"Sobre Heroes y Tumbas/ On Heroes and Tombs" (1961) is a labyrinth of
tales within tales in different time dimensions.
Characters (sometimes not yet introduced or long dead) comment on the story
like auxiliary writers causing the temporal center of mass
to shift back and forth. The story is announced as a tragic story of a
murder and suicide, but then starts as a teenage love story, but then turns
into a thriller (not about the motives of the murder and suicide but about
the secret life of the loved girl).
The love story pits the young innocent boy against a powerful family whose
last descendants are all crazy to some extent.
The story makes frequent detours into
the epics of Argentina as well as contemporary (1950s) politics but it is not
quite a historical novel. History
is mostly in the past, not in the present (present politics is only scorned,
and at best constitutes a melancholy background).
However, history does play a role in the
narrative, because characters are cast against momentous events of the distant
past as well as against the mood of contemporary society.
Alejandra, a teenager from a prominent family of Buenos Aires, killed her father
with a pistol and then set herself on fire. After the crime someone discovered
a manuscript that her father Fernando was writing, and that may explain not only
the murder but also why she sets herself on fire instead of shooting herself
with the pistol. The novel is a long flashback to show what happened.
Martin, still a teenager, is sitting on a bench when he feels that a girl
is staring at him. The narration is related both through Martin's first
person recollections and through the subsequent opinions of a friend he
will meet in the future, Bruno.
Thus, while Martin tells us that the girl shows up again and approaches him,
we also learn that Bruno was in love with both her and her mother
Georgina, and more with the latter than with the former. The forward flashes
also include dialogues between Bruno and Martin who discuss what is happening
in the present. The girl, of about the same age as Martin, tells him that she
Meanwhile we also learn that Martin's subconscious is still devastated by
the revelations that he received at the age of eleven that her mother did
not want him to be born for fear that the pregnancy would ruin her shape.
She had gotten pregnant by
accident and, in a country where abortion was illegal, had tried everything
to get rid of the baby before he was born.
Alejandra disappears, leaving
Martin in a deep state of frustration. Bruno meditates about lost souls in
general, whether young or old, rich or poor. To him Buenos Aires is a city
of lost souls. This is the first of many philosophical meditations by Bruno
that seems to set Martin's tragedy in a broader context, both national and
Martin gets so desperate and so uncomfortable at home that he
decides to take a job at a printer and befriends a truck driver, Bucich,
who introduces him to the gang of the pizzeria, Chichin and the intellectual
After learning that Martin has decided to leave the house,
his father comes to talk to Martin for the first time in many years, a failed
painter asking for forgiveness and devastated that Martin hates him.
Martin is now talking with Bruno. Alejandra finally resurfaces when Martin
falls asleep on the same park bench (which makes us wonder if it's
all a dream). They now meet frequently, in all sorts of places and at all
sorts of hours. Eventually she takes him to her family's old mansion. The place
is in decay. Her family used to be rich and powerful. One of her ancestors,
fought in the civil war of the country and was beheaded. His little daughter
Escolastica found the head and locked herself in her room until she died,
for eighty years, refusing to surrender the head and always talking in the
present, as if it were still that day. Madness runs in the family
and the current madman is Alejandra's uncle Bebe,
Her great-grandfather Pancho (the source of the story) still keeps the head
in a box. Alejandra tells Martin that her mother died when she was a child
six years later she (Alejandra) found her father sleeping with another woman and
realized that he had been cheating on her mother all along. Now her father
never sets foot in the house anymore. After that fact, Alejandra ran away.
The police found her in an abandoned house. Her family decided to send her
to a boarding school run by the nuns where Alejandra suddenly became a
religious fanatic. As she tells Martin of her morbid infatuation for a priest,
she is shaken by epileptic convulsions. When she recovers, she continues the
story of her life. The family sent her to live with old sisters. There she
met Marcos, one year older than her. She told Marcos that she dreamed of
becoming a missionary and of dying in martyrdom. She asked Marcos to marry
her only so that they could escape to a distant country, but she also told
him that she would never allow a man to touch her: their marriage would only be
to allow her to get out of her family's control.
