturo
Torres-Rioseco is of the same opinion. For him cuando el artista ve lo ridculo y
simultaneamente demuestra un sentimiento de comprension y piedad por la especie
humana, estamos en presencia del humorismo superior (Arturo Torres-Rioseco, El
humorismo en la literatura hispanoamericana, in Ensayos sobre literatura latinoamericana
[Mexico: Tezontle, 1953], 15071 [p. 150]).

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Latin-American humorismo, especially in the Caribbean, tends towards the


burlesque and the carnivalesque. Such attempts to define humorismo in Latin
America are varied, as we can see from the above citations. It is, without
doubt, a testament to the flexibility and imaginative use of humorismo in the
region. However, none of the definitions above describe the humour of El tunel
and only a number of them could be loosely associated with it.
The fact that the humour types of El tunel have not been recognized or
written about as such, or that at least some of them would be excluded by the
majority of the narrow definitions given above, is and is not a surprise. The
humorismo of El tunel is at once universal, national and regional. One
branch is not only a type of humour generally associated with Argentina but
with Buenos Aires as well (the setting of the novel of course). It is the dark,
cruel and mocking humour that Isodoro Blaisten defines as typically porteno:
Mientras que el humor porteno es mas reticente, mas burlon y mas cruel, eso
es tpico de las grandes ciudades.13 The acidic bite of this humour also blends
seamlessly with one of its principal humour modes: that of satire, which, as
we shall see, is probably the oldest and most traditional aspect of humorismo
in the history of Argentine literature due to its constant and close ties with
the literary tradition of Spanish-American costumbrismo. Connected to
satire and one of its sources, the humour of the novel is painted with
aspects of farce that, at times, lean towards the absurd and the grotesque.
Finally, the farcical, absurd and grotesque modes play a tangible role in
creating the most subtle strain of humour that haunts every page of El tunel.
This is the type of humour that Pirandello describes in his long essay, On
Humour.14 It is the kind that involves the comic and the tragic, the serious
and the ridiculous, a disquieting humour out of which neither the joyful
sentiment of laughter or the shocking or lachrymal element of tragedy can be
extracted separately. Different from the sentimental humour of Don Quixote
that found a burgeoning voice in eighteenth-century English literature, it is a
tragic humour that grows out of the existential and ontological themes of El
tunel and the novels pessimistic cosmovision, and which identifies the
author, in different measures, with the absurdists and metaphysicists of
the early half of the twentieth century, such as Unamuno, Valle-Inclan,
Beckett, Ionesco, Kafka, and Pirandello himself. But before we explore this
aspect further let us return to the subject of satire.
In the relatively short history of Latin-American literature (referring to
the post-independence body of work) costumbrismo has played a principal
role in literary production. The first and foremost literary tradition, it could
be argued, is that of costumbrismo which, along with the various other forms
of realism with which it has been associated, dominated the literary
landscape until the arrival of modernism and the psychological novel. The
13 Isodoro Blaisten, Cuando eramos felices (Buenos Aires: Emece, 1992), 88.
14 Luigi Pirandello, On Humor, trans. Antonio Illiano and Daniel P. Testa (Chapel Hill:
Univ. of North Carolina, 1960).

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literary history of Argentina is no different. The founding authors, Esteban


Echeverra, Sarmiento, Wilde, Cambarace and others, have all been defined
as costumbristas. At the same time, the Argentine costumbrismo movement
has, since its very beginning, been linked to the tradition of humorismo. In
the works of Wilde, Cambarace, Mansilla, Fray Mocho, the two elements are
so entwined that it is almost impossible to separate them, and, in the
twentieth century the tradition is continued by writers who begin to combine
costumbrista traditions with modernist techniques and themes, such as
Enrique Mendez Calzada, Enrique Loncan, Robert Galle, Arturo Cancela and
Roberto Arlt (in his Aguafuertes and El juguete rabioso), and even later still
by Julio Cortazar, Leopoldo Marechal and Jorge Ass.15 Indeed, so compelling
is the link between costumbrismo and humorismo in Argentine literature
that Enrique Mendez Calzada claims the virtual inseparability of the two
traditions:
En general, nuestros escritores de tendencia humorstica correspondientes a la segunda mitad del siglo pasado y comienzos de este,
derivaron hacia la cronica de costumbres, genero que se ha prestado y se
prestara siempre para el despliegue del humor, hasta el extremo de que
en muchos casos no resulte facil dictaminar si el costumbrista es o no un
humorista propiamente hablando.16
While, as Rivera points out, the motivation, ideological perspective and
critical vision of the humour expressed in Argentine costumbrismo is varied,
multivalent, and often particular to the individual text, a great majority of
the essays, short stories and novels (especially the novels) lean toward the
satirical, especially in relation to the customs or social echelons depicted.
This satirical impulse may take the form of traditional satire with its
acrimonious and corrective manner of seeing the world, or it may be founded
upon the kind of radical scepticism that occurs with Becketts disenchanted
protagonists, which at times reaches misanthropic proportions.17 Either way,
it is in these two kinds of satire, typical of Sabatos literary contemporaries
and predecessors, that the link between the humorismo of costumbrismo and
El tunel can be located. Moreover, with its existential concerns, it also places
the novel within the Argentine literary tradition of combining costumbrista
techniques with modernist themes and practices.
15 For an in-depth study of the relationship between costumbrismo and humorismo see
the following: Eduardo Romano, Fray Mocho. El costumbrismo hacia 1900 and Jorge B.
Rivera y Eduardo Romano, El costumbrismo hasta la decada del cincuenta, 16992, both in
Historia de la literatura argentina (Buenos Aires: CEAL, 1980) 26588 and 16992
respectively; Jorge B. Rivera, Humorismo y Costumbrismo (195070), in Historia de la
literatura argentina (Buenos Aires: CEAL, 1967), 60124.
16 Enrique Mendez Calzada, El humorismo en la literatura argentina (Buenos Aires:
Univ. de Buenos Aires, 1962), 22.
17 Rivera and Romana, El costumbrismo hasta la decada del cincuenta, 175.

