Ernesto Sábato first published On Heroes and Tombs in 1961, in Spanish, thirteen years after the widely acclaimed appearance of his short novel El túnel secured for him a place in the canon of contemporary Latin American literature. After twenty years of problems with translators and publishing houses, this English version of Sobre héroes y tumbas appears, with alterations and annotations by the author. Helen R. Lane has created a skilled, very readable translation of a linguistically complex novel. The novel is also complex in other ways—aesthetically and ideologically—to such an extent that it may seem too esoteric and disparate for the average serious reader of fiction. Not until the final pages does this long work seem to have a coherent structure, and even then, there is less cohesion than readers usually expect in a novel.
On Heroes and Tombs has an obsessive air about it, which Sábato admits in his preliminary note. He indicates that the novel is a particular type of fictional narrative “whereby the author endeavors to free himself of an obsession that is not clear even to himself.” Responsible literary criticism consists, in part, of maintaining a skeptical attitude toward the comments that authors make on their own work. This authorial pronouncement, however, confirms the impression created by a first reading of this fictional text. There is an obsession here, and it is not at all clear. The result is an impressive display of verbal imagery, a dazzling consort of unusual characters and events, and a denouement that leaves the intricate maze intact and the obsession unresolved.
The text is in four parts. In “The Dragon and the Princess” and “Invisible Faces,” the omniscient narrator traces the relationship of two young people, Alejandra and Martín, and the young man’s mentor and confidant, Bruno. The third part, “Report on the Blind,” is a strange dissertation on a mysterious cult of blind people conspiring to control society, written by Fernando, Alejandra’s father. According to the Foreword of the novel, this report was found in Fernando’s apartment after the police discovered his body and that of his daughter in the burned ruins of her apartment. The fourth part, “An Unknown God,” is a narrative of Martín’s attempts to understand, with Bruno’s help, his relationship with Alejandra. In this last part, the perspective of the narrator becomes clearer. The novel is narrated by an unnamed person who obtained his information from Bruno, who participated in some of the action narrated and learned the other details of the events from Martín years after the death of Alejandra. The narrator acts as an organizing consciousness of all this material—the episodes of the current history of Alejandra and Martín, Martín’s recollections of the events years later, Fernando’s psychotic report on the blind cult, and the interpolated passages of the history of Alejandra’s ancestors fighting in the Civil War of the early nineteenth century.
As the narrator slowly reveals a panoramic collage of details and events, it becomes clear that the only thread of continuity to this world is an unrelenting obsession to understand the meaning of existence. This explains the curious episode in which Bruno and Martín encounter on the street Argentina’s most famous writer, Jorge Luis Borges. The meeting stimulates a discussion of Borges’ work that leads to no conclusive statement and that seems to bear no relationship to the principal developments of the narrative. There is, however, a parallel between the work of Borges and the ontological emphasis of the experience narrated in Sábato’s novel. Life is a labyrinth, an intricate maze of questions for which there is no answer. As one of the characters says about Borges’ philosophical statements, that is a simplistic and puerile analysis of human existence, yet it is also accurate. Human experience is a mysterious labyrinth if one tries to find a systematic rationale for it, which is precisely what Martín tries to do. Bruno also tries, as he dissects the experience of Martín. Finally, the narrator tries to unravel the maze as he reconstructs the events in order to find some meaning in the existence of these people. Fernando’s report is another attempt to solve the mystery of existence. He finds an answer, in the midst of his hallucinations. He interprets everything as the result of a conspiracy of the blind.
Alejandra is the focus of the novel. Martín and Bruno and the narrator all indicate that to understand Alejandra is to understand Argentina. She is a decantation of Argentine history, descendant of Unitarists, but partisan to the Federalists. Her flesh is something more than flesh, “something more complex, more subtle, more mysterious, . . . already a memory, and therefore something that would resist death and corruption.” Bruno...
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