Ernesto Sábato’s essays show that he is widely knowledgeable concerning the standard works in modern philosophy and aesthetics. Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin,Émile Zola, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Sartre, and Camus, as well as many others, have contributed to his intellectual background. Many of his essays deal with the application of ideas that have become the commonplaces of Western thought to the special problems that beset Argentina in its search for a stable government as well as for a national identity. Sábato’s novels reflect his early interest in the Surrealist movement and in the existential experiments of Sartre and Camus. In addition, some critics discover in Sábato’s work an affinity with the Magical Realism that characterizes a number of the recent novelists of Latin America.
In his novels, Sábato uses motifs and symbols that have led some critics to interpret his work in Freudian terms or through the identification of Jungian archetypes. In the way of many twentieth century writers, Sábato’s work describes an alienated and indifferent world in which religion no longer provides a foundation for the values of society. It is a world dominated by positivism, reason, and science. Sábato’s novels depict the pathos and terror of characters who are conscious of living in a materialistic chaos surrounded by the remnants of past glories. Each of his novels involves a quest or journey: In The Outsider, theprotagonist is Juan Pablo Castel, whose quest ends in madness and despair; in On Heroes and Tombs, it is Martín de Castillo, who finally discovers the inextinguishable hope of simple people, which permits the book to end on a note of cautious optimism; in The Angel of Darkness, Sábato himself is the principal spokesman for the idea that after the apocalyptic events at the end of the twentieth century, a new and more complete human being will arise. The quest theme in Sábato’s fiction is complemented by the theme of existential isolation, which is perhaps best seen in The Outsider, in which the limited number of characters and relative simplicity of the plot lead to concentration on a single idea.
In The Outsider, Sábato develops the theme of the isolation of the individual and the impossibility of communicating with another person. His protagonist, Juan Pablo Castel, a painter, hates his own past, choosing to remember only the evil things that have happened to him; he also is more likely to emphasize the bad qualities of his fellow human beings than their redemptive ones. He is without friends or family and, at the point at which his story begins, without a lover. The Outsider has been compared, with some justice, to Camus’s L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946) because of its existential treatment of the subject of human alienation.
The “tunnel” is a metaphor for the solitary awareness and isolation of each individual. Castel, an alienated artist, discovers or imagines that one other person, María, understands his work and may therefore provide a key to end his isolation. They become lovers, but Castel begins to realize that there are many facets of María with which he is unfamiliar. He hopes to overcome his isolation through love, which leads him to demand exclusive sexual possession, although he is aware that María is married. Her husband, Allende, is blind and has apparently decided to settle for the kind of relationship that María can provide for him without probing too closely into the aspects of her life that he cannot share. Castel is disappointed in his desire; María, as she must, remains a separate entity, and, as he comes to realize, he understands very little about her. Castel further discovers or imagines that María is unfaithful to him with another lover. The murder of María, reported to the reader in the first sentence of the novel, results, and Castel’s isolation in a cell in a madhouse is complete, with his conviction that his paintings are now being laughed at as the work of a psychopath.
The technique of presentation in The Outsider is comparable to that of Camus’s The Stranger and Sartre’s La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949) in that none of the three narrators—Castel, Meursault, and Antoine Roquentin—seems to be in control of the materials of the story that he has elected to tell. In each of these books, the narrator implies that there is in reality no “story” to tell, because there are no stories—that is to say, no neatly arranged sequences of events that lead to an unanticipated though “correct” turn at the end to illustrate the author’s concept of correct behavior or proper choice. There is only the awful confrontation of the individual self with his perceptions. In turn, these three protagonists resemble Kierkegaard’s various personae as well as Nietzsche’s Dionysian poet. Both of these nonsystematic philosophers used techniques more comparable to those of literature than to those of philosophical discourse. In a similar fashion, Sábato, as did Sartre and Camus, has divided his attention between fiction and the essay form. In the two novels that have followed The Outsider, Sábato has to an increasing extent worked “extraliterary” materials into his fiction.
On Heroes and Tombs
In On Heroes and Tombs, as in The Outsider, the setting is modern Buenos Aires; one of the major happenings in the novel is the subject of a police report dated July 25, 1955. The chief characters consist of Martín de Castillo, a young man whose quest for meaning and coherence is an important element in the story; Alejandra Vidal Olmos, a strange young woman with whom he falls in love; Fernando Vidal Olmos, her father; and Bruno Bassán, who is connected with the other characters in several ways. Martín’s father is an unsuccessful painter, and their relationship is strained and distant. His mother tells Martín that she had tried to abort him and gives every indication of continuing to hate him and to resent his presence. Estranged from his immediate family, lonely, and often sick, Martín grows up, and the story begins when he is nineteen years old. His quest is to seek some principle of order and coherence in the chaos of the megalopolis, but on his way he falls in love with Alejandra after a meeting that seems to have been fated. Alejandra is a composite Argentine woman, by no means representative, according to Sábato, but nevertheless bearing some relationship to the Argentine character, which has a reputation for moodiness and contradictions.
Martín discovers that Alejandra is a...
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