Ernesto Sábato Sábato, Ernesto (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ernesto Sabato 1911–

Argentinian novelist, essayist, and critic.

Sabato is a prominent South American author. Educated as a physicist, Sabato was distressed by the supremacy of science over art in contemporary society. He finally renounced his scientific career for a literary one.

Although his complex novels display such post-modern techniques as multiple narrative voice and point of view, fractured time sequence, and the dream fantasies of surrealism, they are basically psychological studies which owe much to Fedor Dostoevski. His masterwork, On Heroes and Tombs, has recently been translated for United States publication.

(See also CLC, Vol. 10 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100.)

Alfred Hayes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Outsider" ("El túnel") is] a novel that leads us again into that favorite province of the romantic psychologist: the police blotter; and once again we are introduced to the literary confessional of the misunderstood criminal, the underground man. If, as one supposes, all murders are a kind of hallucination; if the thing one kills is, apparently, some extension of the self, then what we are fascinated by in a murder is the element it contains of suicide. This is, apparently, what Sabato wishes to say. The genuinely hallucinated man, driven to an explanation of his motives, can never actually explain his crime. He exists within the prison of his own hallucinated logic. He cannot penetrate the existence of another. He can only answer, when the victim questions him, "I have to kill you, Maria. You have left me alone." and, sobbing, drive the knife in. Nor will he be able to understand, later, why his apparently inevitable conduct should appear to others the action of a fool. The real relationships of others (for we never know whether Maria Iribarne has actually been unfaithful to Castel) remains hidden from him, as he remains hidden from himself….

Although it resembles Albert Camus's "The Stranger" in its devices and in its concern with human isolation, "The Outsider" is less impressive than the French novel. Perhaps the difference lies in the difference between an analysis of human motive and a poetry of human motive. Camus's novel contained the poetry; the Argentinian's seems arid and dry by comparison.

Alfred Hayes, "A Misunderstood Criminal," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), May 14, 1950, p. 16.

Hollis Alpert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If one is in the mood for speculation there's a lot of material to work upon in ["The Outsider"]…. It is ostensibly the story of a crime, and the narrator, who begins, "I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed Maria Iribarne …," is presumably going to tell all. He does and he doesn't, and it is what he doesn't tell which provides the speculative possibilities. He mainly doesn't tell about Maria Iribarne, a fadedly beautiful inhabitant of Buenos Aires, and if you can find this tale of passion credible at all you will want to know more about her. (p. 18)

What you do get to know about her concerns some vague, inner loneliness that she always is aware of, and since Castel, too, has this kind of loneliness (characterized by a feeling of being on the outside of things) they become soul mates very quickly indeed.

This morbid pair then proceeds to have a subtle and morbid relationship, complicated all the more by Maria's elusiveness and Castel's psychopathic imaginings. You're rather relieved, on the whole, when he finally plunges that carving knife into her breast.

The writing itself is felicitous enough to keep one reading with a certain fascination (perhaps, you think, Maria will come clear in the end)…. At its best this sort of thing would fall into the tour de force classification. One can only note that Ernesto Sábato is a writer of considerable ability, hung, unfortunately, at the moment in some limbo between Albert Camus and Graham Greene. (pp. 18, 41)

Hollis Alpert, "Fiction Notes: 'The Outsider'," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1950 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIII, No. 31, August 5, 1950, pp. 18, 41.

H. Ernest Lewald

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sábato is a former physicist and one of Argentina's foremost intellectuals who has been preoccupied with the complexities of the "human condition" in many essays and articles. After incorporating this "condition" in El túnel, this work was labelled by the critics as a psychological detective story, a tale of crime and passion, an expressionistic document, a reflection of French existentialism and, above all, a testimony of man's inability to reach a spiritual understanding with the human beings around him.

El túnel deserves all of these attributes because the author was skillful enough to create a structure that allowed him to build in these themes. The plot centers around the tragic existence of the painter Juan Pablo Castel, a man who had lost faith in humanity after he had stopped believing in himself…. Only after meeting María Iribarne, the one person who seemed to grasp the meaning of his artistic self-expression, does life resume a function of purposiveness…. When Castel realizes that even María will forever remain an incomprehensible entity, separate from his own, he kills her, thus expressing his despair over the futile attempts to share her existence. Having severed his ties to society, Castel is oblivious to the physical confinement in a prison cell, aware only of being condemned to exist in his private tunnel.

Sábato's portrayal of Castel's transcendental search not only represents a participation in a fundamental quest for the tragic condition of modern man, exemplified today by writers like Max Frisch or Saul Bellow; it also constitutes, ironically, a proof that Argentina has become a modern mass society in which deshumanización and alienación are key words…. Sábato's "case history" really is a forerunner of a Kulturkrise as well as a diagnosis of the social ills that afflict the present Argentine society. Castel's psychasthenia may not be shared by the reader but his tunnel is frightfully real.

H. Ernest Lewald, "Book Reviews: 'El túnel'," in The Modern Language Journal, Vol. L, No. 5, May, 1966, p. 305.

Fred Petersen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In my opinion, the focus of [El túnel] falls not solely on human isolation [as some critics have maintained] but rather on something far more obvious, the universally valid fact of human psychology: the Oedipus complex.

