Ernesto Sábato, in full Ernesto Roque Sábato, (born June 24, 1911, Rojas, Argentina—died April 30, 2011, Buenos Aires), Argentine novelist, journalist, and essayist whose novels are notable for their concern with philosophical and psychological issues and whose political and social studies were highly influential in Argentina in the latter half of the 20th century.
Educated as a physicist and mathematician, Sábato attended the National University of La Plata (1929–36), where he received a doctorate in physics in 1937. He did postdoctoral work at the Curie Laboratory in Paris in 1938 and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939 and returned to Argentina in 1940. From 1940 to 1945 he taught theoretical physics at the National University of La Plata and at a teachers college in Buenos Aires. He began to contribute to the literary section of La Nación, one of Argentina’s leading newspapers, articles that stated his opposition to the Juan Perón government, and as a result he was removed from his teaching posts in 1945.
Uno y el universo (1945; “One and the Universe”), a series of aphorisms, statements, and personal observations by Sábato on diverse philosophical, social, and political matters, was his first literary success. The novelEl túnel (1948; “The Tunnel”; Eng. trans. The Outsider) won Sábato national and international notice. The protagonist of the novel is a typical existential antihero who is unable to communicate with anyone. Faced with the absurdity of the human condition, he withdraws from society. Sábato subsequently published nonfiction works such as Hombres y engranajes (1951; “Men and Gears”), examining the myth of progress and the use of machine technology as a model for social structures, and Heterodoxia (1953; “Heterodoxy”), on the problems of modern civilization and what Sábato saw as an attendant loss of earlier moral and metaphysical foundations.
After the fall of Perón in 1955, Sábato published El otro rostro del peronismo (1956; “The Other Face of Peronism”), which is an attempt to study the historical and political causes of the violence and unrest of Perón’s rule. The essay “El caso Sábato” (1956; “The Sábato Case”) is a plea for reconciliation of Peronist and anti-Peronist forces.
His second novel, Sobre héroes y tumbas (1961; On Heroes and Tombs), is a penetrating psychological study of man, interwoven with philosophical ideas and observations previously treated in his essays. Tres aproximaciones a la literatura de nuestro tiempo (1968; “Three Approximations to the Literature of Our Time”) are critical literary essays that deal specifically with the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The novel Abaddón el exterminador (1974, corrected and revised, 1978; “Abaddón the Exterminator”; Eng. trans. The Angel of Darkness) contains the ironic statements on literature, art, philosophy, and the excesses of rationalism that characterize his work.
Sábato in 1984 received the Cervantes Prize, Hispanic literature’s most prestigious award. The award followed the publication in Spain of the “Sábato Report” (1984; Nunca más [“Never Again”]), an investigation of human rights violations in Argentina, of which Sábato was the principal author. The document was vital in aiding the prosecution of military leaders responsible for the killings of some 10,000–30,000 citizens during the country’s Dirty War (1976–83). In 2000, in his 89th year, Sábato released a new work, a reflection on Western culture titled La resistencia (“The Resistance”), on the Internet prior to its print publication.
As we approach the first anniversary of his death, the Beyond Borges series arrives at the Argentine essayist and existentialist author Ernesto Sabato.
Ernesto Sabato, the essayist and novelist known for bringing Existentialism to Argentina
As revered at the time of his passing as Jorge Luis Borges, Sabato is widely-known for his role in bringing about justice for the crimes committed by the nation’s military leaders during Argentina’s most infamous dictatorship.
Having received a great deal of critical acclaim for his novels ‘El túnel’ and ‘Sobre héroes y tombas’ he was awarded the 1984 Miguel de Cervantes prize and is commonly regarded one of South America’s most influential writers.
Born in 1911 in Riojas, a small town in Buenos Aires province, Sabato was the tenth of 11 sons born to Italian immigrant parents. Whilst studying physics and mathematics at the University of La Plata he joined a movement of student activists calling for university reform and independence. By 1933 he had set up a campaign group of communist ideals and, during the same year, was appointed general secretary of the Communist Youth Federation.
Recognising Sabato’s waning belief in Stalin’s methods a year later, the Communist Party of Argentina ordered him to attend the International Lenin School (ILS) for two years. En-route to Moscow he travelled first to Belgium as a delegate of the party and onto Paris, where he is said to have drafted his first unpublished novel, ‘La fuente muda’.
On his return to Argentina he married Matilde Kusminsky Richter, a woman he’d met at a Marxist lecture in Belgium three years earlier, and in 1938 gained his PhD in physics from the University of La Plata aged 27.
Sabato's signature (Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia)
Nobel laureate Bernardo Houssay helped to secure Sabato a research fellowship at the prestigious Institut Curie in Paris, which placed him among surrealist writers in an environment that would only draw out his creativity.
