Ernesto Sabato


(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )

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Ernesto Sabato (Argentina, 1911)

"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 needs him.

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 metaphysical.

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 Tito.

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, Bonifacio, 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 and that 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, from Denmark 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 man is. 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.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )