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Ernesto Sabato: a conscious choice of words.

ERNESTO SABATO'S sober appraisal of the human condition echoes the pessimism so characteristic of his novels. His books are dark, brooding, baroque affairs populated with alienated urban souls who have lost their moral bearings. His protagonists are victims of their own inability to define themselves, to discover some purpose in life. Painfully aware that they have lost their way yet unable to communicate their condition with others, they live a bleak, self-destructive existence clinging to a stunted kind of hope based "on little daily things" (as Angela Dellepiane aptyly puts it).

Like many writers of an existentialist persuasion, Sabato has been chided by critics who feel his "black hope" is several shades too dark. "For Sabato there are no answers," some have said, "for every solution he has nothing but problems." Perhaps, but as this great Argentine writer celebrates his eightieth birthday this year, with his life embracing a vast chunk of the twentieth century, history is much on his side (one hesitates to say he has had the last laugh because for Sabato, smiling does not come easily). Modern man's proclivity, indeed talent, for self-punishment and self-destruction is a central motif in our time and it is central to Sabato's novels, as well.

Despite a somewhat reclusive nature, Sabato has been in the public eye a good deal in recent years. On the one hand, with the passing of Jorge Luis Borges, he has emerged from his compatriot's enormous shadow. On the other and more to the point, Sabato's very substantial role both as a skilled man of letters and his nation's conscience finally has earned him the widespread respect and recognition that he long deserved. Undeniably, President Raul Alfonsin's 1983 appointment of Sabato as leader of the Comision Nacional sobre la Desaparicion de Personas (CONADEP) was a pivotal event. The position required impeccable integrity and a tenacious desire to uncover the truth, all part of a process of national healing in the wake of Argentina's military dictatorship. Despite numerous threats on his life and pressures from all sides, courageously he proceeded in a thorough, balanced, and even-handed fashion, eventually over-seeing the release of the commission's findings in a document entitled Nunca Mas. The prologue, which he wrote himself, was notably eloquent: "The great calamities always are teachers and without a doubt, the most terrible drama suffered in its history by this country, during the period of the military dictatorship that began in March 1976, will serve to make us comprehend that only democracy is capable of protecting a people from a similar horror, that only it can maintain and preserve the sacred and essential rights of the human creature. Only thus will we ensure that in our country the deeds that have made us tragically famous in the civilized world will NEVER AGAIN be repeated."

One year later, in 1984, Sabato received not only the Gabriela Mistrial Prize created by the Organization of American States, but also the prestigious Cervantes Prize for excellence in the Spanish language. The Cervantes award was made in Alacala de Henares, Spain, the birthplace of the man who gave the world Don Quijote. King Juan Carlos presented the award, often called the Nobel Prize of Hispanic letters, on the 369th anniversary of Cervante's death. In his tribute, the Spanish monarch described Sabato as a "literary warrior, a magician with words, wise in the alchemy of Nature's secret fountain."

Sabato had told associates beforehand that he intended to use the occasion to pay homage to Cervantes, describe the role the Spanish language has played in unifying the people of Latin America, and wrestle with "the enigma of fiction" as he likes to call it. In his acceptance speech (from which comes the opening paragraph above), Sabato was true to his word. "Did Cervantes know he was writing a transcendental work?" he asked his audience. "Not any more than Dostoyevsky who set out to write a pamphlet on alcoholism in Russian and ultimately produced Crime and Punishment." He went on to say that great fiction does not conform to planning the way a bridge follows the design laid down by some engineer. Instead, it depends on "incomprehensible and contradictory truths of the heart" because intelligence aside, "the heart is not commensurate with the mind."

Sabato referred to the Spanish language as a "fateful mover and revealer of mystery" and added that if it had been solely the idiom of conquest, then the descendants of the subjugated races would have used it only to manifest their resentment. "But no. Two of the greatest poets of our time, Ruben Dario and Cesar Vallejo, with Indian blood in their veins, not only wrote in the language of the conquistadores but sang to Spain in memorable poems." Sabato described the Spanish language as a binding force, which, after nearly 500 years, converted Latin America into "one spiritual unity." How many and what other empire produced a similar prodigy?" he asked. Peering through his dark-rimmed glasses, his trademark, the diminutive, formal, reserved "Father of Latin American Existentialism" closed his remarks quoting Cervantes' famous words: "For one's liberty, as for one's honor, one can and should risk one's like." He added, "what emotion I feel now, in the twilight of my own life, being protected by his generous and boundless shadow!"

Sabato's enduring search for individual and national identity began modestly enough on June 24, 1911 in the ranching community of Rojas, 160 miles west of Buenos Aires. He was born the tenth of eleven children in a prosperous family of Italian immigrants. His father owned and operated the local flour mill. As a youth, and already a bookworm, Sabato preferred heady stuff like Herbert Spencer, Emile Zola, and Charles Darwin from the community library over the physical rigors of ranch work or chores in his father's mill. Indeed, because of his obvious intellectual promise, he was sent away to La Plata for his high school and college education--a scary, lonely time which left psychic scars clearly evident in all of his subsequent writing. By his own admission, he was attracted to mathematics and physics because their logical, predictable order was an appealing alternative to the uncertainty of his alien surroundings. By 1937, Sabato had earned a doctorate in physics and soon after, he was in Paris studying radiation at the famous Joliot-Curie Laboratory.

