The Author in His Labyrinth : THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS, <i> By Ernesto Sabato, translated by Andrew Hurley (Ballantine Books: $25; 448 pp.)</i>

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<i> Polk is a free-lance writer</i> .

One question that comes to mind about this dark, sometimes impenetrable but always astounding vision from Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato is: What to call it? Containing elements of fiction, memoir, literary theory and Socratic dialogue, “The Angel of Darkness” resists categories with almost as much verve as it resists linear narrative. It probably comes closest to the novel, if only because it’s so far from everything else.

What’s it “about”? First we are led to believe it will be about writing a novel, another tedious excursion into the world of metafiction, or fiction about the writing of fiction. There is some of that, but in Andrew Hurley’s fine and careful translation, the book is running on at least a couple of tracks at once. For an idea of how many, listen to the author describe the territory of fiction in the late 20th Century and how he proposes to expand it:

“The foundations have had to be looked into. . . . One delves into (fiction’s) essence, its mission, its worth. But it has all been done so far from the outside. There’ve been attempts to carry out the same examination from within, but one would have to go deeper. A novel in which the novelist . . . is included.


” . . . I’m not talking about the figure of the writer inside the fiction. I’m talking about the possibility of the extreme cases, in which it’s the author of the novel that’s inside the novel . . . as just another character, the same sort of character as all the rest. . . . The author would be a man maddened, somehow, and living with his own doubles, aspects of his own self.”

For the writer, this is a risky proposition. He must embark on a series of self-explorations on a variety of levels, with a variety of meanings. From all this, he must carve a plot. Controlling such complexity is hard enough; making sense of it is nearly impossible. But Sabato is equal to the challenge.

In “The Angel of Darkness,” Sabato as both creation and creator--it’s difficult separating the two, since both share the same biography and the same dreams--is writing his way out of a psychic labyrinth of his own devising. He has fashioned Buenos Aires into a parallel maze, dark and idiosyncratic, the familiar landmarks rebuilt to his own end, the populace largely of his own imagining. Why? We will cross some pretty rough terrain before finding out.

The two Sabatos have decided to write a novel, his--or is it their?--third. This author is famous for spending years agonizing over previous fictions ( “The Tunnel,” on the inner torments of a sociopathic artist, and the extravagant and epochal “On Heroes and Tombs”); he burned some manuscripts outright and tinkered with others long past their scheduled appearance. Readers have learned to expect a new Sabato only when they see it in the book stores.

The problem this narrator-Sabato has is that “living with his own doubles” while trying to sort out his own destiny is more than he can accomplish alone. He enlists the support of characters from previous novels, but they prove largely unreliable.

Unable to depend entirely on his own creations, the novelist turns to his surroundings. He tries seances and cocktail parties, weighty discussions and random encounters. He takes us back to his pre-literary career as a physicist and through a lifetime of confrontation.


In the parallel world of Buenos Aires, meanwhile, the persecutions and killings that so tore the fabric of Argentina in the 1970s are beginning. A drunken clairvoyant observes an omen only he can see: a fierce, seven-headed dragon spewing fire in the predawn sky. A young idealist is tortured and killed by police who suspect him of subversion. Together, the apocalyptic vision and the apocalyptic reality place a context around the novel’s experiments by locating them in both time and myth: They provide an ominous background to an ominous foreground.

As to where the events in that foreground are headed, Sabato starts out no more certain than his readers. But eventually the smoke clears enough for a glimpse of the goal. Near the end, the fictional Sabato stumbles across his own tombstone in a local cemetery. “PEACE,” reads the epitaph, and we know he has run the course.

So “The Angel of Darkness” reveals itself as nothing less than an author’s search for his place in the universe, for tranquility in an unsettled world. Clearly that exploration has been a success. Peace: That is what the novel has been all about, where all its convolutions have led us. After such a rigorous search for this final destiny, the author surely deserves his rest.