Marcos was scared of her madness but also
attracted to her. One night, after one of her insane adventures,
he had to take her home in the middle of the night, causing a little scandal.
Her aunt Teresa was particularly harsh with her, and Alejandra started
praying God to kill Teresa. She went from one extreme to the other, becoming
a demon. Reverting their roles, she tried to seduce Marcos at the beach
during a heavy storm and eventually shouted at him that God does not exist,
to which Marcos ran away from her.
Having completed her tale, Alejandra takes Martin into her place but only
to fall asleep in front of him and to be shaken by a nightmare.
She takes him to meet her 95-year old great-grandfather Pancho in person.
Then she tells Martin the story of Pancho's grandfather, an
English lieutenant who lived and fought at the time of the civil war
and who changed his last name from Patrick Elmtrees to Patricio Olmos
after a young woman saved his life and married him. Alejandra credits her own
existence to a miracle because she would not have been born if that lieutenant's
life had not miraculously been saved. The 95-year old Pancho comments that
their family has been divided since those days, indirectly because of
the old dictator, Rosa. Throughout this convoluted narrative some of the
long dead protagonists of the civil war narrate their own version of the story.
Alejandra leaves Martin alone with the old man. Martin discovers that
the madman of the family has been eavesdropping on them
all this time.
Scared of him, Martin
runs through the house and meet an elderly "Indian" woman, Justina, the maid,
who, however, remains totally indifferent to the intruder.
Martin is puzzled that Alejandra cannot stand the thought of blind people
and doesn't want to talk about a mysterious "Fernando".
Martin loses his job at the printer and, completely broke and homeless,
is helped by Tito, the intellectual of the pizzeria.
Tito is the son of an old Italian coachman. Then finally Alejandra resurfaces.
She takes him to a bistro run by a Russian named Vanya, a morphine addict.
and then to her place, where she admits that she is in love with him (Martin).
She tells him of another ancestor, Hernandarias, who led the 1550 expedition
in search of the Enchanted City of Patagonia.
When he tries to kiss her, she has another epileptic fit.
But then she lets him sleep in the same bed and make love to her.
Afterwards, she is indifferent to their lovemaking and tells him that
she is garbage. She mentions Bruno for the first time, an old friend of
his mother, an amateur philosopher with no real occupation.
She thinks he was in love with her mother, Georgina.
She also mentions that she and her mother looked very similar.
Martin has an interview with the powerful Bordenave, from whose decision
Tito's fate apparently depends, while Alejandra is with him and
somehow that meeting changes the girl's mood significantly.
Later Alejandra tries to help Martin find a job with another powerful friend
of her family, but the powerful man (Molinari) simply lectures Martin on all
sorts of subjects. Martin is desperate for money.
Alejandra takes a job at the boutique run by her friend Wanda, a frivolous
woman. Martin is disturbed by the friendship between his ideal girl and this
socialite, especially since Alejandra's disappearances increase.
Alejandra introduces Martin to the older Bruno (and to another friend, Mendez, who
actually does most of the talking while Martin is mostly thinking about
Alejandra). Apparently by now Alejandra has frequently mentioned Bruno to
Martin as long-time friend of the family and Martin knows that Bruno was
in love with her mother. Martin and Bruno chat about Alejandra, and Martin
wonders whether Alejandra did with him things she had learned from Bruno.
When they part, Bruno remains on a bridge staring at the city, meditating
on the Babylon that lives inside those buildings (immigrants of all races),
and concluding: "nothing and everything".
Incapable of waiting any longer, after another long disappearance of Alejandra,
Martin decided to visit her at Wanda's boutique where she now works full time.