Paris proved to be the first step on his way to becoming a professional writer. Sabato fell under the influence of the surrealists--Andre Breton, Oscar Dominguez, Wilfredo Lam, and Victor Brauner--all of whom he came to know personally. While still working at the Curie Laboratory, he began his first novel, La fuente muda, but then burned it. Nonetheless, the manuscript served as a point of departure for themes he later developed in a more ambitious work. In 1939, despite growing doubts that a scientific career was for him, he studied briefly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States before returning to Argentina to teach theoretical physics at the University of La Plata. He accepted the position only to support himself financially and, soon, with the encouragement of his former professor of literature, Pedro Henriquez Urena, he began writing essays for Sur, the famous literary review which also featured the work of Jorge Luis Borges, Eduardo Mallea, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and many other important writers. During this period Sabato married Matilde Kusminsky-Richter whom he had known earlier as a student in La Plata.

In 1943, he made a final, clean break with science, moving with his wife to the small town of Carlos Paz in the mountains west of Cordoba. There he wrote Uno y el universo, a wide-ranging set of essays and aphoristic entries which collectively defined Sabato's personal cosmos. The book won wide critical acclaim, including a prestigious literary prize in Buenos Aires, and established Sabato as an important newcomer on the Latin American literary scene. He consolidated his reputation in 1948 with his first novel, El tunel, also published by Sur. The work is a depressing, melancholy tale of an alienated artist, Juan Carlos Castel, who announces in the opening pages from his cell that he has murdered his mistress. One critic has described it as "a religious conversion in reverse, a conversion to the world." Despite its depressing theme, Sabato's brief treatise on alienation and self destruction struck a responsive chord in Latin America, more so in postwar Europe where Albert Camus read it and insisted it be translated into French immediately (it now exists in 21 languages). Sabato still recalls with pride that even the redoubtable Thomas Mann, then living in Southern California, read the book and recorded in his diary, "finished the Sabato novel . . . quite impressed."

As was the case with many intellectuals, the Peron Era (1945-55) produced hardships for Sabato. He insisted on speaking his mind, criticizing in particular the national government's disregard for basic human rights. He lost two professorships on trumped-up charges and later was condemmed to some months in prison for "disrespect." He refused to be silenced, however, and responded with scathing anti-Peronist polemics like El otro rostro del peronismo while also pursuing editorial work and a full schedule of lectures throughout the Republic. Despite the strain of those uncertain times in which he often found himself at the center of continual controversy, Sabato began to sense new possibilities for the national literature of Argentina. Romanticized accounts of gauchos engaged in un duelo de rebenque or knife fights on the back streets of Palermo did offer escapist diversion for an urban readership but had little to do with the national solitude, sadness and desperation Sabato sensed everywhere he went.

In the years immediately after Peron's downfall, Sabato searched unceasingly for a new voice which might adequately embrace the issue of Argentine identity both on an individual and national level. By his own admission, there were long silences punctuated with sudden, productive outburts but even much of this hard work fell short of his goals and found its way to the wastebin. Eventually he pieced together an account which reflected the historic, demographic and even geographic diversity of his homeland, while also offering his readers a detailed view of a few contemporary individuals whose daily struggle was intrinsically linked to the "heroes and tombs" of the past. In 1961, Sobre heroes y tumbas finally appeared and almost immediately this dense, stratified novel was hailed as one of the great master-pieces of Latin American literature. Likened to a "symphony in four movements," it portrayed urban life at the time of Peron's downfall while also offering a commentary on nineteenth century Argentine history, especially events surrounding General Juan Lavalle who escaped to Bolivia in 1841 after his break with Rosas (and speaks to the reader from his tomb). Although this sweeping novel contained some of the same themes Sabato had first explored in El tunel, it also introduced some daring innovations, especially the third section, Informe sobre ciegos which, in its twisted madness, purports to demonstrate that a kind of conspiratorial evil resides in a community of the blind. A seemingly rational investigation, logical and precise, it is nonetheless misguided, perhaps the author's way of saying that scientific reason can still lead to spiritual blindness.

Much has been written on Sabato's relationship to his characters, most of all Fernando, the narrator of Informe, whose birthdate he shares and whose origins mimick those of the author's youth in rural Rojas. Sabato, in a subsequent autobiographic work, El escritor y sus fantasmas, has confessed to an obsessive fear of blindness of all kinds. He also has said that the Informe was something of a cathartic discharge ("lo vomite' en diez dias"), a kind of exercise in irrationality, a process which even now has defied logical analysis on his part. Whatever the case, Sobre heroes y tumbas, so site-specific for portenos and resonating with excesses common to many totalitarian regimes, found a receptive audience in Argentina not to mention the rest of the world. From the time of its publication onward, Sabato has been able to survive financially on the royalties from his publications.