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From a certain point of view, the existential novel has always exhibited or
contained the potential for satire. Existential angst, as propounded by the
literature and philosophy of Sartre and Camus, more often than not is
associated with a feeling of nausea which in turn is a symptom of what
Sartre terms as living in bad faith, which is to follow blindly the bourgeois
traditions of the Western world and its rules and regulations that according
to the Sartrean philosophy have no intrinsic claim to truth in relation to
mans being since mans existence precedes his essence.18 Thus man is
responsible for what he is, making the individual responsible not solely for
his own actions but those of the world, which means that man has to bear the
unimaginable burden of representing the whole of mankind through his
actions alone.19 In this sense, the author (or aesthetic existentialist to use
Sartres term) and quite often the protagonist of existential works, function
as a satirist or a tool for satire, especially in relation to the bourgeois milieu
that frequently characterizes the setting of the novels and plays. The satire
of El tunel fires its arrows at a similar target. However the satire here, and
indeed the potential for satire in all existential novels, differ from the
traditional concept and motivation of satire. It does not stem from some sort
of pre-ordained moral or ethical perspective. It is not the satire found in
Quevedos work (that Bryce Echenique has called arte con tesis)20 since such
a point of view would leave it open to accusations of bourgeois morality. The
satire of the existential novel has a higher aim and holds a loftier view point
from which it looks down to ridicule society. It criticizes society and the
characters thereof from the perspective of a philosophy that seeks to destroy
or unmask these bourgeois morals and the traditions and cultural practices
that are bound to them, and behind which man hides from his overwhelming
responsibility. It can take, then, an almost misanthropic stance when
describing the echelons of society and the members of that society who
follow blindly its false tenets and continue to act out its pre-ordained modes
of behaviour without question or thought. In this respect, as we shall see, the
satire is also representative of the deeper themes of the novel: those of
isolation and angst, since it stems not only from the novels treatment of
bourgeois customs but also the protagonist Juan Pablo Castels deep-felt
alienation from such customs.
The principal technique employed by Sabato to express this particular
misanthropic satire is the protagonist-narrator dichotomy. When we
encounter Juan Pablo Castel on the first page he is already deeply
discontented with and indeed alienated from Buenos Aires middle-class
society. From the very beginning of the novel there exist two Juan Pablo
Castels who are both equally isolated from and damning of society: the Juan
18 Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, trans. Philip Mairet (London:
Methuen, 1980), 2629.
19 Sartre, Existentialism, 29.
20 Bryce Echenique, Sobre humor y la irona, 4.

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Pablo narrating from his cell in the asylum and the Juan Pablo of the past
and subject of that narration (a typical technique of the picaresque structure
which, as we shall see, offers further moments of irony and humour). Yet it is
the protagonist, the Juan Pablo Castel who still holds onto the misplaced
hope that Mara Iribarne offers some sort of way out of his isolation, from
whom much of the satire flows. His attitude toward, his views on, and the
experiences he relates about his interaction with the society that surrounds
him combine to create several different scenes of social satire that, in varying
degrees, could have been penned by any number of the aforementioned
costumbristas.
Chapters XXIV and XXV, for example, describe the episode in which Juan
Pablo travels to the farm of Allende, the husband of Mara, in order to visit
his lover on the pretence of showing her some new paintings. On his arrival,
after a bizarre altercation with the chauffeur, to whom he first denies being
Senor Castel and then changes his mind, he is met much to his
disappointment not by Mara but by Hunter, cousin of Allende and possible
lover of Mara, and by his sister. In the first interlude Juan Pablo sets up the
tone of the meeting with a string of particularly caustic first impressions
concerning the physical attributes and personality quirks of his hosts that
call to mind the cruelly humorous caricature sketches of characters made by
Humbert Humbert in Nabokovs Lolita or one of Quevedos acerbic gems.
Mimi, for example, is depicted in the following terms:
As que usted es pintordijo la mujer miope. Mirandome con los ojos
semicerrados, como se hace cuando hay viento con tierra. Ese gesto,
provocado seguramente por su deseo de mejorar la miopa sin anteojos
(como si con anteojos pudiera ser mas fea) aumentaba su aire de
insolencia. (100)
Hunter is described as adding in reference to Juan Pablos paintings una
serie de idioteces a manera de elogio, repitiendo esas pavadas que los crticos
escriban sobre m cada vez que haba una exposicion: solido, etcetera
(100). The general acerbic tone of Chapter XXIV sharpens its teeth in the
following one. As the three sit down at the garden table, Mimi and Hunter
continue to demonstrate, without the need of Juan Pablos sarcastic asides,
the ridiculously pretentious traits of their respective personalities. Mimi,
having procured against Juan Pablos wishes his choice of preferred painters
(Van Gogh and El Greco), flies into the following monologue about her
opinion that great art is nothing more than a show of bad manners and a
demonstrative lack of decorum:
Te direprosiguio dirigiendose a Hunterque esos tipos como Miguel
ngelo o el Greco me molestan. Es tan agresiva la grandeza y el
A
dramatismo! No crees que es casi mala educacion? Yo creo que el artista
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excesos de dramatismo y de originalidad. Fjate que ser original es en


