On Heroes and Tombs by Ernesto Sabato

On Heroes and Tombs by Ernesto Sabato is Argentina in a box, circa 1955. It’s a Pandora’s box of dark intelligence and nightmare. But who cares about that? It’s so brilliant, a foundational work of Latin American literature, that would trademark that literature on the world stage, even if it wasn’t already accompanied by so many other great names, like Borges and Garcia Marquez. Borges makes a cameo appearance in On Heroes and Tombs.

It’s a novel of great depth and complexity, of many levels like a downtown skyscraper, which leads me to suspect that a proper estimate of its importance has not yet been made. This is not surprising; the culture needs time to fully appropriate great works.

It might help, unless you already know the history, to read the Peron article in Wikipedia to get started on the novel’s historical dynamism. Peron was thrown out of power in 1955, the present-day of the novel’s fictional space. It’s helpful to know that political coup was taking place at the time of the novel’s present action.

But the novel’s sense of time spreads out from there. I imagine a sheet of pristine white paper on a desk, which you then accidentally ruin by overturning a bottle of red ink. The blot spreads, but especially in one direction, towards the past. Google a few incidents, names and political groups from Argentina’s past to gain a more general orientation as you encounter them in the book. And I found a summary of Argentine history in Wikipedia helpful.

It’s Argentina in 1955 and Martin, an introspective, 19-year-old is taking stock of himself in a Buenos Aires park. Martin has not found life very supportive. His mother has told him that she tried to abort him and he’s only alive because she failed. In the park, he has a chance meeting with Alejandra, a young woman about his age but who is emotionally older. Martin has chance meetings with Alejandra thereafter. He waits in the park for her to re-appear. Sometimes she does, and sometimes not. She compares Martin to a figure in an El Greco painting, elongated, spiritual. Finally, Alejandra invites him home.

Home for Alejandra is a derelict district that used to be grand. It was once a favored environ for an aristocratic class that has adapted to a more commercial and industrialized society and moved on. Only Alejandra’s family has remained in a fragment of their once grand house whose most notable feature is a mirador, a tower lookout. The estancia is now encircled by tenements and factories. No one in their right mind would live in this district if they had any choice. But Alejandra’s family, what’s left of it, is not in their right mind. They are possessed by Argentina’s tragic past but also by its lost glory. To the upper class that has moved on, Alejandra’s family are freaks, objects to be laughed at. But the family also possesses a lost nobility, or a shard thereof, of a gentility and civility that has been discarded by the bustling modern world.

Yes, Martin and Alejandra sleep together but she is also off-putting. She has chronic nightmares and calls herself garbage. She doesn’t want to be touched. Her family are a fallen house, worthy of a cycle of Greek tragedies mixed with the damnation of an Edgar Allen Poe. They are Usher-like.

Then Alejandra pulls away from Martin, all the while telling him that she loves him. It’s a romantic trope that dates back to the age of the troubadours or the Renaissance. The lady becomes disdainful. Her lover complains but it’s no use. He badgers her for an opportunity to see her. She sometimes allows a short encounter, telling him their relationship is over. Sometimes she agrees to a meeting and then doesn’t turn up. She is always too busy. Martin can’t let go. His connection to Alejandra is his oxygen, the most meaningful emotional experience that he’s ever had. He stalks her.

Martin thinks he has discovered her meeting her new lover, an intense and charismatic older man, but it turns out to be her father.

Martin’s relationship with Alejandra has been taken as far as it can go except for its postmortem. The next hundred pages are about Alejandra’s satanic father, Fernando, who as a child tortured small animals, putting their eyes out and watching them cope. As an adult, he is an anarchist, the leader of a street gang, and convinced that the blind form a secret sect that rules the world. He’s terrified of blind people and follows them to prove his conspiracy theories. He has a cult-like power over people. We are told several times that he can make people do whatever he wants.

We sink into the swamp of Fernando’s point of view, literally at times as we participate in Fernando’s hallucinations, a disturbing experience for the reader. But Alejandra also feels compassion for her father who is plagued by hellish nightmares. On Heroes and Tombs is an exercise in reading nightmares.

Sabato writes sentences with shadows and much rarer, with light. On the internet, there is something called the “dark net” to which ordinary people don’t have access. On Heroes and Tombs has a dark net of its own. There seem to be invisible dark sentences lying just outside the reader’s perception of the text. Sabato’s sentences don’t appear crisply on the page; they blot the page and you wonder what those suggestive ink blots mean.

I was at first puzzled that Godine, the hermetic publisher of this distinguished reissue, would reveal major spoilers on the back cover. But it doesn’t hurt that you are told that Alejandra will shoot her father and set them both on fire. These events occur offstage and it wasn’t clear to me from the text that this is what happened. The book is a chimera.

Throughout this novel, massive in its eloquence, time is bent like a Slinky toy. Martin has conversations with his friend Bruno, an older man and lover of Fernando’s oppressed sister, throughout the book. But most of those conversations, only not all of them, are retrospective and the alert reader will realize that Alejandra must already be dead. And we are not given the introductory scene in which Martin meets Bruno until much later. So for a while we are wondering who Bruno is.

Bloody chunks of Argentina’s 19th century history litter the novel as we learn the backstory of Alejandra’s family. The decapitated head of an ancestor is kept in a chest in the mirador. Alejandra wants to show the head to Martin but he is afraid to look at it. She can trace her ancestors back to the conquistadors, so her family history is also Argentina’s history.

Sabato in conclusion says Argentina is a country that doesn’t know what it wants to be. And perhaps Sabato doesn’t know what he wants it to be. He presents us with an open history that could move in any direction and in which evil, which tyrannizes us night and day, and good, which is gentler and elusive, are both real.

There are literary works that encourage us to interrogate ourselves. On Heroes and Tombs is one of those books. If you’re a book lover then you will understand that some books are touchstones that refine the temper of one’s life. We owe Argentina, the great city of Buenos Aires and Ernesto Sabato a debt. I bought my copy in my favorite bookstore, the Strand at 12th and Broadway.