“During that time of antagonisms, I buried myself with electrometers and graduated cylinders during the morning, and spent the nights in bars with the delirious surrealists. At the Dôme and in the Deux Magots, inebriated with those heralds of chaos and excess, we used to spend many hours creating exquisite cadavers,” he said.
In 1939 he transferred to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and returned to Argentina one year later, intent on leaving science behind. Disillusioned with what he called the dehumanising effects of science, Sabato turned to literature, where he found the unexplained aspects of the human personality relayed in German romanticism and existentialism.
Whilst he became almost immediately active in Argentina’s literary circles he continued juggling his writing and teaching careers until 1943, when he eventually made a more permanent transition to writing.
Echoes of Existentialism
Sabato published essays on a variety of scientific and literary topics, but famously burned many of his manuscripts. A surviving trio of novels includes the existentialist classic ‘El túnel’ (1948), ‘Sobre héroes y tumbas’ (1961), and the lesser known ‘Abaddón el exterminador’ (1974). Though the second is generally considered his best work, it is his first novel which will likely remain the most known outside Argentina.
Originally published in Sur magazine in 1948, it received a great deal of attention from Nobel prize laureates Alfred Camus and Thomas Mann and was almost immediately picked up for translation by French publishing house Gallimard. The first English translation in 1950 was superseded by a 1988 translation and the release of ‘The tunnel’ as a Penguin Classic only two days before Sabato’s death last year will likely secure its place for some time as the most-widely read of all his novels.
The opening lines from 'El Túnel' displayed outside Casa Museo Ernesto Sabato (Photo: Kate Bowen)
Covering little more than 100 pages, ‘El túnel’ takes us on a discomforting journey into the mind of a convicted killer – the painter Juan Pablo Castel. Imprisoned for the murder of his lover Maria Iribarne, the novel begins with his confession and continues by explaining the circumstances of his crime.
Narrated entirely in the first person, the scene is set entirely within Castel’s conscience. Never stepping for a moment outside of his self absorbed and over-analytical mind, we are carried down every dark hallway of his paranoid imagination, charting the growth of every obsessive thought.
Whilst some praise Sabato’s approach for accurately presenting the complexities of a crazed mind, others have criticised him for painting his protagonist with too broad a stroke. Nonetheless, the novel succeeds in raising questions about logical understanding and rationality – is our killer insane, or quite the opposite?
Though the reader may never be intended to achieve empathy, he does achieve, in some terrifying way, an understanding of his subject. Throughout the novel he is asked to continually shift his stance until it rests somewhere between sympathy and abhorrence.
Since the opening lines of the novel grab the readers attention so firmly, Sabato sets himself the challenge of continuing a novel where the outcome is already known and the element of intrigue is lacking. While this does demand a certain tolerance from the reader, Sabato steers clear of tedium with an energy and a darkness that could only have been maintained successfully in such a short novel.
Opinion remains divided, however. Some argue that Sabato’s stab at the existentialist genre amounts to nothing more than an un-engaging retrospective that fails to reveal much about the human condition. For others, it is a novel well deserving of its place among the likes of Camus’ ‘The stranger’, Franz Kafka’s ‘The trial’ and George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen eighty-four’ on a shelf of existentialist classics.
Many crime novels have since offered slices of insight into their killer’s minds but, at the time, Sabato’s edgy existentialism followed a genuinely innovative European wave and represented the height of originality in Argentine writing.
Though Sabato may always be remembered as a tireless campaigner for justice and human rights he has also come under occasional fire for his changing political positions. Where the likes of Leopoldo Lugones and Leopoldo Marechal made themselves unpopular with their political views, Borges and Sabato managed to swing their political stances relatively easily and relatively unnoticed.
Journalist Osvaldo Bayer, however, accused him of forming part of the “Argentine hypocrisy” in light of his actions and apparently contradictory statements made during the Argentine dictatorship of 1976- 1983.
Sabato was characterised by his thick framed glasses, bald head and moustache
Critical of the government of Juan Domingo Perón, Sabato originally appeared welcoming of the military dictatorship that began in 1976 and lasted until 1983. In the same year, both he and Borges attended a dinner held by the military leader Jorge Rafael Videla, after which Sabato was recorded as commenting that Videla was a “cultured” man. Several years later he explained to a German magazine that the majority of Argentines had welcomed the military power because they’d been able to put an end to the leftist groups threatening the stability of the country.
At the end of the dictatorship, newly elected president Raúl Alfonsín appointed Sabato to preside over the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) – a newly created commission tasked with investigating the fate of tens of thousands of Argentines who disappeared at the hands of the military.
Sabato presented his findings to Alfonsín on the 20 September 1984. His 50,000 page report entitled ‘Nunca más’ was later used to prosecute nine members of the military establishment for crimes committed during the dictatorship years.
Despite whatever he may have said before, it is the undeniably good work he performed as president of CONADEP that has stayed in the memory of Argentines and resulted in Sabato’s non-literary legacy being shaped to appear as significant as his literary one.