cierto modo estar poniendo de manifiesto la mediocridad de los demas, lo
que me parece de gusto muy dudoso. Creo que si yo pintase o escribiese
hara cosas que no llamasen la atencion en ningun momento.No lo pongo
en dudacomento Hunter con malignidad. (10304)
The conversation then moves on to the subject of literature, during which
Mimi and Hunter bicker over the language with which one should refer to the
characters from Russian novels. Mimi insists on changing the Russian names
into French, much to her brothers exasperation: Por que en vez de decir
Tcheckov no decs Chejov, que se aparece mas al original? (105). This
pseudo-intellectual tiff leads the two to a debate about the amount of
confusing characters in Russian novels and the relative literary merit of the
detective novel, with which Mimi is enchanted and which Hunter regards
with snobby disdain. The latter opines that the genre has become so
stereotyped that it would now be possible to write a parody of one in the
style of Cervantes Don Quixote. He then continues to offer his own idea for a
plot in which a man is forced to investigate the death of his wife, son and
mother due to the incompetence of the police force, and through a number of
complex twists and turns discovers that he is in fact the murderer. Finally
the pompous literary debate wraps up with a discussion about telepathy,
during which Hunter continually throws ironic looks at Juan Pablo. He has
in fact being doing so for the entire length of the ridiculous discussion, either
to communicate the tired disdain he feels for his sisters opinions or in
response to Juan Pablos monosyllabic and half-hearted replies. The repetitions of the act, along with the subject of his conversation, soon point him out
to be a type: the pseudo-intellectual or sophist, and a foolish one at that.21
The satire in this chapter, therefore, operates on two levels. Firstly, from a
traditional point of view, it is similar to the type found in what the English
call a comedy of manners. It attacks the chattering monkey class; that is to
say, it lampoons the mannerisms and pretentious proclivities of an Argentine
middle class. Secondly, it expresses, or at least is expressed through, the
protagonists deep-felt alienation from those cultural mores and values. In
this respect, it is connected to the existential themes of the novel*something
which we shall discuss in more depth later. Finally, Sabatos use of Juan
Pablo as agent of the satiric attack dictates that the motive of the satire is
21 It is worth mentioning here that according to Bergson the principal source of comedy
is repetition, that he defines as something mechanical encrusted on the living. In this respect,
Bergson argues that laughter is corrective in that it seeks to shame inflexible and unnaturally
mechanical behaviour since mans naturally evolved nature is one of flexibility and fluidity, of
adaptability. For this reason we find Molie`res characters or fixed types funny. If Bergson is
correct, which I believe he is from a certain point of view, then Hunter is one such type,
created only for ridicule (Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,
trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell [London: Macmillan Press, 1911], 37).

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interpreted differently from one that would normally be implied by the


humour of conventional costumbrismo and the comedy of manners. Referring
to Fray Mochos dialogos, for example, Eduardo Romano observes that they
are scenes that ridiculizan a los que ignoran o confunden los presupuestos
que rigen cada nivel social, while others desacreditan el prurito por
diferenciarse en gestos, vestimentas y costumbres los que gozan de mejor
posicion.22 Thus both types, albeit from different perspectives, imply the
propriety of a certain type of behaviour by criticizing another. Written in this
tradition, then, the motive of the satire in our scene would stem from an ideal
of a norm; that is to say, its criticism of Mimis and Hunters pretentious and
trivial mode of behaviour would imply the existence of an ideal mode of
behaviour: one that entails, for example, a more meaningful and less trivial
outlook on life. However in an existential novel like El tunel this cannot be
the case. If it were, it would open up the text to the criticism of simply
endorsing one mode of accepted behaviour over an unacceptable one and,
therefore, repeating the kind of middle-class cultural practice that it
criticizes. In this respect, the satire can only be read as a criticism of
practising a type of social custom and convention or, in other words, of
humankinds predilection for blindly following accepted norms, belief
systems and modes of behaviour, the rejection of which, of course, lies at
the very heart of existential philosophy.
Other satirical episodes make use of the same literary conventions but
stem from the protagonists idiosyncratic attitudes and descriptions of his
social world. In Chapter IV, Juan Pablo attempts to explain the reasons
behind the antipathy he feels for salones de pintura and the people to be
found there. His explanation at first seems to be acceptable or at least based
on a representation of the stereotypical intellectual types that gather at
galleries, while at the same time highlighting Juan Pablos estrangement
from all society and, in turn, depicting that society as a metaphor for the
absurd and meaningless nature of the universe: Esos conglomerados tienen
una cantidad de atributos grotescos: la repeticion del tipo, la jerga, la vanidad
de creerse superiores al resto (16). Having then justified his need to further
justify these comments, he then expands on his reasons in a way that
surprises the reader (at least it surprised this one):
Que quiero decir con eso de repeticion del tipo? Habran observado que
desagradable es encontrarse con alguien que a cada instante guina un ojo
o tuerce la boca. Pero, imaginan a todos esos individuos reunidos en un
club? No hay necesidad de llegar a esos extremos, sin embargo: basta
observar las familias numerosas, donde se repiten ciertos rasgos, ciertos
gestos, ciertas entonaciones de voz. (16)

22

Romano, Fray Mocho, 28283.

