3 shorter reviews – Nesbo – Sabato – Teller

This post was edited and republished into my blog’s original timeline from my lost post archive.


The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato

Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, foreword by Colm Tóibín

Ernesto Sabato died recently, just two months short of his one hundredth birthday.  He was regarded as one of the greats of Argentinian literature,  having written three novels and many more essays.  A physicist, he worked at the Curie Institute in Paris where he met the Surrealists, then MIT, before having an existential crisis and abandoning science for writing. The Tunnel was his first novel, published in Spanish in 1948 and becoming a big hit in France – Albert Camus was a fan. I knew none of the above before reading this short novel which has recently been given the new Penguin Modern Classics treatment, I was attracted to the story of a murderer telling how he met and killed his victim.

Juan Pablo Castel is an artist, convicted for the murder of Maria Iribarne. He decides to tell the story of exactly what happened between them – not to offer explanations, but in telling the details of their relationship, that people could understand him.  He claims it is not out of vanity, but it is clear from the start that the man has a monstrous ego, and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.

Is a certain individual a menace to society? Then eliminate him and let that be an end to it. That is what I could call a good deed. Think how much worse it would be for society if that person were allowed to continue distilling his poison; think how pointless it would be if instead of eliminating him you attempted to forestall him by means of anonymous letters, or slander, or other loathsome measures. As for myself, I frankly confess that I now regret not having used my time to better advantage when I was a free man, that is, for not having done away with six or seven individuals I could name.

Castel appears to hate everyone. He allows his psychoanalyst to take him to a meeting…

Some I knew by name, like Dr Goldenberg, who had recently made quite a name for himself in the course of treating a female patient, they had both ended up in a mental institution. He had just been released. … The way he praised my paintings, I knew that he despised them.

More than any other, however, I detest groups of painters. Partly, of course because painting is what I know best, and we all know that we have greater reason to detest the tings we know well. But I have still another reason: THE CRITICS. They are a plague I have never understood. … There might be some excuse for listening to the opinions of a critic who onced painted, even if only mediocre works. But that is just as absurd; because what could be reasonable about a mediocre painter giving advice to a good one.

He first sees Maria at a gallery. She is staring at his painting, but at a small detail rather than the main picture. Castel has distilled all the meaning of the painting into this little area, and she appears to have understood that unlike everyone else.  Her fate is sealed. Castel stalks her, contrives meetings, and eventually confronts her before forcing her into an affair with him, but the more he finds out about her life, the more he begins to get jealous. Each time she appears to break it off, he persuades her to come back, but he can’t cope with her having her own life too, and one day he can’t stand it any more.

Castel is vile and nasty, an egotist and an utter snob. He is also totally unreliable. He doesn’t set out to make us like him at all; my loathing of him grew page by page.  Maria is harder to understand – why did she let him force her into an unsuitable relationship?  I could only assume it was the attraction of a bit of rough, but she was stupid not to break it off properly at the first sign of trouble. The grimness of Castel’s obsession is leavened by occasional glimpses of black humour. In one scene, which would be Pythonesque if it hadn’t preceded them, he tries to retrieve a letter to Maria back from the postmistress with whom he has recently left it.  But these scenes don’t make up for his virtual lack of redeeming features. I didn’t like Maria either – but then we only heard Castel’s side of the story. Frankly, by the end of this short novel, I didn’t really care much. This novel has a certain power and grip, but by wallowing in Castel’s miseries so much it lost its drive for me.  At 140 pages it was too much of a bad, good thing. (6.5/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you.   Ernesto Sabato – The Tunnel (1948) Penguin Modern Classics, 160 pages.  BUY from Amazon UK (affiliate link).

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Translated by Don Bartlett

May is for Scandicrime at Book Group. Scandicrime is a very big thing these days, but it was always there. After the American Ed McBain, the next big writers of police procedurals were from Sweden. Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö wrote the ten Martin Beck novels from the mid 1960s onwards – see my write-up of the first in the series here. Our current obsession was fired by the success of Henning Mankell’s Wallander books (and TV) and now many more fine Scandinavian crime writers are being translated – we can’t get enough of them, which brings me to Jo Nesbo, who is Norwegian; a former stockbroker and journalist, he’s a singer and songwriter in a band, and author of a children’s book called Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder apart from the bestselling series of novels we’re getting to know.

