Ernesto Sábato

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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

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["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

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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...

(This entire section contains 281 words.)

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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

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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

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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 other symbols in the story might be profitable.

The precise starting point—the true focal point—of the novel is Castel's painting. This painting, significantly, is called "Maternidad." It manifests itself in three different forms in the course of the narrative. It begins the novel and, in its way, prefigures a great deal of the content. Conceptually, the novel suspends from the different aspects and projections of this central scene.

The first form that the scene takes is the "actual" one, the one in which his painting is shown. The most important aspect about his work, Castel thinks, is a small scene in the corner of the larger painting. In this smaller scene a girl is looking at the sea—anxiously. When interpreted in terms of its own context, it is an echo of the total meaning of the painting, the sea being, of course, one of the most common symbols of motherhood.

At this showing of his work Castel meets María Iribarne whose extremely profound understanding of him will be revealed ultimately. Her understanding, it becomes clear, is exactly what he has been seeking. The final and crashing irony of the book is that Castel is so preoccupied with his own reasoning that he fails to see that he has achieved his goal of communication.

María's initial response to Castel is passively feminine and controlled. Castel literally forces his acquaintance upon her, although she later admits to precisely the same feelings that he describes. However, María admits these feelings only after having gone to the family estancia where she strolls near the sea and considers their relationship. This experience, which she relates to Castel in a letter is the second major overt manifestation of the small scene in the novel. (pp. 274-75)

The similarity to a scene involving a mother and child is patent [also in the] last of the scenes near the sea. Castel's remarks about his dark thoughts are … an overt indication of the violence that is about to ensue….

Taking up the same knife, apparently, with which he later kills María, he pauses for a moment to consider his painting. Believing that his attempt at communication has failed he rips the painting to shreds….

The destruction of the painting is a gesture prefiguring the actual murder of María. To Castel's mind there would seem to be no real difference between the two acts. He accomplishes both while tears blur his vision. And María's calmness in the moment before her death takes on a poignancy which contrasts vividly with Castel's unseeing rage….

When viewed in a context of Oedipal conflict this scene, with its repeatedly plunging knife, certainly needs no commentary to aid in interpreting its symbolism. (p. 275)

In Sábato's work one feels that Castel is afforded a glimpse of the world through his painting—that is, he is allowed the chance "to be born" to the world. His deep-seated emotional illness, however, prevents this "birth." Instead, he propels himself along his own pathological tunnel of protection and isolation from the world. In fact, his murdering María allows him the opportunity to complete his symbolic journey, his journey in reverse. His cell, at the end of the book, is an enclosure synonymous with his own mind, a place he was never able to escape. More succinctly stated, by killing his "mother" he returns to the womb. From his cell he is able for the first time to consider an outside world that is normal. However, he is entirely "safe" from it….

While conceding that Castel may be viewed as an isolated, existentialist, rather typical twentieth century protagonist—his name, Juan Pablo, even echoes Sartre's—it is equally valid to suggest that Sábato has rather effectively fused Sophocles and Freud, as it were, and produced a work of fiction that bridges, conceptually, an immense span of time. The continuing appeal of Oedipus Rex is underscored for us in El túnel. Sábato's fascination with this theme has resulted in a novel that will undoubtedly remain "contemporary" for a long time. (p. 276)

Fred Petersen, "Sábato's 'El túnel': More Freud Than Sartre," in Hispania (© 1967 The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Inc.), Vol. 50, No. 2, May, 1967, pp. 271-76.

Tamara Holzapfel

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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 society and even themselves, and in the end they bring harm to the only person with whom they could have established a successful human relationship. In the two novels the suffering of both protagonists finds its literary expression in a central metaphor of existential isolation, the underground and the tunnel. The fact that these two metaphors, derived from terms denoting subterranean separation from life, are interchangeable is the most obvious similarity of the two works. The most significant parallel, however, is their philosophical affinity. (p. 440)

Sábato, like Dostoevsky, shows that man's behavior is contradictory and illogical, that the reasoner is incapable of following his own rational plan. The more logically he proceeds the more chance conspires to lead him to the opposite extreme—to the very antithesis of his rationally conceived goal. Herein lies the paradox of his existence.

The Dostoevskian premise that every act of reason is a covert act of will helps to explain Castel's capricious nature and his incapacity to adjust to others. His relationship with María, which represents perhaps his only opportunity to escape the extreme isolation of his life, is gradually destroyed by his tyrannical attitude toward her. The more analytical he becomes, the less easy it is for him to appreciate her individuality…. She never becomes a person in her own right, but remains a projection of his powerful and distorted will….

