As we approach the first anniversary of his death, the Beyond Borges series arrives at the Argentine essayist and existentialist author Ernesto Sabato.
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he travelled first to Belgium as a delegate of the party and onto Paris, where he is said to have drafted his first unpublished novel, ‘La fuente muda’.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.
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.
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.
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.