Sábato, Ernesto 1911–
Sábato is an Argentine novelist, essayist, and critic. Like many Latin American authors, Sábato is concerned with the historical and social problems of his country. Many of his essays deal with the social and political climate of contemporary South America, and he has published a volume of correspondence with the late revolutionary leader Che Guevara.
The third section of Sobre héroes y tumbas, "Informe sobre ciegos," is the most important of the novel's four parts. It is in this section that the reader enters the mind and world of Fernando Vidal, the novel's main protagonist. Most of the other characters in the work are secondary to Fernando, because he forms the vortex around which their existences revolve. All who enter into this sphere of influence are changed. Some (e.g. Alejandra) are destroyed while others (e.g. Martín) find in their lives the possibility of a purpose and meaning that did not exist before.
Fernando's existence serves as a synthesizing axis which combines all the destructive and creative forces found in human existence. It is Fernando's mission to explore the unrecognized and unadmitted elements of human life, the repulsive and ugly aspects, in order that an attempt can be made to reintegrate and coordinate the splintered self of contemporary man. It is this mission or function that explains why Sobre héroes y tumbas is a novel of extremes and why Fernando's existence is marked by a series of radical actions such as the incestuous relationship he maintains with his daughter Alejandra…. Fernando defies the laws of man and of nature, but, paradoxically, his evil acts produce good results….
The malefic and sinister character of Fernando may seem at first glance to be an unlikely candidate for a hero's role, but close examination of Sobre héroes y tumbas reveals that the hero motif is one of the major elements of the novel. Joseph Campbell in his comprehensive study of the hero archetype, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, suggests that despite the many variations to be found in the lives of different heroes, there are certain basic similarities. Essentially, these can be seen in the hero's adventure which is divided into three major segments: the hero departs from his immediate surroundings, penetrates the primordial source of life, and then returns to the contemporary scene to convey the wisdom he has gained. The hero usually appears during a time of great danger when a social order is in a state of disintegration. The knowledge that the hero brings to his contemporaries makes it possible for them to survive the crisis they are facing. Campbell suggests that the hero's actions result in the release of new energy within a cyclic process of emanations and dissolutions. Fernando's adventure is related in great detail in the "Informe sobre ciegos" and his story parallels that of the hero-archetype. In this section, presented in the form of a manuscript, the protagonist withdraws from his surroundings, narrates his encounter with the primordial source of existence, and returns and leaves his testimony.
In Fernando's case, however, what starts out as a struggle against the external world ends up as a major confrontation with the contradictory elements of his own being…. [Precisely like the modern heroes Campbell discusses, Fernando] perceives that the central enigma to be solved is in man himself and not in the world exterior to him. Sábato's novel contains episodes that allow...
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One aspect of Ernesto Sábato's sprawling Sobre héroes y tumbas (1962) concerns the implicit sympathy of the novelist with the "uncomplicated of human spirit," as represented by the central character Martín. In support of this sympathy the novelist contrasts Martín's intimate involvement with Alejandra with the detached preoccupation of the novelist manqué Bruno, and on another more pervasive level, common people are contrasted with the decaying Olmos family. But perhaps the most significant contribution in terms of Sábato's subtle panegyric of the simple folk is Olmos Vidal's "Informe sobre ciegos," a complicated and fascinating conceit that in the last analysis becomes an ironic burlesque of the ponderous interpretations of existence by the degenerate intellectuals.
Vidal's "Informe," the third part of the novel, is part diary, part confession, part exposé. Given the absurdity of Vidal's premises concerning the underground movement of the blind that is supposed to control the world, this part of the novel stands out as quite an autonomous document, and indeed was so published…. Nevertheless, so much interest has been invested in detailing Vidal's scribblings in terms of psychoanalysis and existentialism that not enough attention has been paid its relationship with the novel as a whole. The document is, of course, without a doubt a brilliant piece of "confabulación." Vidal's hypotheses are spell-binding in the elaborateness of detail that becomes a magnificent flight of fancy. (pp. 44-5)
The latter part of the document shifts dramatically in tone from the sardonic to the surrealistic. Supposedly, Vidal is under the influence of an agent of the sect about to execute the sentence imposed upon him for his curiosity. However, the reader realizes that this portion of the document corresponds to the final disintegration of the man's personality under the weight of his own inner "dragons" and that the She who appears with ever greater insistence and terror for Vidal is no blind executioner but in fact his own daughter, Alejandra. Although he has seduced and destroyed her with his own infernal evil, a sense of guilt that comes from we know not what dark corner of his being ultimately converts her in his eyes into the agent of his own destruction and expiation by fire for the original sins of his degenerate soul. We come to realize that, for reasons unknown, Vidal is a haunted and tortured man, that somehow he has communicated as a spiritual inheritance this burden to his daughter, and that by some accord, conscious or unconscious, that, like Martín, we are not privileged to know, they go to meet their self-inflicted destiny in the fiery holocaust of the decaying family mansion.
In another more profound sense Sábato is only executing in his handling of the personal stories of Alejandra and Vidal his implicit convictions concerning the over-intellectualization that easily becomes so uncontrollable a monster. If Sobre héroes y tumbas does indeed have a strong anti-intellectual...
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The 125 captioned chapters of Abaddón offer the reader an unconvincing pastiche made up of the "flesh, blood, tears and thoughts" emanating from [Sabato's] previous writings. Thus we find Sábato playing himself, surrounded by a host of characters from his two previous novels …; monologues on the function of literature, on the writer and his public and on literary genres and currents (anti-Robbe-Grillet but pro-Kafka) which are barely paraphrased statements taken from earlier works such as El escritor y sus fantasmas or Hombres y engranajes; and reminiscences of his early "scientific" years in Paris. Stylistically and thematically, Sábato appears as his own spokesman, at times under the guise of Quique delivering known diatribes against a rational universe and its crassest manifestations—the culture of the United States for instance—at times exploring the "humble" Buenos Aires in waterfront cafés or the Olmos cemetery as Bruno. Powerless to transcend his earlier periods, he is forced to witness a repetition of himself and his creations and thus finds himself playing the great man of letters who is recognized, followed and venerated on the basis of his own legend. Neither the creation of additional characters …, nor the inclusion of fragments from Che Guevara's diary are able to bring actualidad or a new focus on this Gesamtwerk. In fact, the many allusions to places and events taken from previous works create a cumulative effect of regionalism that undermines any claims to universality entertained by the author. The chapters dealing with Sábato's struggle against the irrational forces of evil—demons, the sects of the blind, Kafkaesque metamorphoses—fail to leave an emotional impact, perhaps because they have been so exhaustively preempted in the "Informe sobre ciegos" in Sobre héroes y tumbas. (p. 286)
H. Ernest Lewald, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 2, Spring, 1975.