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Juan Pablos vindication of his reasons is surprising in the comic sense


because the reader, due to the narrators fervent dislike for art salons and
their members and his claim that it obedece a razones muy profundas, is
expecting something more than habran observado que desagradable es
encontrarse con alguien que a cada instante guina un ojo o tuerce la boca
(16). We expect in other words a more profound reason, or perhaps a more
vitriolic and descriptive condemnation of the characters who frequent the
galleries. In this sense, the whole passage ends in bathos or anti-climax. The
reason fails to meet our expectation. Yet at the same time other forces are at
work. Ironically the description does in fact obedece[r] a razones profundas
since it is inseparable from Juan Pablos existential alienation from society.
In fact the profound reasons for Juan Pablos actions and mindset often find
voice through the most mundane details. It is an incongruity from which
much of the black humour and irony of the novel stems. We shall discuss this
aspect in more detail later. For now, it suffices to say that the reasons given
by Juan Pablo, even if they are somewhat off-beat, do not want for satiric
bite. The comment quite brilliantly depicts a body of people, their actions,
and motivations and pretensions in one cutting brushstroke: a technique not
alien to the costumbristas. It leaves readers in no doubt about the type or
body of types being described and the pretentious masks they wear or what
they should think of them. The emphasis on repetition alone (repetition being
one of Sabatos most potent weapons) is enough to ridicule and mock the
crowd even though we are not given a description of one single member. The
crowd is satirized for just that, being a crowd. Again, humankind is satirized
for its tendency to follow without question customs and traditions.
There are various other episodes of satire in El tunel that operate in very
much the same way and that have the crowd or some sort of societal
institution or institutionalized way of thinking as the butt of their joke: the
protagonists conversation with his friend and psychiatrist (17), the postoffice scene (Chapter XXX). Indeed whenever Juan Pablo is forced to
socialize, society as a whole comes off badly. His strange way of looking at
the world, that constitutes a kind of psychological defamiliarization of it,
and his interaction with it tend to function as a tool of derision and scorn.
Satire in El tunel, therefore, is prevalent and particularly critical of groups
and society. But, as I mentioned earlier, it is not the same as traditional or
moral satire. Its purpose is not to castigate society, or the individual of that
society for acts of immorality, debauchery or indolence. Neither does it aim to
shepherd the eccentric or the unusual back into the fold from the indefinable
and relative perspective of the middle-ground, as many of the costumbrista
satirists attempt to do (though admittedly for varying reasons and within
diverse contexts). Neither is it dependent on the social and cultural context of
its time, at least in a critical sense. Such perspectives would leave what is
ostensibly an existential novel open to the accusation of being somehow
bourgeois in its outlook. Rather, Sabato uses the social and cultural contexts

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of the novel (the manners, the language, the conventions of 1940s Argentina
or at least some of them) and the costumbrista techniques of portraying them
in order to criticize the very act of acting, the very act of fitting oneself into a
custom. In other words, the satire is not corrective in a social sense. Its
motivation is far more radical and existential, far more caustic and constant.
It attempts to punch through that sense of the social and to destroy through
quiet ridicule the very customs it depicts. In this sense, the satire of El tunel
is something quite strange and appears to turn the traditional direction of
satire on its head. No longer corrective (in a social context at least) it assumes
the directional powers of the burlesque (though not the techniques); that is, it
exposes the absurdity of the customs from underneath without implying the
acceptability of other ones. It invites the reader to view, not the individuals
or societys foibles, but all the customs we adopt every day to make ourselves
part of society as fraudulent and ridiculous and, above all, absurd. In this
respect, the satire both encompasses and communicates the thematics of the
novel. It expresses disquiet, an existential distaste for the cultural practices
and customs that shield us from the stark truth of existence, that, in turn,
are absurd themselves.
Another, perhaps less important, mode of humour to be found in the text
is something akin to what can only be called watered-down aspects of farce
and situational comedy. This type of humour stems almost completely from
the interaction between Juan Pablos irrational mind (his strange way of
perceiving the world) and the actual world around him. In the former
paragraph, I briefly discussed an example in which, to a certain extent, Juan
Pablos psychological defamiliarization of a party gathering leaves him
seeming, on the surface at least, as foolish as the members of the gallery he
wishes to criticize. The reader is forced to read between the lines of the satire,
the strange way in which it is expressed to see that the satire is, none the
less, well addressed. The humour, therefore, wields a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, as we have seen, it criticizes those who blindly follow a
custom (in this case, the crowd of individuals that all constantly exhibit the
same facial expression). Yet, on the other, it derives from the characters
eccentric, alienated and irrational viewpoint, even though Juan Pablo claims
his antipathy is based upon razones muy profundas. Indeed his desperate
insistences that he needs to explain his reasons so that the reader does not
suspect that his opinions and actions are the result of mera mana soon
begin to smack of a manic need to explain himself. The fact that Juan Pablo is
an irrational creature, a madman of sorts sitting in his cell in a mental
asylum writing a confession is, then, woven into the very fabric of the text.
Every word he writes is imbued with a sense of the manic and the unstable
that expresses a skewed view of the world; and we should not forget that
madmen and comedy have long been bedfellows. This skewered vision, once
again, stands as a metaphor for the absurd condition of humankind: the
existential notion of the tragic yet comic meaninglessness of our existence.

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This irrational world view plays, of course, an especially prevalent role


in the plot of the novel: Juan Pablos relationship with Mara Iribarne. The
manner in which he first spots Mara and reacts to her mysterious interest
in his painting of a young woman looking out to sea is, on the surface at
least, a random decision or an inexplicable one. Yet it is in the actual
development of the relationship, both imagined and actual, that the
irrationality of Juan Pablos obsession unfolds. Even before he meets her
the reader is presented with several of the protagonists complex and
imagined meetings with Mara as he ruminates over the best possible way
to introduce himself to her. Absurdly, these illusory first encounters are
fraught with difficulty and confusion and all end up in disaster and are
then discarded as unworkable:
No recuerdo ahora todas las variantes que pense. Solo recuerdo que eran
practicamente inservibles. Sera un azar demasiado portentoso que la
realidad coincidiera luego con una llave tan complicada, preparada de
antemano ignorando la forma de la cerradura. Pero suceda que cuando
haba examinado tantas variantes enrevesadas, me olvidaba del orden de
las preguntas y respuestas o las mezclaba. Como sucede en el ajedrez
cuando uno imagina partidas de memoria. Y tambien resultaba a menudo
que reemplazaba frases de una variante con frases de otra, con resultados
ridculos o desalentadores. Por ejemplo, detenerla para darle una
direccion y en seguida preguntarle: Tiene mucho interes en el arte?
Era grotesco. (24)
The act of mentally projecting so many different permutations is absurd
enough, but surely that they all end up in downright disaster is meant to
have at least some kind of humorous effect.
Predictably the absurd tone of the envisaged meetings with Mara is
representative of the real ones. The several reunions described throw Juan
Pablo into a number of semi-ridiculous situations that involve a subtle mix of
watered-down farce and situational comedy. From the very first moment the
tone is set. Having spotted Mara in the street, Juan Pablo follows her to her
place of work where he pretends to wait for the lift. In such close proximity to
her he immediately feels the pressure to say something, which, given the
amount of time he has spent preparing for the wished-for moment is all the
more ridiculous:
No haba nadie mas. Alguien mas audaz que yo pronuncio desde mi
interior esta pregunta increblemente estupida: *Este es el edificio de la
Compana T.? Un cartel de varios metros de largo, que abarcaba todo el
frente del edificio, proclamaba que, en efecto, ese era el edificio de la
Compana T. (27)