The natures of the woman protagonists in both novels are completely passive. María never protests against the physical and mental torture Castel inflicts upon her. She even accepts death calmly when her mad lover finally stabs her. (p. 442)

Liza, the prostitute in Notes from the Underground, has been retrieved from apathy and indifference with a moral lecture on conjugal love delivered by the underground man. His seeming concern and sympathy for her plight arouse in her the desire to abandon her dissolute way of life. She comes to the underground man for help, but he tells her that he had not been sincere, that he was only laughing at her…. Liza, humiliated and insulted, leaves him.

Although Liza and María must bear the affronts and cruelties of their respective lovers, the men are the true sufferers. Both novels abound in examples which illustrate this point. (p. 443)

Both the underground man and the tunnel man have failed to find an Archimedian point in the outside world and have turned inward only to find that the self is bottomless…. In Dostoevsky's novel as well as in Sábato's individualism is upheld in spite of all the suffering it causes. At the end of Notes from the Underground its protagonist threatened by separation, loneliness, isolation, and at the same time recognizing his dependency on humanity, chooses to defend the validity of the individual. He admonishes the reader for not having dared to attain true consciousness whereby he might have avoided losing the meaning of life and the sense of his individuality….

The tunnel man has all the symptoms of extreme individualism. His monomania exasperates him…. Sábato has symbolically endowed Castel with special consciousness of his individuality by making him an artist. Consequently his hero detests all social groups…. However, as he desperately attacks society in the defense of his individuality, he is, at the same time, fully aware of his need for human contact. (p. 444)

Besides these areas of philosophical coincidence, there are additional points of comparison between El túnel and Notes from the Underground. Both novels are written in the form of a confession. However, the protagonists remain unrepentent throughout because of the pride and the feeling of superiority inherent in their nature. In both works the image of the window is used as an essential symbol of the psychological struggle. (pp. 444-45)

The chief points of comparison between El túnel and Notes from the Underground lie, however, in their philosophical affinity. The protagonists of both novels are anguished individuals living in bitter conflict with reality. By bringing pain and hurt to others and to themselves they develop their consciousness as an expression of their individuality in confrontation with the world. Reason fails them and their culpability is brought about by the freedom and the terror of the will. From Dostoevsky's other works we know that his final solution is a Christian one…. In Dostoevsky's view, man must have faith and believe in Christ if he is to achieve peace of mind and salvation. Liza through her love and pity can be saved; the underground man has only reason to rely upon and it cuts him off from life and condemns him. By contrast, Ernesto Sábato, writing three quarters of a century later, offers no solution whatsoever to man's estrangement from his fellows. To his protagonist, Christ has only historical existence, God is an empty exclamation, and the world does not seem to make any sense at all…. (p. 445)

Tamara Holzapfel, "Dostoevsky's 'Notes from the Underground' and Sábato's 'El túnel'," in Hispania (© 1968 The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Inc.), Vol. LI, No. 3, September, 1968, pp. 440-46.∗

Harley D. Oberhelman

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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 nevertheless remains that this central theme continues throughout the essays and extends, as it were, into [his novels]…. (p. 28)

Three collections of essays deal specifically with the central theme of Sábato's literary production…. They are Uno y el universo (1945), Hombres y engranajes (1951), and Heterodoxia (1953). Three additional collections of essays, all of which appeared after the fall of Perón, deal more directly with Argentine themes but at the same time show a close spiritual relationship to the other essays. El otro rostro del peronismo and El caso Sábato, both of which appeared in 1956, are lucid commentaries on the tragic political dichotomy which existed for decades in Argentina and which was responsible for the chaotic national situation at the time they were published. Tango, Discusión y clave (1963) analyzes that "humble suburb of Argentine literature which is the tango." As in El otro rostro del peronismo, this volume makes a historical survey of the origin and development of the popular musical and dance form, but Sábato uses this vehicle to add numerous comments on a variety of other topics.

When Uno y el universo first appeared, the intelligentsia of Argentina was unanimous in its recognition of Sábato as one of the brightest young figures on the literary horizon….

