This ended up being my South-American book in the Global Reading Challenge – I seem to have gone off Captain Pantoja for the time being.
Certain parts of the review may contain SPOILERS, so consider yourself warned.
Genre: Literary novel
Year of publication: 1948
Setting & time: Buenos Aires, Argentina; contemporary
This book is set up as the first-person confession of a criminal, or perhaps rather a description of the events that led up to the narrator’s murder of his lover. Celebrated painter Juan Pablo Castel spots a woman at an exhibition of his paintings, and it seems to him that by focusing on a minor detail in one of the paintings she has shown herself to understand him in a way that no-one else does. He becomes obsessed with finding her and getting to know her, and when he finally does, they enter into a stormy, obsessive and abusive relationship that ends in murder.
The narrator, Castel, gives an account of his development from being a rather lonely misanthropist who grows gradually more and more disturbed, until he murders the only person he believes is capable of understanding him. He goes through stages of longing for and stalking the woman he has decided will make him happy, to wanting to possess her so completely that she will tell him everything and be everything he wants her to be, to realising that this is impossible, which leads him to kill her.
His actions seem to spring less from deep emotions than from a combination of psychological problems and an overly logical mind that instead of allowing him to let go and just feel, must instead overanalyse everything, draw conclusions, reject them and return to them, over and over until he is so wound up that he finally feels something, but unfortunately that emotion is raging anger. Even his murder of Maria seems to be less about jealousy than the fact that she has proved to be imperfect and must therefore be destroyed like a flawed painting.
Castel is writing all of this from his prison cell after he has been tried and sentenced, and he gives a remarkably lucid and clear-headed account of the events that led up to the murder. Sabato has been careful not to have Castel analyse his actions, leaving this up to the reader, who must decide whether she is reading the perfectly truthful account — to the extent that a fictional account can be truthful — of events, or if Castel is an unreliable narrator angling for sympathy by leaving out crucial information. Whichever it is, this is a perfect description of a man in deep existential crisis, who seems to be writing this during a period of relative sanity, but knowing that he is about to descend into the darkness once a again. I am giving this harrowing book a 5 star rating, but even though I think it is a very good read that has given me much to think about, I don’t think I will ever re-read it.