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Later, having finally asked her about the painting, he is forced to pursue her
manically through the streets, all the time constantly aware of lo ridculo de
la escena, and that era grotesco que un hombre conocido corriera por la calle
detras de una muchacha (2930). The farcical tone continues as the
relationship develops, along with Juan Pablos growing jealousy of and
frustration with Mara who neither seems to understand or know how to
respond to Juan Pablos interrogations, who at times does not seem to
understand them himself. In Chapter XVI, for example, Juan Pablo meets
Mara in La Plaza San Martn where it is so dark he can hardly see her and
in his manic need to know what she feels and his mistrust of her, he is
required to strike a number of matches in order to catch her expression. In
one of these illuminating moments he thinks he sees her smiling in response
to his questions or [e]s decir, ya no sonrea, pero haba sonredo un decimo de
segundo antes (69). The suspicion then leads the two into a petty argument
about whether Mara had been smiling or not. The conversation finally
concludes with a heated discussion about their respective ages that provokes
the latter to state: Esta conversacion es absurda [ . . .] todo es una tontera.
Me asombra que te procupes de cosas as (71). Of course, underneath this
seemingly trivial and absurd conversation lies the deeply serious, existential
theme of the novel. As Juan Pablo at the end of the chapter tells us: Solo en
mi casa, horas despues, llegue a darme cuenta del significado profundo de
esta conversacion aparentemente tan trivial (72). The serious undertone of
the scene is palpable as it is in all the episodes discussed so far. Yet, at the
same time, the trivial, the absurd, and the ridiculous also constitute key
elements in the novel, or at the very least they are a recurring feature.
Embodying the principal theme of the novel, the existential notion that
human existence is simultaneously tragic and meaningless or absurd, the
serious and the ridiculous constantly combine in different guises, finding
expression in a serio-comic incongruity between theme, tone and action.
Returning to the relationship between Mara and Juan Pablo, its
dramatic content, the dialogues between the two and Juan Pablos
internal machinations on the subject that characterize and embody the
relationship for the reader, are constructed around this incongruity
between theme and action, as in the early chapters of the novel in which
the protagonist first becomes aware of Maras existence. Here his
seemingly arbitrary reason for first noticing her (because she stood and
stared at one of his paintings) and subsequent irrational pursuit of her that
shows certain signs of a quasi-adolescent tendency with its relentless
obsessive and introspective nature are rather ridiculous and, from a certain
point of view, meaningless and capricious actions. This trait of the absurd
and the trivial also haunts the dialogues between the two characters, most
of which take the form of Castels incessant and neurotic interrogations
that, on the whole, centre on seemingly unimportant and irrelevant aspects
of the relationship; something which Mara is quite aware of herself. Que

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nino sos! Que importancia puede tener eso?, she responds when Castel
insists on knowing why she allows herself to be called senorita Iribarne
and not senora (78). However, when we take into account what Mara and
Castels pursuit represents within the broader themes of the novel the
protagonists irrational and petty behaviour takes on a different meaning.
Revealed in Chapter XXXVI, Mara represents Castels existential quest for
meaning bound in his desire for human contact and, moreover, the tragic
impossibility of that quest (14951). Seen in light of this revelation, the
trivial and ridiculous aspects of Castel display a yawning incongruity with
the ultimate meaning of the search. At the same time, this incongruity is
really part and parcel of the same thing. It expresses the innate incongruity
of the existential condition: that being human is at once ridiculous and
meaningless (i.e. absurd) and tragic, and it is tragic because it is absurd
and so on.
Incongruity, in another guise, also plays a big part in the narrative style
of the novel.23 A confession, the framework of the novel, is narrated in what
has been often compared to the style of hard-boiled detective fiction. Similar
in this sense to James M. Cains The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), the
hard-boiled detective style made famous by Raymond Chandlers Phillip
Marlow is used in order to confess a crime rather than investigate it, which in
itself is an incongruity. Yet it is in the actual process of confession where the
most telling linguistic incongruities can be found.
In the following passage, for example, Juan Pablo ruminates over the
letter he rashly sends to Mara towards the end of the novel:
Apenas sal de correo advert dos cosas: no haba dicho la carta por que
haba inferido que ella era amante de Hunter; no saba que me propona
al herirla tan despiadadamente: acaso hacerla cambiar de manera de
ser, en caso de ser ciertas mis conjeturas? Eso era evidentemente ridculo.
Hacerla correr hacia m? No era creble que lograra con esos
procedimientos. Reflexione, sin embargo, que en el fondo de mi alma
solo ansiaba que Mara volviese a m. Pero, en este caso, por que no

23 It will be of interest to note here that incongruity is regarded as one of the most
important elements of comedy. Generally referred to as the incongruity theory, Immanuel
Kant and John Moreall are exponents of this train of thought. However, it is Schopenhauer
who gives us the most specific version of the theory. He argues that humour arises from the
apprehension that a concept fails to account for an object (Arthur Schopenhauer, The World
As Will and Representation, trans. R. B. Haldane [London: Routledge and Kegan, 1950], 71
81). Furthermore, this theory can quite easily be applied to language register in the novel as
does Salvatore Atardo in his study of humour and register (Chapter VII, Register-Based
Humour, in Linguistic Theories of Humour [New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1994], 23053).
From this perspective, humour might be said to arise when the reader apprehends that a
register is used inappropriately: for example, the act of changing a babys nappy described in
strict legalese.