In later years critics examining this first volume in the light of Sábato's more mature efforts have concluded that it is highly imperfect as a cohesive statement or credo, a fact recognized by Sábato himself in his view of the book—one of tender irony—some eighteen years after its publication. Ostensibly it is an attempt to repudiate the world of science. (p. 29)

In the preface the author affirms that the reflections which appear in the volume are not the product of vague contemplation of the world about him. Rather they are units of thought which he has encountered along the road to self-discovery. Here then is the key to Uno y el universo and to Sábato's career as a writer: one seeks to know distant lands, man, nature, or perhaps even God; later it becomes apparent that the phantom so assiduously sought is one's own self. It is, in short, a journey into the personal universe of Sábato on which the reader embarks, and the seventy-four entries represent various stages in the revelation of the personal philosophy of the man.

There are in this volume no pretensions of a philosophical system implied; Sábato is not so dogmatic as to profess to be the possessor of the only system of truth. Here as in the other essays an attempt is made to reveal the author's personal convictions, his universe. (p. 30)

In separate essays Sábato rejects the goal of automatism of the Surrealists and "photographic" reproduction of the external world advocated by nineteenth-century Realists. The former when carried to its ultimate conclusion does not invariably produce a thing of beauty, and the carbon-paper reproductions of the Realists are completely unnecessary. The latter are, in addition, as completely subjective as is any creative work. Sábato thereby provides a key to the subjective essays and novels he was to write after 1945. It is a subjective world that is described; the four protagonists of his novel, Sobre héroes y tumbas [On Heroes and Tombs (1961)] all contain autobiographical characteristics. The universe for Sábato, then, is his own particular domain.

The very subjective values which Sábato assigns to art and letters are, because of their absence from pure science, the basis of his rejection of his years as a student and professor of physics and mathematics. There is, therefore, a close relationship between the central themes of Uno y el universo. Pure science disregards and rejects human and artistic emotions and sentiments and eliminates, as it were, the anguish one faces at the prospect of death. If science were the only world, it would be devoid of the illusory beauty and emotional satisfaction of painting, music, and literature. Sábato states that unless the alarming dominance of science is brought to a halt, the world will be transformed into a series of geometric curves, logarithms, Greek letters, triangles, and probability projections, and nothing more than this. A second key to the author's later writings is provided by this rejection of science. Within his personal philosophy nothing will be admitted which does not include human emotions and the element of subjectivity. The writer and the painter must view the world as they see and comprehend it without subjecting their vision to any set of preconceived scientific principles. (pp. 30-1)

By no means a purist in the matter of language and literary style, Sábato rejects those who attempt to make language conform to a dictionary or to the pronouncements of an academy. His concept of two types of language—a language of science and a language of life,—is an original thesis reached in part because of his earlier contacts with the world of science and subsequently with the world of art. Ironically, he points out that the works of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dante, and Montaigne contain so many "errors" because these authors did not have the benefit of an academy dictionary. Likewise he takes Américo Castro to task for stating that certain elements in Argentina are creating linguistic anarchy, stating at the same time that the only languages which are no longer anarchic are those which are dead. Sábato's theories on language are very much in accord with those of the structural linguists. (p. 34)

There is no doubt that Hombres y engranajes is Sábato's most representative essay. Here is the best example of an entire volume constructed around a central theme, man's desperate struggle to realize his spiritual potential as an alternative to the menacing fate of being a mere cog in the gears of the mechanical age. The subtitle of the volume indicates that it is a study of money, reason, and the decay of modern times. To reach these conclusions Sábato goes back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for keys to the understanding of the present age. (p. 36)

In analyzing Existentialism, Sábato takes a wary look at those like Sartre who reject the very existence of God. Such an absurd total lack of hope in the future is a meaningless philosophy for Sábato. As will be seen in Sobre héroes y tumbas, the very fact that man continues to struggle within his circle of operations and to produce works of beauty in the middle of a hostile world is in itself a source of continued hope. Existentialism seeks a conciliation between the objective and the subjective world, between the absolute and the relative, and as a result of this attitude Sábato hopes to see a synthesis of man and the community in which he lives. As the late Jewish philosopher Martin Buber stated, individualism disregards society, and collectivism refuses to consider the individual. A dialogue between these two states of being is Sábato's answer to the dilemma of man in a scientific age; man with man, not man as a gear in a machine, is his objective. (p. 38)