While he is there, two of Wanda's friends show up: the funny, sarcastic
Bobby and one of the socialites he was making fun of, Cristina. Ajelandra
is a little annoyed that he showed up: she is busy and is not feeling well.
She lets him make love to her but then leaves coldly because she has
a mysterious appointment. Desperate to understand more, he meets with Bruno.
While they are walking, they run into the writer Borges, another friend of
Alejandra's family. Then Bruno takes Martin to visit a priest, Rinaldini,
who is a ferocious critic of Borges' tales. (We get quite a bit of sophisticated
literary criticism in this chapter, from Proust to Borges). Rinaldini is in
trouble with the hierarchy of the church and Bruno is trying in vain to mediate
because he knows one of the most influential priests.
Alejandra disappears again. Martin is surrounded by general doom and gloom:
the nation is torn by politics, Bruno keeps meditating on the meaning of life,
the big city is more oppressive than ever. Bruno comments that Argentinians
are a people of pessimists, of nostalgic pessimists. Then out of the blue Martin
spots Alejandra in a convertible car with the rich Bordenave. Martin is shocked.
Bordenave tells him that he found Alejandra by accident just like they are
meeting him. Alejandra gets off the car and tells Martin to meet him later.
Bordenave gives Martin a ride home. Martin is becoming paranoid: he now suspects
that there is an affair between Alejandra and Bordenave, but that's clearly
impossible as Alejandra didn't know Bordenave and Bordenave didn't even know
Alejandra's name. Martin tries to come up with a rational explanation of why
they were together in that car, and chance alone does not convince him.
Now we are finally given details on the meeting with Bordenave that had been
barely sketched when it was happening: Bordenave had spokn a lot against corruption
in general, criticizing just about everybody in Argentinian society, but at the
end he had reassured Martin that Tito would not lose his place (apparently
the very goal of the interview). Martin now remembers that Alejandra had not
taken part at all in the conversation but had looked clearly annoyed by it.
Still pondering the mystery of their encounter, Martin walks into Chichin's
pizzeria and witnesses a religious preacher, Barragan, shout that salvation
can only come with faith in Jesus.
Alejandra tries to get rid of Martin, but Martin keeps stalking her. She tells
him that she is busy at the boutique, that she is sick, etc. But Martin
perseveres, managing to sleep with her one more time, but every time his
jealousy gets worse. She shows him a letter she received from Juan Carlos,
in which Juan Carlos insults Martin (therefore Juan Carlos must be a close
friend of Alejandra who met Martin, but no such details have been disclosed)
and talks about Danish girls (therefore he is not flirting with Alejandra).
Vanya's bar has been shut down and Vanya taken to a mental hospital, which
Martin sees as a bad omen of sorts. Then they go to a dive popular with
sailors and prostitutes, and Alejandra is fascinated by a ugly fat whore.
Martin even threatens to commit suicide,
to which Alejandra confirms that she loves him but not as a girlrfiend.
While Martin is stalking her at the boutique, he chats with Bobby, who
seems to know the family well and tells Martin that only Alejandra and
Fernando are left, not counting the old man and the mad uncle. And Martin
doesn't have time to ask who is the mysterious Fernando. But then he follows
her and sees her meet with an older man who looks a lot like her, and guesses
this must be Fernando. Martin is now obsessed with finding out who this
He confronts Alejandra who, furious, shouts at him that the man is none else
than... her father. Now he knows her secret but he really lost her. After
witnessing indifferent a political riot, he accidentally stumbles on Alejandra
walking like a sleepwalker towards an old building.
Here the narrative pauses and the book takes a detour into a lengthy "report"
by Fernando, who has just been revealed to be Alejandra's father. The report
is told in first person but at the very beginning he mentions his own coming
murder, as if he were writing from the otherworld. His report starts before
the story of Martin related by the narrator so far. The report is about
Fernando's investigations leading to the discovery of a demonic (and imaginary?)
sect of blind people who, according to him, control the entire world (but it
sounds like the obsession of a paranoid madman). His report begins with the
recollection of his encounters with the counterfeiter Celestino when Fernando
was a member of an anarchist sect. This Celestino went to fight in the Spanish
civil war and lost a leg there. Fernando tracked him down when his gang
needed to counterfeit money and lured Celestino into their shady business
pretending to be a political operation when in fact they were just criminals.