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decrselo directamente, sin herirla, explicandome que me haba ido de la


estancia porque de pronto haba advertido los celos de Hunter? Al fin de
cuentas, mi conclusion de que era amante de Hunter, ademas de hiriente,
era completamente gratuita; en todo caso era una hipotesis, que yo me
poda formular con el unico proposito de orientar mis investigaciones
futuras. (127)
Here, the subject of a personal, quasi-romantic confession is combined with
an investigative register. The short sharp sentence structure and the
rhetorical question formula, typical of the detective novel, are a constant
and are emphasized throughout, but the subject is not the investigation of a
crime or even the crime in the novel. The subject is a personal one
entwined within Juan Pablos obsession with Mara, his love and jealousy.
It is an internal search for a personal, emotional motive expressed in the
rather incongruous register of the detective novel. At times, a pseudo-legal
dialect, also typical of the detective novel, is interwoven into the language.
The lograra con estos procedimientos, al fin de cuentas, mi conclusion,
una hipotesis and formular con el unico proposito de orientar mis
investigaciones add a dry and official tone to the passage, heightening
the incongruity between register and subject. This incongruity has four
discernible effects. The first is, or at least could be construed as humorous,
thanks to the erroneous use of register to describe an emotive subject,
which shows that incongruities run through the grain of the novel,
although they do not always embody the tragic-comic theme already
discussed. The second is to emphasize the protagonists strange and
obsessive psychology through which he sees the world in various off-key
ways. The third, a correlate of the second, is to distance the reader from the
narrator/protagonist, which has pretty much been a constant since the start
of the novel, where Juan Pablo confesses himself to be the murderer of
Mara Iribarne. And finally, this gap encourages the reader to question the
validity of the narrator/protagonists observations by implying that his
vision of the world is erroneous in some way (and indeed this is typical of
the narrative as a whole) and, therefore, serves to undercut his confession,
which inevitably leads us to the question of irony.
Irony, of course, is a complex literary and extra-literary phenomenon. Like
its often close associates humour, comedy and parody, it can take various
forms and be used to express various meanings. Influenced by Kants
subjectivity of knowledge, Schlegel and the Romantics argued in typically
romantic fashion that irony was inherent in any description of subject or self
since behind all description necessarily lurks the knowledge that this
description is subjective and, therefore, unable to grasp the true self or the
ideal subject. The truth and the true self, according to Schlegel, that lie
behind the mask of ideas can only be presented as something absent not

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presented in itself.24 In this sense, Romantic irony is directly related to the


Phyrrhonic and Socratic mode that Kierkegaard accused of being immoral in
its task of demonstrating the relativity of any truth claim.25 Accordingly,
Sartre himself is highly critical of irony and the ironist in the Bad Faith
section of Being and Nothingness, in which he states that irony is the opposite
of action: it affirms to deny and denies to affirm.26 However, the irony of El
tunel is perhaps the opposite of the irony explained and criticized here*what
Booth would probably call unstable irony.27 Rather it takes the form, to use
another of Booths terms, of stable irony. The irony that says one thing but
means or implies something else or, in other words, the type of irony that
confidently asserts or implies a truth in order to undermine a false or
incorrect claim.28 In El tunel this type of irony is expressed on two levels. The
first can be found in the gap between the implied author and narrator, the
second in the rather more unstable gap between the narrator and protagonist.
However, unlike the relationship between the implied narrator and the
unreliable narrator described by Booth, the ironic gap in El tunel does not
depend on a specific ethical code.29 Neither does it rely on cultural or social
codes and a deviation from them. As we have already seen, the satire in El
tunel is not concerned with moral or social issues from an ethical point of view.
It sees all moral and social codes as absurd. Similarly, the irony of the novel is
not concerned with them either. Instead it is concerned with the protagonists
and the narrators perception of his situation in relation to 1) how he sees

24 Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments, trans. P. Firchow (Minneapolis: Univ.


of Minnesota Press, 1991).
25 For Kierkegaard irony or the ironic outlook is only a stepping stone on the way to the
authentic personal existence of faith (Sren Kierkegaard, The Truth of Irony, in The Concept
of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates, trans. Lee M. Capel [London: Harper & Row,
1966], 33642).
26 For Sartre irony is seen in terms of a perpetual negation of the human personality. It
is a form of self-negation par excellence (Jean-Paul Sartre, Bad Faith, in his Being and
Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes [London: Routledge, 2002], 4767 [p. 47]).
27 Booth defines unstable irony as an ironic statement or expression from which no
stable reconstruction can be made out of the ruins revealed through irony [ . . .] The only sure
affirmation is that negation begins all ironic play: this affirmation must be rejected, leaving
the possibility, and in infinite ironies the clear implication, that since the universe (or at least
the universe of discourse) is inherently absurd, all statements are subject to ironic
undermining. No statement can really mean what it says (Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of
Irony [London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974], 241).
28 Booth defines this mode of irony in respect of the readers interpretation. If he is
reading properly, states Booth, he is unable to escape recognizing either some incongruity
among the words or between the words and something else he knows. In every case, even the
most seemingly simple, the route to new meanings passes through an unspoken conviction
that cannot be reconciled with the literal meaning (Booth, The Rhetoric of Irony, 10). D. C.
Muecke calls this the irony of simple incongruity, in The Compass of Irony (London:
Methuen, 1980), 100.
29 Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 15859.

