In 1961, WHEN BORGES Shared the Prix International des Editeurs with Beckett, and a young Colombian journalist named Garcia Marquez published a story about an old cockfighting colonel, the Argentinian Ernesto Sabato published his second novel, Sobre heroes y tumbas, a mere 13 years after his first. It is a book with some claim to be the first major set-piece in that carnival of fictional fireworks which mesmerized Latin America throughout the next decade and which included such soaring rockets as Vargas Llosa's The Green House, Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers and, of course, the one book I needn't name, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, because you've all read it.
What many of these books share with In Heroes and Tombs, apart from their desire to break the mold of the conventional naturalistic novel, is a strategy of difficulty-justified-by-richness. (Interestingly, the most difficult of them all was also Argentinian, Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch . Add Borges to Cortazar and Sabato and you have powerful evidence for a General Theory of Argentine Esotericism.) Sabato's novel certainly makes heavy demands of its readers -- but offers by way of fair exchange a rich motherlode of imagery, language and haunting scenes.
Its subject is Argentina -- and in particular Buenos Aires, a "gigantic, chaotic conglomerate, tender and cruel, hated and loved, standing out like a fearsome leviathan against the great threatening storm clouds in the west," a city whose street names entomb the memory of its heroes.
In Part I, a young man named Martin del Castillo is picked up in a park b a tumultuous, enigmatic beauty, Alejandra Vida Olmos, member of a crumbling but aristocratic family, and falls madly in love with her: a doomed love, because Alejandra "though only a year older than Martin . . . was possessed of experience that was frightening, and seemingly age-old." He is drawn inexorably into the cobwebbed Olmos world, hearing the story of Miss Escolastica, who kept a severed head in a hatbox all her life, meeting mad uncles, sinking into the swamp of memories -- particularly memories of the ill-fated Unitarist General Lavalle and his terrible last retreat -- which the family's ramshackle home has become in its decrepitude. Alejandra herself, blowing hot and cold, seized periodically by horrifying fits, a creature of secrets (the darkest of which lie behind the name "Fernando" and the phrase "the blind"), is explicitly a symbol of Argentina: light and dark, "dragon-princess, mudrose, childbat," she is a half-human, half-mythological figure. In the long sequence of disintegrations which make up Part II, she destroys her relationship with Martin, who turns for solace to her friend, the writer Bruno who loved her mother Georgina has hard and as unsuccessfully as Martin loves Alejanda. At the end of the section Martin learns that the mysterious Fernando is Alejandra's father; and shortly afterwards, Alejandra shoots Fernando and burns herself to death.
Part III, a paranoiac, phantasmagoric "Report on the Blind" by Fernando, reveals his belief that "the blind" constitute an occult sect of infinite powers and engulfing evil. The "Report" details, in tersely glittering language, his efforts to enter their "redoubts" and fathom their secrets. This is the book's magnificent high point and its metaphysical heart. Because Fernando's obsession with the blind is also a lust for the dark side of his own soul, his pursuit of the sightless is also a flight inwards, an infernal descent into "the abyss of truth."
Part IV contains Bruno's account of his youth with Georgina and Fernando, who stole her from him; and Martin's despair and slow regeneration after Alejandra's death; and, as a sort of historical descant, the story of Lavalle's retreat, which ends with his soldiers decapitating their dead general to save his head from his foes and preserving his heart in a flagon of brandy: a strangely fitting tomb for this sad here.
On Heroes and Tombs comes to America trailing 20 years of acclaim; and I hope I've been able to hint as its many riches. But when considering it whole, I feel obliged to raise a dissenting voice against the litanies of praise. And if there's a single reason why this remains a curiously unsatisfying book, it may lie in the vicinity of Sabato's enlistment of Dostoevski in support of his riddling method: "phrases as seemingly prosaic as 'Alexey Fyoderovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov . . .' take on in retrospect a profound meaning. . . . We never know until the end of if what happens to us is history or mere happen-stance." Sabato constantly hints at a strategy of retrospective validation: by the end, he assures us, we will understand the enigma. Like Dostoevski or Hitchcock, Sabato creates mysteries precisely so that we are forced to experience his work with the minutes attention, lest we miss a vital clue; unlike those two masters, however, he is willing to leave too much unresolved, too much half-explained. Dostoevski would never have tolerated so vague an ending; Hitchcock would certainly have revealed (for instance) why Martin sees Alejandra entering the very house in which, according to Fernando, the Sect of the Blind held him captive.
Sabato's 13-year gestation produced a frequently brilliant book, but one marred by its opacity; the flawless masterpiece of the Latin American literary carnival was to come six years later. It was, of course, Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book as bright and lucid as the sun.