Juan Pablo Castel lives out a well-nigh classic example of Oedipal involvement and conflict. The book could almost be called a "Freudian primer." As a matter of fact, Castel finally destroys the person who is for him most fundamentally the symbol of a mother. And, there is little need even to point out, in passing, that this person's name is María, surely one of the most productive signs in all of Christian symbology, the Universal Mother of all Christians.

The plot, or schematic story content of El túnel, as well as the "achieved content" or "experience" are products or aspects of the mentality of the protagonist…. The reader is allowed no view, opinion or insight that does not originate with Pablo Castel. However, nothing will be kept, finally, from the reader…. Although Castel states early that he would reserve for himself his motives in writing his confession …, he nevertheless tells his entire story. And, in spite of the fact that setting, time, locations, and all normally observable external, objective factors are filtered through Castel's mentality, the essence of his story is told with utmost clarity and with something which approaches clinical exactitude. Sábato skillfully portrays for his reader not only the conscious mentality of his character, but also his subconscious mind. Nearly all of the significant elements, scenes, images and symbols in this portrayal are, in one way or another, related to womanhood or to motherhood. And, even when not specifically related to the latter, they are, nevertheless, entirely germane to the totality of his story. Castel's dreams and the scenes in the book that take place near the sea or are otherwise related to it, tell his story far more clearly than does his ostensible "confession."

Castel has three dreams and one series of nightmares which he describes with varying degrees of detail. All these dreams are clearly representations, in another form, of scenes and situations charged, for him, at least, with emotion and feeling. (pp. 271-72)

Even a casual examination of these dreams seems to expand and clarify Castel's account of his feelings and actions. Awake, he does not seem to be in contact with his conscience. But in his dreams "ideational material" appears to illuminate for the reader his true state of mind. (p. 273)

[Castel's dreams] tend to amplify his personality. By means of the dreams another dimension is added to his confession. In addition, the fact that almost all of them point to interpretations related in some way to Woman suggests that an examination of...

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Tamara Holzapfel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is an especial similarity between El túnel and Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. The deranged murderer of Sábato's novel, Castel, clearly seems to be a twentieth-century version of Dostoevsky's underground man. Castel's role can be more fully understood in the light of the Dostoevskian protagonist. Although living almost a century apart, both characters suffer from hyperconsciousness, loss of identity, and extreme inability to communicate with other human beings. Their reactions to the situations in which they find themselves are surprisingly similar. They are constantly immersed in extraordinarily detailed rationalizations, but their logic leads them nowhere; they become rebels against...

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Harley D. Oberhelman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

An evaluation of Ernesto Sábato's collections of essays leads one to the conclusion that his production in this genre is basically oriented toward the study of the human being in an irrational and transitory universe…. A talent for essay writing is evident in all of these collections, although it is apparent that in the volumes of essays the results are uneven, occasionally leaving the reader confused by the encyclopedic nature of certain collections while reaching the zenith of lucidity and clarity in others.

If man is the protagonist of Sábato's essays, it is the rational world of science which is the adversary. Granted that there are numerous essays which deal with other subjects, it...

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Raymond D. Souza

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sábato's third novel [Abaddón el exterminador] is a long and sprawling work which reviews and intensifies many of the themes and concerns of El túnel … and Sobre héroes y tumbas…. The work is divided into two sections of which the first is extremely short and functions like a prologue. The second section contains 114 chapters or fragments which are not numbered, and the author frequently uses the first words of each chapter as a chapter heading. The novel has no plot and its organizational configuration is a labyrinth through which the reader wanders, at times accompanied by Sábato, who is a character in the novel. At one point the anguish and frustration in the work is so intense that a...

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Robert Coover

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Heralded by Albert Camus and Thomas Mann and widely translated, "The Tunnel" is the brief, obsessive, sometimes delirious confession of a convicted murderer. Although Sábato has been a passionate and voluble essayist throughout the intervening decades, he has been less prolific as a novelist. "On Heroes and Tombs," first published—to worldwide acclaim—20 years ago (we in the English-speaking world are the last to get the news), is his second novel, and there is only one other, "Abaddon, the Exterminator," which came out in 1974 and later won the prestigious French "Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger."

Yet, for all his reputation, Sábato stands apart from most of the writers of the "Boom"—and for...

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Salman Rushdie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On Heroes and Tombs comes to America trailing 20 years of acclaim…. But when considering it whole, I feel obliged to raise a dissenting voice against the litanies of praise. And if there's a single reason why this remains a curiously unsatisfying book, it may lie in the vicinity of Sábato's enlistment of Dostoevski in support of his riddling method: "phrases as seemingly prosaic as 'Alexey Fyoderovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov …' take on in retrospect a profound meaning…. We never know until the end if what happens to us is history or mere happen-stance." Sábato constantly hints at a strategy of retrospective validation: by the end, he assures us, we will understand the...

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Paul Stuewe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sabato comes with a ready-made critical reputation as "the new Borges", although he's actually a very different sort of writer. The constant playfulness and elaboration of fantasies characteristic of the Borges-Márquez school are to a lesser degree also present [in On Heroes and Tombs], but at the core of this novel is an atmosphere of psychological realism and obsessional thinking, thinking that often approaches Dostoyevskian heights. This isn't, in other words, the latest intellectual romp through an exotic Latin American landscape, but it is a very powerful and accomplished book that will take awhile to find its proper audience.

Paul Stuewe, "Non-Fiction: 'On Heroes...

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