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  • The Failure of Language in Ernesto Sábato’s El Túnel
  • Rebecca M. Bender

Puedo hablar hasta el cansancio y a gritos delante de una asamblea de cien mil rusos: nadie me entendería. ¿Se dan cuenta de lo que quiero decir? Existió una persona que podría entenderme. Pero fue, precisamente, la persona que maté.

Sábato, El túnel (15)

Uttered by Juan Pablo Castel in the opening pages of Ernesto Sábato’s novel El túnel (1948), these words bring to light two very important details regarding the protagonist’s ensuing confession. First, he immediately and directly informs readers that he has committed a murder, an act that Albert Fuss credits with effectively inverting the structure of the traditional detective novel (326). Secondly, given the fact that Castel describes his victim as the only individual who could actually understand him, readers obtain a characterization of this protagonist that depends largely on his perceived inability to communicate, which prompts an internal personal trauma. From the onset, Castel underscores his intense, often obsessive desire to adequately communicate with others. Curiously, this desire is quite paradoxical, as a self-proclaimed loather of humanity like Castel might be inclined to avoid establishing a profound human connection based on fluent communication and mutual understanding.1 But for this particular individual, communication is not achieved merely through praxis – that is, through his own speaking or [End Page 225] verbal expression – but by way of an illusory ability to perceive a more intimate, spiritual connection with another human being. In accordance with the central role of communication within the novel, this essay will explore the constant, acute obsession with language and linguistic subtleties that is continuously manifested throughout the extensive rationalizations and anxieties characterizing Castel’s confession. As a result of this analysis, if will become clear that Castel in fact rejects language and speech as adequate means for communication, favoring instead a more ineffable transfer of thought based on the expression of vital impulses.

Before delving into these issues in Sábato’s novel, I will frame my analysis on pertinent observations made by Alexander Spirkin in his theorizing of dialectical materialism. Spirkin characterizes the relationship between consciousness and speech not simply as one of coexistence and mutual influence, but rather as a “relationship of unity in which consciousness plays the decisive role” (187).2 As such, Spirkin posits that consciousness is a “reflection of reality” that “dictates the laws of its own existence,” becoming expressed through speech (187). Consequently, “if there is a thought in our consciousness, it is always contained in a word, although it may not be the word that best expresses that particular thought” (187). As Spirkin understands it, however, there is frequently a division, or an inconsistency, which occurs between one’s consciousness, and the verbal representation or linguistic manifestation with which the specific thoughts of this consciousness must be expressed. This remark echoes Karl Marx’s observations of the way in which language “burdens” the spirit: “From the start the ‘spirit’ is afflicted with the curse of being ‘burdened’ with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in sort, of language” (158).

In El túnel, Castel’s impassioned awareness of (and frustration with) this immense disparity between the immaterial nature of thought and the material language with which he is expected to communicate in a modern, civil society, is the driving force which provokes his existential crisis of communication.3 Upon close textual examination, the cause of this crisis can be traced not only to his desire to satisfy a personal void with [End Page 226] an intimate human relationship, but also to his very specific obsession with language as a inadequate means of communication. This is true not only throughout the novel as a whole, which represents a written record of Castel’s confession, but also in his recounting of several events which occurred as his relationship with María progressed. In El túnel, verbal speech and language, despite being the preferred mode of communication in modern society – what Spirkin calls the “highest form of thought expression” (183) – are insufficient and ultimately burdening...


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pp. 225-233
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