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Ernesto Sabato: Sobre heroes y tumbas (On Heroes and Tombs)

This is one of the great Latin American novels – long and complex, certainly, but a rewarding Dantesque plunge into the Argentinian abyss. It is based on a true story, in which a daughter killed her father and then set fire to the room, she herself dying in the room. The book starts with a summary of the police report which mentions that the father, Fernando Vidal, left behind a Report on the Blind (which appears later in the book), which he had only completed the night of his death and which, amongst other things, mentions that he was the lover of his daughter.

But this book is not about incest or, at least, only incidentally. If there is a fault with Borges, it is that he was politically unengaged. It might be argued that a writer should be separate from politics and, to a certain degree, that is true but, living in a country like Argentina under oppressive dictatorships, ignoring what those dictatorships meant for the people of the country is dangerously naïve. Sabato has no such constraints. The title makes it clear and the subject matter is essentially set against the backdrop of the dictatorships of Juan Manuel de Rosas in the nineteenth century and Juan Perón in the twentieth.

The story concerns the proletarian Martín and the more aristocratic Fernando Vidal, both lovers of Vidal’s daughter, Alejandra. Both men are troubled and it is Sabato’s skill to show us that their trouble is not just personal but also historical. Vidal has discovered that the world is controlled by the Sect of the Blind and his Report on the Blind is the work which reveals his discoveries and which he completes just prior to his death. As he falls further into madness, we see Sabato’s view that the Argentinian aristocracy, which so long supported the dictators, is slowly crumbling. Martín’s identification with the proletariat reflects Sabato’s view that it will be a more socialist movement that will rise from the ashes of Peronism.

This summary can only touch on the skilful portray of madness that Sabato gives us as well as the portrayal of Argentinian history, indissolubly bound with its people and not something separate and outside. For Sabato and his heroes, there is a meaning somewhere but looking for it may be difficult and even lead to death but looking for it is what counts.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish by Editorial Sudamericana 1965
First published in English by Godine 1981
Translated by Helen R Lane