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himself and others, and 2) his knowledge of the existential truth, realized
only at the very end of the novel.
On the first level, the reader detects the irony through Juan Pablos
comments about himself or others that are ostensibly at odds with the
information given or the world in which he lives. On returning from the first
meeting with Maras husband he feverishly mulls over their relationship,
asking himself, Y ese ciego, que clase de bicho era? (55). The irony here is
that there is no greater bicho raro than the protagonist himself. In fact he is
the bicho raro of all bichos raros as his behaviour and internal monologues
testify. In another episode (one to which I have already referred) Juan Pablo
sits in the garden at the farm with Hunter and his sister. He is waiting for
Mara to come down from her room and, exasperated that she has not,
suddenly hits upon the idea that it is because she probably does not wish to
socialize with the other two. But the real reason is far more likely to be that
she does not want to see him (110). He has, after all, by his own admission
treated her extremely cruelly. Even his suspicions that she is unfaithful to
him are imbued with a sense of irony when he refers the situation to that of
Othello (87). Desdemona was not unfaithful. The motive of this type of irony
is to form a distance between the reader and the narrator so that the former
views the words of the latter with a generous dose of scepticism. It places the
narrator at odds with the reader, or at least the implied reader, because he
does not seem to be aware of the true nature of the events he narrates. Such
irony also creates the illusion of a character that is being played for a fool,
who is controlled by an impersonal and external force in which an implied
author plays the role of a threatening, mocking universe.
At the same time, however, on the second level the narrator controls the
ironic discourse in respect of the protagonist. From his privileged position, he
is able to pick out the faulty or mistaken perceptions of his former self. At
times, this irony almost reaches comic proportions. At the farm again, Juan
Pablo finds himself alone with a Mara who is finally ready to tell him the
intimate and emotional details of her past. The protagonist has waited a long
time for this moment. Indeed almost all the dialogues between the two centre
on Juan Pablos attempts to make the reticent and confused Mara tell him
how she feels, what she is thinking about. However, when the moment comes
Juan Pablo falls into a rather strange stupor and ironically, comically and
tragically does not listen to a word:
De pronto o otros fragmentos de frases: hablaba de un primo, Juan o algo
as; hablo de la infancia en el campo; me parecio or algo de hechos
tormentosos y crueles, que haban pasado con ese otro primo. Me parecio
que Mara me haba estado haciendo una preciosa confesion y que yo,
como estupido, la haba perdido. (118)
Other examples of this type of irony are many. The mise-en-abme of the
situation, in which Juan Pablo dreams of watching himself ironically mocked

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by Mimi and Hunter, also emphasizes the importance of the ironic


relationship between the protagonist and narrator in the novel (13334).
Yet in reality all the ironic paths lead back to one point or rather to the
novels principal existential theme: Juan Pablos search for a connection, a
point of human contact, in which, of course, Mara plays an important role.
For Juan Pablo the protagonist, Mara is the focus of this search. Yet it is not
until the very end of the novel that he or the reader comes to know its
content, its raison detre. It is in the metaphor of the tunnel that he and we as
readers come to know the true shape and content of the search and its tragic
nature:
La hora del encuentro haba llegado! Pero realmente los pasadizos se
haban unido y nuestras almas se haban comunicado? Que estupida
ilusion ma haba sido todo esto! No, los pasadizos seguan paralelos como
antes, aunque ahora el muro que los separaba fuera como un muro de
vidrio y yo pudiese verla a Mara como una figura silenciosa e intocable
. . . No, ni siquiera ese muro era siempre as: a veces volva ser piedra
negra y entonces no saba que pasaba del otro lado, que era de ella en esos
intervalos anonimos, que extranos sucesos acontecan; y hasta pensaba
que en esos momentos su rostro cambiaba y que una mueca de burla lo
deformaba y quiza haba risas cruzadas con otro y que toda la historia de
los pasadizos era una ridcula invencion o creencia ma y que en todo caso
haba un solo tunel, oscuro y solitario: el mo, el tunel en que haba
transcurrido mi infancia, mi juventud, toda mi vida. (150)
And a few pages later:
Y hablaba con ese monstruo ridculo! De que podra hablar Mara con
ese infecto personaje? Y en que lenguaje?
O sera yo el monstruo ridculo? Y se estaran riendo de m en ese
instante? Y no sera yo el imbecil, el ridculo hombre del tunel y de los
mensajes secretos? (152)
In these moments of epiphany, Juan Pablo realizes the impossible and tragic
nature of the desire that lies behind his obsession with Mara. Simultaneously, the reader is informed too through the central image of the text.
Juan Pablos quest is driven by an existential anguish, a philosophical one
even, torn open by the opposition between the selfs desire for meaning and
the meaninglessness and hostility of the universe in which he lives. It is the
sick joke of humankinds existential situation: the individuals compulsion to
search for meaning in a meaningless universe. What Juan Pablo craves is
contact, meaning; the reassurance that he is not alone. But in an existential
universe, or at least the existential universe portrayed in El tunel, such
illusory comforts are impossible. This realization, furthermore, compels us to
reread the reactions and behaviour of Juan Pablo in a different light. The

