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Literature / On Heroes and Tombs

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''There exist some fictions through which the author tries to free himself from an obsession that is unclear even to himself. For good or for bad, these are the only ones I can write."
Ernesto Sábato, note on the first edition.

On Heroes and Tombs is a 1961 novel, a chaotic and surreal book written by Ernesto Sábato set in Buenos Aires, it begins with a note from a local newspaper, telling of the suspicious circumstances in which a girl murdered her father and then set herself on fire.

The story has at its center the ill-fated romance between Alejandra Vidal, a young, beautiful yet emotionally unstable woman, last heir of a decadent Argentinian family, and of Martín del Castillo, the shy, homeless teenager that sees her as the only reason to keep on living. This tale, told as a conversation between Martín and his friend Bruno years after Alejandra's suicide, serves as the background for a dark examination of the nature of hope and the futility of human contact, complete with Freudian undertones, mythological allegories and some serious analysis on the nationality of Argentina.

The third chapter, called "Report on the Blind" has sometimes been published as a completely separate book. This section, narrated by Fernando Vidal, father of Alejandra and resident schizophrenic/Magnificent Bastard, breaks with the realism and narrative line of the rest of the book by interrupting the story with a chaotic and existentialist description of Fernando's delusional mission. He believes blind people are secretly a sect of non-entirely-human creatures that control everything and everyone. Only he can stop them, maybe not definitely, but it is his destiny to try. It is Fernando's mission to infiltrate this dangerous association that has secret, unlimited powers. In the process, however, he tells us about the evolution of his insanity and psychopathy, along with his ultra-nihilistic views on reality and some little details that suggest the true dark secret behind the plot. Namely that Fernando and Alejandra had a incestuous relationship before her relationship with Martín caused her to precipitate into madness, via killing his father and then killing herself.

Oh and sometimes, between the storylines, there is a historical narration of the flee of the forces of General Lavalle from the traitor soldiers of Oribe, at the Argentinian civil war. The kick of this story is that Lavalle, the heroic commander, dies halfway through but his troops keep the flight through the desert; decided not to let the enemy take the hero's head and plant it on a lance.

This is the second book of Sábato's trilogy, preceded by existentialist novella The Tunnel and followed by Mind Screw extraordinaire "Abbadon the Despoiler". "Writing on the Blind" has been adapted both to movie format and comic book format.

Contains example of the following tropes:

  • Ancient Conspiracy: Fernando thinks blind people are part of one.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Lavalle, after dying unimpressively and having his body desacrated by those he loves appears near the ending, in the imagination of a poor indian, as a larger than life figure gloriously riding the road to Jujuy, drapped in the blue of the skies and the argentinian flag.
  • Author Filibuster: see Jorge Luis Borges below.
  • Battle Amongst the Flames: A short chapter shows a woman trying to save an effigy of the Virgin Mary from a burning church.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family
  • Bittersweet Ending: although one that requieres almost exclusively on Fridge Brilliance for the sweet part. Lavalle becomes a true hero in the imagination of his people for all the pain he went through. It is suggested Martín has turned into a hero of normal life himself, and he at least never commits suicide-or lets Alejandra die from his memory-thus proving what Bruno says in that "human beings aren't rational beings and as such they will always rebuild their lives".
  • Continuity Nod: Fernando mentions the events in The Tunnel, Sábato's previous novel, and links the story with his theory of blind people being evil.
  • Emo Teen: Martin maybe, but he has more than enough reasons to be one. This reason vary from the ordinary (his father was distant and disappointing, he is rather shy), to the downright traumatic: his mother directly tells him he is a disgrace to her and that she tried repeatedly to give herself an abortion. Having Alejandra as a sort-of girlfriend and having no job or home probably does not help either.
  • Enfant Terrible: Fernando used to snatch the eyes of birds when he was little, just for kicks.
  • Everybody Is Jesusin Purgatory: probably cultivated knowingly, as the story has a lot of obviously allegorical elements, especially in "Writing on the Blind", but what exactly do this represents is never clear. Different people propose the Decadence of Argentina, the growth from youthful idealism to mature nihilism, and the slow destruction of all hope in one's life.
  • Eye Scream: in one of his delusions in "Writing on the Blind", Fernando has gigantic pterodactyls/vultures/bats pierce his eyes and snatch both of them while he is trapped in the mud helpless.
  • Funetik Aksent: A couple of characters talk in a certain way to accentuate their middle-lower class status.
  • Parental Incest
  • It Runs in the Family: Alejandra's entire family is completely insane. One of them keeps her grandfather's head in her room (which she never leaves).
  • Jorge Luis Borges: appears walking on the streets and is greeted by Martin and Bruno, giving an opportunity for Sábato to make one character voice his criticism on his writings.
  • Kill It with Fire: Alejandra believes fire purifies. She wants to purify herself.
  • Last Stand: subverted in the story of the Legion. They have no hope left, all that they want is their leader's body not to be dishonoured.
  • Milkman Conspiracy: Seriously, a conspiracy of blind? It's not Played for Laughs, though.
  • Switching P.O.V.
  • Tsundere: Alejandra works as a very dark spin of this. Martin describes their relationship as if the prince came to battle the dragon and save the princess, only to realize the dragon and the princess were one and the same creature.
  • Writer on Board: no matter how traumatic things get, Sábato likes to take time to explore the nature of the Nation of Argentina, hope and other philosophical tracts.