An accident in the laboratory left Celestino blind. Celestino lived like
a recluse in a pension, and Fernando, convinced that the sect would eventually
make contact with the newly blind, decided to spy his every move by
sitting at a cafe with the young and naive Norma, daughter of a socialist
friend. His goal was both to spy on the blind man and to corrupt Norma with his
cynical and chauvinist ideas. And eventually he did succeed in sleeping with
her, reducing her to one of his wildest sexual partners despite her erudite
socialist upbringing. Fernando educated her on his vision of history, that
evil has always triumphed over good, while at the same time never losing sight
of the pension where Celestino lived. Fernando, however, began to suspect
that Norma herself could be a spy hired by the sect of the blind.
We learn that Fernando had been observing the activities of blind people around
Buenos Aires for three years.
Fernando continued his vigil day after day, visiting the pension's owner and
Celestino himself, until one day finally someone showed up and took Celestino
away. Fernando followed them to a building, where Celestino stayed till very
late in the night, and then Fernando came back later to inspect the place.
A room led to another room that led to a trap door that led to
a passageway that led to another place, where Fernando fainted seeing
a blind woman staring at him. There follow several pages of delirious
stories as Fernando believes he has fallen into a trap laid by the sect
that in fact has been watching him all the time that he was watching them.
The blind woman locked him in the room, but somehow Fernando managed to
escape through the sewers. Eventually he woke up in his own room in his
own villa, where he is writing this report (and it may have all been a
figment of his madness). He ends the report by stating that he is
consciously and willingly going to the place where he will be murdered.
Alejandra kills Fernando and sets fire to their ancestral home, dying in the
fire. Martin looks to Bruno for an explanation, and Bruno begins a lengthy
story of how he met Fernando and Georgina.
Bruno points out that Fernando's report (the previous section of the book)
cannot be truste and admits upfront that he loved Alejandra's mother
Georgina and Alejandra as away to love her mother vicariously.
The first revelation is that Georgina is not dead, as Alejandra believed,
but very much alive. The second revelation is that Georgina and Fernando
very first cousins: they grew up together.
Bruno met Fernando as a teenager and kept meeting him on and off.
Bruno recounts how
Fernando the nihilist married a very pretty and very rich teenage girl
(and the daughter of a former lover of his)
to get the money that, for a while, funded his decadent and promiscuous
lifestyle. He brought his lovers home and introduced them to his wife until
his wife ran away. Fernando soon lost all his money and partnered with a bank
robber until this man was arrested.
Fernando was already obsessed with the blind. Bruno personally saw him gouge
the eyes of animals.
Bruno had met Georgina when she was still a young girl and immediately fell
in love with her, but she was already under Fernando's demonic spell.
Then Bruno also hung out in the anarchist groups that Fernando courted,
and Bruno knows that they mainly supported themselves with bank holdups
and money counterfeiting.
Georgina abandoned Alejandra when the child was ten. Fernando never married her.
Martim tries in vain to make sense of what happened, but he discovers that
Alejandra enjoyed sleeping around for money, even with Bordenave (who made
audio recordings of her sexual exploits).
The reconstruction of Alejandra's madness is intertwined with the narration
of Lavalle's last moments: he was killed, his surviving soldiers carried the corpse
(or, better, just the skeleton) on a long ride north towards safety, and one
of those soldiers was Alejandra's ancestor Celedonio.
Martin faints and is assisted by a good woman, Hortensia, who lives in
poverty with a child and no husband but tells him that life is wonderful.
Martin packs his things and leaves on Bucich's truck towards Patagonia.