In many ways El escritor y sus fantasmas [1963] is a synthesis of the previous volumes of essays published by Sábato. It is, in the words of the author, a series of variations on a single theme, a theme that has obsessed him from the very moment he began to write: Why and how does one write prose fiction? These notes and reflections, expanded here into a lengthy essay, form what Sábato calls a personal diary, something more like a confidential letter to a close friend than a book for the general public. At the same time, Sábato seeks to clarify for himself these vague intuitions concerning his own literary life, hoping that this process of self-analysis will also aid the young writer seeking to identify himself in the literary world and the literary critic "who explains to us how and why we should write." (pp. 45-6)

Sábato cogently defines the present crisis through which man is passing and describes the literature which results from the basic conflict between a mechanized society and the individual. One is reminded almost immediately of Hombres y engranajes, which develops the same thesis. Inescapably he arrives at the same conclusions: the long historical process beginning in the Renaissance has resulted in a mechanized society against which man has rebelled through successive periods of Romanticism, Marxism, and Existentialism. The perennial themes of solitude, the absurdity of death, and the delicate balance between hope and desperation have acquired new relevance in the chaotic twentieth century. As Sábato sees it, the only solution to these problems is a highly personal one, an attitude which brought down the wrath of leftist critics on El escritor y sus fantasmas. His defense of the artist in his search for a profound personal solution to his anguish was not in line with Marxist collective realism any more than was his defense of Western literature compatible with the superficial propagandistic lines that flowed from leftist pens. But not being one to compromise on vital issues, Sábato has remained firm in his disagreement with the leftist press…. (p. 47)

In sum, El escritor y sus fantasmas may be considered a key to the two novels which Sábato has produced. In it he attempts to answer many of the most puzzling problems which El túnel [1948] and Sobre héroes y tumbas have created in the literary world, although at times Sábato himself throws up his hands in despair at his inability to explain his own creations. His own characters at times seem to go out in search of an author to immortalize them, and Sábato views himself as an agent in the creative process rather than a producer. He does, however, correct a number of critical misinterpretations of his novels and provide a means of understanding many enigmatic passages. (p. 48)

Viewed as a whole, El túnel is a desperate effort on the part of Juan Pablo Castel to communicate with another being, equally free and with a mind and spirit similar to his own. This theory has been analyzed in the subsequent volume of essays, Heterodoxia, in which this type of communication is offered as the only means of escaping from abject solitude and isolation. (p. 52)

Viewed as a statement of total isolation, El túnel is in the mainstream of twentieth-century Existentialism. Both Castel and Sábato seem to fit the category of the nonatheistic Existentialist. In Hombres y engranajes Sábato took a wary view of Sartre's rejection of the existence of God, and Castel states that Christ is "the being for whom I have felt and even today feel the deepest reverence…."… At the same time, in El túnel one can see at almost every turn the Existentialist view of the absurdity of the world and the resulting withdrawal of the Existentialist protagonist into total isolation reminiscent of the idea of a hermetic existence as seen in Sartre's Huis clos. Sábato never reaches the depths of Sartrian despair which he finds absurd in itself, and he always sees a glimmer of hope—although only a glimmer—to urge mankind forward and to save it from total anguish. "Anyway, I can paint…." Juan Pablo Castel concludes. Although there are many ways in which Sábato departs from a rigid Sartrian Existentialism, there is evidence in the fact that María is a reader of Sartre that he at least finds a certain brotherhood of anguish in the French novelist. Castel's insistence on the use of the name "Juan Pablo" may also be an indirect reference to Jean-Paul Sartre. (pp. 56-7)

One cannot deny the importance of El túnel as a kind of central depository of all the themes found in Sábato's essays and in the monumental Sobre héroes y tumbas. The almost total isolation of man in a world dominated by science and reason is the most important of these themes, but at the same time the reader also sees the inability of man to communicate with others, an almost pathological obsession with blindness, and a great concern for Oedipal involvement as important secondary themes. El túnel is a masterpiece depicting a case of pathological jealousy which effects the complete disintegration of a rational mind. It therefore stands as a classic example of the state of complete Existentialist isolation in which spatial and temporal considerations gradually disappear. The key to Castel's attempt to escape from his tunnel is the scene in his painting, "Maternidad," and it leads to María whom he seeks to possess physically and ultimately spiritually. And when neither type of possession is possible, Juan Pablo Castel realizes that he cannot—and never could—escape from the tunnel in which he has lived since childhood.

