Ernesto Sábato (1911-2011), the last survivor of a great generation of Argentinean writers that included the likes of Julio Cortázar and Juan Rulfo, passed away last Saturday, April 30, in his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he had been secluded since 2005 for health reasons. At 99 years of age, Sábato had hardly been the focal point of the cultural establishment in the past two decades; however, his compact oeuvre (he only wrote three full novels) counts among the most accomplished and most intellectually charged material written in Spanish in the XX century, offering insightful routes into the darkest, deepest corners of human nature.
Born in Rojas on June 24, 1911, Sábato developed a highly successful career as a scientist and was a recognized and committed political militant long before he ever turned to write a single page of fiction. Graduated in Physics from the Universidad Nacional de La Plata, he obtained his Ph.D. in 1938, by which time he had already fallen in and out of favor with Argentina’s Communist Party. He worked at the Currie laboratory in Paris in 1938, was transferred to the MIT in Cambridge before the break of WWII and taught at the Universidad Nacional La Plata from 1940 onwards. Like so many physicists, however, Sábato was drawn towards the philosophical/moralistic implications of the discipline and, under the influence of his Surrealist friends, found his research period at the Currie lab frustrating and unfulfilling. This developed into a full-blown crisis that distanced him from his early communist tendencies and made him turn away from science, in the direction of art (concretely, painting and literature).
Meanwhile, the political environment in the traditionally unstable Argentina made things harder, with the coup of 1943, the ostensible neutrality of the country during WWII, and Perón’s final ascension to power in 1946. Seen in the context of a cataclysmic World War, of the havoc that reigned in Argentina, of the internal conflict that ultimately pointed Sábato, in his thirties, in the direction of literature, it is hardly surprising that his first novel, The Tunnel (1948), is not an uplifting or lighthearted affair. Rather it is a psychological novel structured in the fashion of classic crime fiction, where the protagonist allows the reader to look into the transformation of his inner self, while the desire to commit a murder grows inside him until it becomes irrepressible.
He would not publish his second novel, Of Heroes and Tombs (1961), for another 14 years – and they were 14 turbulent years at that: Peron’s “revolution” had gained widespread popularity among Argentina’s poorer quarters, until his second term as president was cut short by yet another coup, in 1955. Always an antagonist of Peron’s, Sabato was appointed by the leaders of the Revolución Libertadora as editor of the magazine Mundo Argentino.
In an eerie prelude to what would befall decades later, Sábato remained anti-Peron but also turned against the military government when he discovered the details of the atrocities committed during the overthrow of Peron’s government. Fittingly, On Heroes and Tombs depicts a grim and decadent picture of Argentinean society at large, and it includes the famous “Report on the Blind,” quite possibly the most disturbing episode in Latin American fiction.
The fact that Sábato includes himself among the blind in his third and final novel, Angel of Darkness (1974) is a testament to the extent of his conflict. More autobiographical and less traditional in its structure, Angel of Darkness fails to reach the heights of his previous two novels. Nevertheless, the pessimistic vein that runs through all his work gains relevance when it is seen through the prism of Sábato’s life, whose darkest episode still lay in the future. I refer to the position he was asked to assume following the overthrow of Argentina’s ruthless military dictatorship, which ruled the country from 1976-1983. Sábato was asked to lead the National Commission for Disappeared Persons, which investigated the crimes against human rights committed by the regime. He described it as his “descent into hell,” one degree deeper into despair with each of the 8960 victims identified in the final report, published in 1984 and commonly known as El informe Sábato.
From that point forward, Sábato received one recognition after the next, beginning with the Premio Cervantes, the highest literary award in Spanish language, awarded to him in 1984. He was a candidate to the Nobel Prize on several occasions, most recently in 2009, and he was officially recognized by over a dozen countries in America and Europe, from Germany and France to Argentina. His report about the dictatorship, however, earned him much suspicion among his fellow Argentineans. Most importantly, I suspect, it marked the end of his life – he was nearly 75 years old when he published the report – with an intense sense of the tragedy and sadness that, uncannily, had already haunted him from his youth. The final years of his life were spent in the darkness he so much feared – he became totally blind in the early 2000s – unable to write or even to paint, due to his fragile health. What remains of his literary production is only that which was saved from his destructive instincts by his prudent wife, Matilde Richter. Now, years too late, he often complained, this all too troubled genius can finally rest in peace, and as I re-examine the extent of his legacy, the only words that come to my mind, time and time again, are “Thank you, Ernesto. Thank you.”
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, MAY 7, 2011.