We chose The Snowman as it was everywhere thanks to being chosen for Richard & Judy. It turns out to be the fifth in the series, so the lead characters are well established.  Harry Hole is an inspector in the Oslo police, and has been trained in profiling by the FBI but has yet to encounter a serial killer on his manor. When a boy finds his mother missing, it’s not long before the team find out that there have been more missing women over the years, and then another woman goes missing. It all gets very complicated very quickly, and right from the off, we are fed a series of red herrings before it finally becomes clear who the killer is. Complex it may be, but it was easy to get hooked and we all sped through the book’s 550 pages.

Harry Hole is another classic maverick detective, damaged goods, an alcoholic. He lives for his job, but still has an on-off relationship with his ex girlfriend and her son. In this novel, he gets a new sidekick, Katrine Bratt, a young, attractive woman with hidden depths and is slightly reminiscent of Stieg Larsson’s Lizbeth Salander in a less extreme way. Together they make an interesting pairing.  Hole’s other colleagues meanwhile fulfill all the different stereotypes usually present in a novel’s police department. Personally, I’d have preferred to start at the beginning of the series, as there are references to events in earlier books, and characters who come to the fore in this one are, according to one of our group who read the one before this one too, set up in place – which suggests that Nesbo has a story arc planned for the books.  This left our group wondering about the ‘mould man’ – would he turn out to be more than a expert in dry rot, in the next!We felt that the pacing was slightly stop-start, but the genuinely scary scenes largely made up for that. I for one, would happily read more, although I think I prefer Wallander to Harry Hole, as Hole seemed to have an emptiness in his heart for me in this novel – but one reading just one, it’s hard to get to know him well. (7.5/10)

Source: Own copy.  The Snowman, Jo Nesbo, Vintage paperback, 576 pages.  BUY from Amazon UK (affiliate link)

Exegesis by Astro Teller – AI and its mother…

This novel about the relationship between a machine that achieves artificial intelligence (AI) and its creator-mother was published back in 1997. The novel is presented as a leaked folder of e-mail correspondence between the machine Edgar and the research student who is running the project Alice Lu. It starts with Alice receiving an e-mail from Edgar.  At first she thinks it’s someone playing a prank on her, but soon she realises that Edgar is a real AI entity. Alice, ever mindful that her boss will readily assume the credit for Edgar, isolates him in the university’s system.  Edgar, however is hungry for knowledge; like all young children, he is a sponge, soaking up information, and evolving, growing up daily, and when the computer system has to be rebooted one day, Edgar is reconnected to the outside world, and goes out in search of more knowledge and self-growth. Meanwhile Alice is worried sick about what she has created, and also about discovery, and she becomes increasingly depressed and paranoid.

This modern take on epistolary novels of letters, is certainly original.  In Edgar, Teller has created a surprisingly likeable artificial intelligence, even if he does have a predisposition to quote whole etymologies to explain his initial understanding.  He reminded me slightly of Charlie, in Flowers for Algernon, a young man who goes from low to high IQ without catching up in his emotional make-up. The problem with this novel though is Alice – I didn’t like her at all.  She deliberately keeps Edgar to herself right from the start, but then she talks to him like one of her friends – actually I’d be surprise if she had many. She just prattles away to Edgar, not really controlling what she’s saying for the most part.  You’d think if you’d created an AI, you would want to be extremely careful about what you tell it – Edgar, of course, is preternaturally precise in his communications.  Later she becomes a nag, no wonder Edgar doesn’t really listen – ’twas ever thus between adolescents and their mothers!  I just didn’t get any sense of her real character at all, and with her gabbling on this spoiled the book for me.

An interesting novel of ideas that didn’t work for me. (5.5/10)

P.S. I would recommend Flowers for Algernon unreservedly though –  five stars plus 3 hankies for me, and you can read my later review here. [Ed}

Source: Own copy.   Buy from Amazon UK (affiliate link) – Exegesis by Astro Teller

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