In the relationship between Castel and María there are obvious Oedipal overtones. Jealousy and physical possession gradually assume important roles in the development of the action, and the tortured life of the protagonist is reflected on the level of the subconscious by a series of dreams, one of which has definite Kafkaesque interpretations. Reality, such as it is, is seen exclusively through the eyes of a disturbed painter. In no way does Sábato seek a return to nineteenth-century Realism, for the only Realism of El túnel is magical in nature, transporting the reader to the unreal world of the inconceivable from the very first line of the novel. (pp. 63-4)

[Sobre héroes y tumbas] stands as Sábato's most important work to date and as one of the truly great works of twentieth-century Argentine letters. (p. 65)

Running to over four hundred dense, compact pages in the original edition, it confronts the serious reader with many of the same physical and spiritual doubts that assail its creator. Sábato openly admits that he himself may not fully comprehend all of its symbolic and thematic ramifications, many of which have been subsequently offered by readers, critics, and even psychiatrists. But out of the pages certain lucid themes emerge from which valid conclusions indicative of Sábato's concept of twentieth-century Argentina may be drawn.

Ernesto Sábato's second novel is a national novel which seeks to present an analysis of contemporary Argentina from the historical, the demographic, and to a certain extent the geographic point of view. In contrast to El túnel, which was primarily the case study of an individual, Sobre héroes y tumbas is a vast, panoramic screen on which a series of provocative tableaux are alternately projected. Less than half a dozen primary characters appear in the first novel while a catalogue of the second reveals some twenty-five primary figures and dozens of secondary ones…. The novelist's concept, therefore, is basically different in the two works. The second novel is conceptually closer to the essay, El otro rostro del peronismo, in which Sábato presented the historical influences which shaped the Argentina of 1955 and which resulted in the Perón dictatorship. (p. 66)

Sobre héroes y tumbas is … a kind of obscure labyrinth leading into the heart of the very soul of man. At the same time it seeks keys to explain the nature and purpose of existence. Sábato superimposes the national image on these problems to present a work that is both Argentine and universal at the same time. (p. 72)

Sabato is not an easy or a pleasant novelist to read; his most common themes—incest, blindness, insanity, arson, and abnormal psychology—are not suitable fare for the casual reader seeking light entertainment. But for the reader with an abiding interest in the problems of modern man in an inhospitable world, he has a message filled with despair yet tempered with a small but highly significant measure of hope. In the same way that his view of life, especially in Sobre héroes y tumbas, is given from a multiplicity of vantage points, so is his style one which employs a vast number of techniques to achieve the end result. (p. 132)

The frequent use of dreams and dream sequences in Sábato's novels is a technique used to formalize the irrational world through which his characters pass. In a sense, they represent windows in the darkness which allow the reader to comprehend actions which would otherwise be meaningless to him. It must be remembered that Sábato passed through the portals of Surrealism, and although he rejected the ultimate consequences of the movement, he did retain a great degree of its interest in the irrational world as it was frequently portrayed through a dream sequence. Only when the Surrealists reached the point of declaring that the true world was the world of the irrational did Sábato reject them just as he had rejected the dogmatic rationalists at an earlier date. For the author of El túnel the world must be, in the final analysis, a synthesis of these two extreme points of view. Man is neither pure reason nor pure irrationality; he is somewhere between the extremes of the scientist and the Surrealist on an enigmatic plane of human existence. (p. 145)

Stylistically, all of Sábato's writings are characterized by a high degree of clarity which, although somewhat obscured by the multiplicity of his approach in the second novel, sets him apart as a true master of the tongue of Cervantes. There is little doubt that his early training in science and mathematics had a great deal to do with the evolution of such a style. Uno y el universo and Heterodoxia both show evidence of a mind with a scientific orientation in the unnecessarily precise manner in which they are organized. El túnel and even Sobre héroes y tumbas show moments of almost pure dialecticism as Castel, Fernando, and occasionally Martín analyze the events in which they are ensnared. It is not uncommon to find the various alternatives to a problem numbered and listed as if they were the result of scientific analysis. (pp. 147-48)

There can be no doubt that the principal value of Sábato's essays and novels is the fact that he focuses his interest on the spiritual problems of modern man lost in an inhospitable world dominated by science and reason. Man is, therefore, the point of departure in all of his writings. Sábato begins on a general level by seeking to identify man's destiny and role in the confusing events of the twentieth century, but he also considers the same problems on a national level by attempting to synthesize the spiritual crisis of Argentina since 1930. Finally, he turns his attention to the individual man and to the crises of life universally faced by all: the end of childhood, the end of adolescence, the end of life itself. Sobre héroes y tumbas stands as a literary monument in which Sábato takes all of these themes presented earlier in his essays and in El túnel and develops an answer for the first time to the problems he has presented. Man must reject science and reason as the solution to the problems of society and reaffirm an interest in the human dignity of the individual. Mass society must give way to the solitary soul and allow him to become the center of attention. Likewise, on a national level Argentina can no longer disregard the "invisible" peasant or the factory worker if it is to achieve the greatness its past heroes envisioned, and in the final analysis each human being must dedicate himself to the task life has assigned him.