Despite the success that has come to Sabato relatively late in life, he and his wife maintain a modest way of life, living quietly in the same house they bought over forty years ago upon returning to Buenos Aires. Shielded from the street by a dense stand of trees (Sabato's "existentialist grove" as some wags call it), the house does embody a remote inner solitude not unlike the mood of his interior dialogues. The author's safehaven from the chaos of Buenos Aires is lined with books, especially one room devoted to editions of Sabato's writing including translations in nearly two dozen languages (even a pirated version of El tunel in Japanese which he loves to show visitors). Also there are copies of recent softbound editions in English of Sobre heroes y tumbas and El tunel (both by Ballentine in 1988), translations which have met with Sabato's approval and have done much to consolidate his reputation in the United States and Great Britain twenty years after his reputation was secure elsewhere in Europe.

For years, out of a belief that the story would lend itself to a visual rendering, Sabato looked forward to a screen version of El tunel. Unfortunately, none of the scripts submitted to him for approval met his demanding standards. Eventually, the Chilean filmmaker, Arturo Feliu and his company, Santiago Filsm, persuaded the author himself to do the script. Spanish director Antonio Drove shot the film in his homeland as well as in the United States with Jane Seymour, Peter Weller and Fernando Rey in the principal roles. The film was released in July, 1988 to critical acclaim throughout Europe and Latin America but unfortunately suffered from very limited distribution and almost no audience in the United States.

Due to a torn retina and a partial cataract, (the author's premonition of eye trouble come true) Sabato does little writing or reading anymore but then, from behind the dark glasses he wears to protect sensitive eyes, he says he has written what he wants to say. As part of his "moral values," he believes one should not write long after one has expressed one's principal ideas "just to stay in the limelight." "Quantity is the enemy of quality," and he adds that selfmystification, writing for money, saying things one believes the public wants to hear are traps to be avoided at all cost. Predictably, Sabato is asked for advice by younger writers and, in his typically terse, business-like manner, he replies, "Are you willing to starve?" More to the point, he reminds them to forget about the "isms" and just tell their truth, confident then that others will come along to listen. "Without new ideas, the words are worthless."

"Don Ernesto," as close friends call him, has long-maintained a love affair with drawing and painting, something he has done with facility since his youth. Going back to his Paris days, he has always enjoyed the company of painters and he loves to argue all sorts of aesthetic issues. In recent years, despite eye problems, Sabato has returned to painting, something he pursues with intensity and hard work. He added a studio to the back of his house and puts in long hours doing oil portraits of his heroes (Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Fedor Michailovich Dostoyevsky) and paintings with themes like achemy, blindness, phantoms and death. His visions obviously embody the same stark pessimism that his writing does. "Contemporary man is in crisis." Sabato states unequivocably. "Our inability to see both on an individual level and in a societal sense constitutes a kind of moral blindness."

In April, 1989, a selection of Sabato's paintings went on exhibition in the halls of the Pompidou Museum in Paris. The event, organized by the museum's curator, Blaise Gautier, also featured a display of some of his books and manuscripts, a showing of El tunel, and lectures by the author himself. It was an unusual tribute for a writer but just the most recent in a string of honors Sabato's loyal and enthusiastic French audience has paid him over the years. In 1974, for his third major novel, Abaddon el exterminador, he was awarded the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (other winners have included Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Heinrich Boll, Gunter Grass, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez). In 1986, he received the French Legion of Honor from Francois Mitterand.

Sabato's ties to his Italian heritage are strong, too. With a rare grin, he observes that" the Italians were and remain one of the great inventions of man!" Sabato's work has enjoyed wide acceptace in Italy. In 1989, on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of the founding of the University of Bologna, he presented a speech on the political power of literature within Latin America.

With characteristic black humor, Sabato states that his present goal in life is that "of not dying." Despite his octagenarian status, his end seems a long way off because he remains remarkably fit, possessed of the energy and enthusiasm of a much younger man, very involved in the cultural and political life of his country. Generously, he responds to requests for interviews, while maintaining an extensive correspondence, especially with editors of local newspapers with whom he often disagrees. He lectures widely within and beyond Argentina. Never much of a joiner, be it a political party or literary movement, Sabato prefers the role of the singleton operative, that of el francotirador (the sniper). In 1985, upon presenting the Cervantes Prize to Argentina's man of letters, King Juan Carlos said, "the adventure of living free is what makes it worthwhile to be alive." This was a particularly fitting tribute to Ernesto Sabato, who with his pen and by his example, has fought with steadfast determination to liberate the human spirit. It has made his life very worthwhile.

Caleb Bach, a freelance writer and researcher, teaches art and Spanish at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.
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Title Annotation:Argentine existentalist
Author:Bach, Caleb
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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