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tragic nature of his search, of his confession, which up until now has
remained somewhat confusing and ridiculous, is suddenly revealed. For the
first time, we are made aware that his quest is our quest, all mankinds quest
in fact. We are suddenly placed, in other words, in a more informed position
than before, which leads us to a greater understanding of the protagonist and
narrator. And, it is at this very point*through an impelled re-evaluation of
Juan Pablos narration*that the second level of irony, the irony that
underscores the futility of the protagonists search, changes into humour.
Or, I should say, a type of humour: namely the type defined by Pirandello in
his treatise, On Humour. For Pirandello, humour is not simply a combination
of the comic and the serious or sentimental. Rather it is an intellectual
exercise that impels the recipient to see beyond the simple perception of the
incongruity involved and shift to a feeling of the opposite.30 Pirandello
describes the process in the following way:
I see an old lady whose hair is dyed and completely smeared with some
kind of horrible ointment; she is all made-up in a clumsy awkward
fashion and is all dolled-up like a young girl. I perceive that she is the
opposite of what a respectable old lady should be. Now I stop here at this
initial and superficial comic reaction: the comic consists precisely of this
perception of the opposite. But if, at this point, reflection interferes in me
to suggest that perhaps this old lady finds no pleasure in dressing up like
an exotic parrot, and that perhaps she is distressed by it and does it only
because she pitifully deceives herself into believing that, by making
herself up like that and by concealing her wrinkles and grey hair, she
may be able to hold the love of her much younger husband*if reflection
comes to suggest all this, then I can no longer laugh at her as I did at first,
because the inner workings of the reflection have made me go beyond, or
rather deeper than the initial stage of awareness: from the beginning of
the perception of the opposite, reflection has made me shift to a feeling of
the opposite. And herein lies the difference between the comic and
humour.31
In El tunel we perceive the incongruities in Juan Pablos irrational
behaviour, in his strange monologues and bizarre pursuit of Mara.
Admittedly, not all these incidents can be defined as comic and the ones
that elicit laughter do so in a rather macabre way due to the black tone of the
novel. But the point is that only when we know the nature of Juan Pablos
search do we know why the novel affects us in this way. At this point we
identify with his irrational, erratic behaviour and shift to a feeling of the
opposite. Furthermore, the incongruities are now seen to reside in the
opposition between Juan Pablos seemingly trivial manias and obsessions
30
31

Pirandello, On Humor, 113.


Pirandello, On Humor, 113.

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and his adolescent longings and jealousy, and the gaping tragic existential
void that he seeks to fill. Interestingly, according to Pirandello, humour is
also an irremediable part of the human condition:
Humour is very much related to mans thirst for truth and knowledge and
concrete identity and the realization that this thirst will never, can never,
be quenched because truth and knowledge are quite simply illusions with
which man has cloaked the disquieting meaninglessness of the
universe.32
From this universal perspective, then, Juan Pablo becomes the
everyman. He is the grotesque puppet, el ridculo hombre del tunel, who
plays a role in an abominable comedia in which we all inevitably participate.
His is a tragic figure who dances grotesquely over the stark void of the
human condition that cannot nevertheless ever be fully tragic because its
very meaninglessness makes it comic, absurd. Something that has no
meaning can no longer be tragic. His search, then, is our search or at least
it is if we enter full-heartedly into the existential drama of the novel. It is also
a search that can never end. It is the tragic existential joke that mankind has
evolved to ask the meaning of his or her meaningless existence that, if it
provokes laughter at all, can only be bitterly comic.33
To conclude, in this article I have explored Sabatos El tunel from a
formerly unexplored perspective: through its humour. As for the reading of
humour in general I have deliberately stayed away from the notion of
comedy. It would have been tempting to apply Bakhtins work on the
Menippean Satire (as he does with Notes from Underground) to the novel. At
least ten similar features can be identified: the representation of mans
psychic disorder (comic alongside the tragic), scandalous scenes and eccentric
behaviour, sharp contrasts and oxymoronic combinations, elements of social
utopia, inserted genres and the variety of style and tones, journalistic
underscore concerned with details of the day, underworld naturalism
32 Pirandello, On Humor, 130.
33 Pirandello, On Humor, 124. In his essay on the difference between Pirandellos idea
of humour and the general nature of comedy, Umberto Eco debunks the notion that comedy
and the carnivalesque are truly transgressive because their transgression in reality confirms
the transgressed rule. Rather he sees Pirandellos definition of humour as truly transgressive.
Humour, he writes, does not pretend, like the carnival, to lead us beyond our own limits. It
gives us the feeling, or better, the picture of the structure of our own limits. It is never off
limits, it undermines limits from inside. It does not fish for the impossible freedom, yet it is a
true movement towards freedom. Humour does not promise us liberation: on the contrary, it
warns us about the impossibility of global liberation reminding us of the presence of a law that
we no longer have reason to obey. In doing so it undermines the law. It makes us feel the
uneasiness of living under a lawany law (Umberto Eco, The Comic and the Rule, in Travels
in Hyper Reality [London: Picador, 1987], 26978 [p. 278]). In this respect, the dark humour of
El tunel could be seen as transgressive since it highlights both the futility, tragedy and, at the
same time, the inevitability of living under such laws and cultural codes.

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(grotesque realism), scatological elements and the exploration of ultimate


questions.34 However, the laughter of El tunel is perhaps too reduced, to use
Bakhtins term, for it to be wholly relevant. The humour of El tunel is rather
an intrinsic element of the novels profound thematics and tragic
metaphysical message. It is a humour of a darker hue that expresses a
grotesque existential anguish similar to that found in the theatre of the
absurd of the early twentieth century (Pirandello, Beckett, Jarret, Ionesco)
and, moreover, to the serio-comic essence of Dostoevskys Notes from
Underground and the works of Kafka, with which El tunel shares more
than just a simple, one-sided tragic view of the human condition.

34 M. M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevskys Poetics, trans. R. W. Rotsel (London: Ardis,


1973) 9399.