Sábato's major contribution to literature is his creation of novels and essays of a metaphysical dimension unknown in earlier Spanish American letters. His masterpiece, Sobre héroes y tumbas, stands as the novel of Buenos Aires and without a doubt is the most representative national novel of Argentina written in the twentieth century. Sábato has successfully attempted to intregrate the historical, geographical, and demographic elements of contemporary Argentina into a unified novel which better than any other answers the question: What is Argentina? (pp. 149-50).

Harley D. Oberhelman, in his Ernesto Sábato (copyright © 1970 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1970, 165 p.

Raymond D. Souza

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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 polarization of the entity Sábato takes place, and Sábato-character meets and contemplates Sábato-author. Significantly, no communication takes place and tears are shed. All centers of authority have disappeared and nothing exists that can offer a coherent view of existence. The author has reduced himself to a character who is as confused and anxiety ridden as his other creations. The only hope seems to lie in man's blind capacity to struggle against hopeless odds, and this is best conveyed by the poignant narrations of the death of Che Guevara and the brutal torture of Marcelo by the police.

Although a major part of the novel takes place in 1972 and 1973, there are many excursions into the past. Characters from Sábato's previous works appear and one, Bruno, is a major figure. In addition to Bruno there are appearances by Martín, Alejandra and Pablo Castel, and in one episode an unidentified character appears to be Fernando. They haunt and torment their creator and at times even heap ridicule on him…. [There are] light moments in the novel, particularly when the author uses irony to parody aspects of popular culture, but on the whole it is a seriously grim work that pursues the preoccupations of his earlier novels. Some of the concerns in Abaddón el exterminador are the problem of good and evil, the search for meaning in a fragmented and incoherent world, the obsession with blindness, the exploration of subterranean tunnels, the examination of the creative process, the consideration of the role of the writer and his responsibilities to society, and the search for conspiracies. To a large extent the novel is a review of the entity that carries the label "Sábato" and the work conveys the feeling of a man who senses that his existence is drawing to a close. However while life lingers, his feverish and at times desperate search for tranquility continues. (pp. 384-85)

The novel's organization and plotless meanderings will cause many readers to experience a great deal of frustration, but the work has powerful moments and exerts a lingering and compelling attraction over its reader. What Sábato has done is to offer us a great deal of himself. Some will question the novel's egocentricity and unconventional form, others will applaud its openness and emotional power, few will be unmoved by the anguish it reveals, for they will see in its pages the distortions produced by a dangerous and confused age. (p. 385)

Raymond D. Souza, "'Abaddón el exterminador'," in Hispania (© 1976 The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Inc.), Vol. 59, No. 2, May, 1976, pp. 384-85.

Robert Coover

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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 good reason. Not only does he not participate in their communal voice, he is at war with it. He calls such writing "gratuitous" fiction, effete and superficial, a sophisticated ivory-tower pastime. He has no interest in technical virtuosity for its own sake—"as if man's life were a game!"—and refuses to preoccupy himself with the "beauty" of his prose.

Not surprisingly, his countryman Borges is his particular target. Though he grudgingly accepts Borges as a poet, he is enraged by his prose. He even contrives to have two of his characters in "On Heroes and Tombs" encounter Borges on the street in Buenos Aires, and after a playful caricature of his "clownish tics," his face that "seemed to have been sketched in and then to have been half rubbed out with an eraser" and his "air of modest irony, a mixture of secret arrogance and apparent diffidence," they go off and assault Borges's writing…. (pp. 1, 25)

What Sábato wants is a literature that is "naked" and profound, "created with blood," concerned with universal metaphysical themes and the "extreme existential situations of solitude and death." Apprehension of the whole. "Cosmovisions" that will save the soul. His great model is Dostoyevsky, "a tortured writer for whom style is less important than truth" and who was not afraid to face up to "the problem of Good and Evil." Writers are teachers, prophets, saints, martyrs or they are nothing.

