Ernesto Sábato first received international acclaim with the publication of his short novel, El túnel, in 1948 (The Outsider, 1950). In the author’s note at the beginning of On Heroes and Tombs, Sábato says that in the thirteen years between the first novel and the second, he continued exploring the mysterious labyrinth that leads to the secret of human existence. The Outsider is a pessimistic, oppressive story of a man who murders his married mistress when he finds out that she has deceived him. Many of the details and themes of the second novel are contained in the first—the mistress’s husband is blind, the protagonist’s love for the woman is obsessive and violent, and his behavior is at times distorted by paranoia.
As Sábato suggests, On Heroes and Tombs does indeed seem to be a development of the obsessive concerns of the first novel. The pessimism of The Outsider, however, is tempered somewhat by the optimism of the ending of the second novel. The more promising vision of human existence offered by Hortensia Paz and the portrayal of potentially rewarding relationships in the conversation and communion of Martín and Bucich in Patagonia are indications that Sábato finds some salvation for his characters despite the apparent meaninglessness of life.
Sábato’s novel is a stylistic tour de force which inevitably evokes a comparison with the work of many of his Latin American contemporary novelists. There are many passages that are precursors of the narrative complexities of the work of Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and the ontological problems suggested by the novel reflect similar preoccupations of the most influential Argentine writer of the twentieth century, Jorge Luis Borges. In spite of the development toward a concept of life in On Heroes and Tombs that is more optimistic than the ontology of The Outsider, the later novel continues to suggest the impossibility of resolving the conflict of human rationality and human existence. The stylistic and ideological complexities of Sábato’s work, which confirm his confession of the obsessive nature of his narrative impulse, render his novelesque work very difficult and not at all clear in its communication of the central mystery of life.