Thus one of the "heroes" of the title of this book, as one might suppose, is the author himself. Perhaps, in a sense, the only one.

There are four principal characters in "On Heroes and Tombs" (also four parts or "movements"—the book has a classic symphonic or sonata design): The heroine Alejandra, a young boy in love with her named Martín, her mad father Fernando and a friend of all three named Bruno. And all three of the men (with Alejandra as the mystery at the center) represent, transparently and self-consciously, various aspects of Sábato himself….

Fernando even shares the author's birth date, and thus, like Sábato, would have been celebrating his 70th birthday this summer had not Alejandra, alas, on the night of June 24, 1955, shot her father and then locked herself in with his dead body and set the place on fire.

I give nothing away. This is how the book begins: with a "police report" (not really: it's just the author in another transparent disguise) regarding the aforesaid tragedy and the sub-sequent discovery of Fernando's curious document, "Report on the Blind," which we are told "lends itself to certain interpretations that throw light on the crime and make the hypothesis of an act of madness less plausible than another more sinister, more obscure, explanation."

Now I will give something away. This is an effort at classic tragedy. The "more sinister, more obscure explanation," though it is never mentioned aloud, is incest. (p. 25)

[Fernando] describes his own life in terms not of its pleasures, but of its psychological, moral and metaphysical crises, all of which he seems to have confronted uncompromisingly but without much humor….

Alejandra, the complex and intriguing epileptic "dragon-princess," is the book's major achievement…. Though the first two sections, or movements—that is, the first half of the book, up to her death by fire—are largely from Martín's point of view, it is she who dominates them, setting their sometimes agitated, but mostly anguished and melancholic mood, a figure at once particular and recognizable, yet at the same time larger than life, almost fabulous, archetypal, so much so that the historical June 1955 sacking and burning of the Buenos Aires churches by Peronist shock troops is able to serve as a mere symbolic prefigurement of her own more devastating private fire a couple of nights later.

The third movement, dissonant and turbulent, is the "Report on the Blind," the so-called novel-within-a-novel written by the paranoid Fernando, a man who entertained himself as a child by catching sparrows and poking needles in their eyes and who now finds himself persecuted by an insane fear of a conspiracy of the blind. This bit of fantasy is said to be Sábato's tribute to surrealism—which taught him as a troubled young scientist in Paris that realism to be realism must embrace the Irrational—and is perceived by many around the world as his most brilliant and imaginative (some say excessively so) accomplishment. Not so. There is a rather remarkable copulation at the end of the report, not unlike that war of the wizards in Disney's "The Sword in the Stone," but on the whole this tediously obsessive set piece suffers from a lack, not an excess, of imagination.

Nor, as it turns out, is "On Heroes and Tombs" a tragedy, for in the final section—melancholic in tone, contemplative, purged of the violent contradictions of Alejandra—Martín is rescued from doom's implacable cycle by what Sábato calls his "metaphysics of hope," the argument that the very fact that man hopes and loves is a kind of proof of a "Hidden Meaning of Existence" and even, yes, of the Immortality of the Soul. Martín chooses life over death—as we might, given the opportunity, choose laughter, say, or delight over angst—and joins up with a trucker driving south to cold, clean Patagonia….

Whatever it may lack in imaginative play or originality of thought, "On Heroes and Tombs," with its impassioned self-explorations and its "fanatic obsession" to communicate them, will remain as a valued testimony to that life. (p. 26)

Robert Coover, "Oedipus in Argentina," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 26, 1981, pp. 1, 25-6.

Salman Rushdie

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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 enigma. Like Dostoevski or Hitchcock, Sábato creates mysteries, precisely so that we are forced to experience his work with the minutest attention, lest we miss a vital clue; unlike those two masters, however, he is willing to leave too much unresolved, too much half-explained. Dostoevski would never have tolerated so vague an ending; Hitchcock would certainly have revealed (for instance) why Martin sees Alejandra entering the very house in which, according to Fernando, the Sect of the Blind held him captive.

Sábato's 13-year gestation produced a frequently brilliant book, but one marred by its opacity…. (pp. 5, 12)

Salman Rushdie, "Love and Immolation in Argentina," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post, August 16, 1981, pp. 5, 12.

Paul Stuewe

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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 and Tombs'" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Quill and Quire, Vol. 47, No. 11, November, 1981, p. 29.


Sábato, Ernesto (Vol. 10)