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Sábato, Argentina’s contradictory literary giant

Despite his shifting allegiances, the late Argentine writer had one constant throughout his life: exploring mankind’s efforts to understand a baffling world.


Sábato at first welcomed Argentina's military dictatorship but later opposed it.

Ernesto Sábato, who died on April 30 at the age of 99, was, as Voltaire said of all great men and women, a mass of contradictions. And therein lies the strength of the Argentine’s writing: he always wrote what he understood to be true, according to his often contradictory experiences.

He was chosen to head the committee (CONADEP) tasked with investigating the “disappearances” of thousands of people during Argentina’s dictatorship, yet had initially supported the military when it took over in 1976 at a time of mounting economic problems, social turmoil, and clashes with leftist guerrillas who carried out kidnappings and killings.

He had joined other writers in a meeting with dictator Jorge Rafael Videla shortly after the takeover describing him as “a cultured man, modest and intelligent.”

Even as government repression reached its height in 1978, Sábato defended the military, arguing that “many things have improved: the armed terrorist bands have been put, in large part, under control.” But by 1979, he was denouncing censorship, and turned against military rule.

His initial backing of Argentina’s military has to be seen in the context of his response to the 1930 coup, when he joined the Communist Party’s youth wing and rose to become its secretary in the early 1930s. However, he broke with the party in 1934 when he learned of Stalin’s purges. He described that decision as “one of the greatest crises of my life.”

He then settled down to a career as a scientist, researching in Paris at the Curie Institute. Then came another crisis: his growing disenchantment with what he saw as the misuse of science. He turned instead to writing, returning to Argentina, finally publishing The Tunnel in 1947, a book hailed by the French existentialists.

Sábato then joined his country’s intellectual elite, which orbited around Victoria Ocampo and her literary magazine Sur. He became close friends with Jorge Luis Borges, both of whom were fascinated by ideas of progress and science.

Like Borges, Sábato was opposed to the government of Juan Domingo Perón, between 1946 and 1955. But after the coup in 1955 he was appointed editor of a magazine seized by the anti-Peronist rulers, then sacked by the regime for publishing an account of torture and executions of Peronist rebels who had taken part in an abortive uprising in June 1956. Sábato also defended Peronist intellectuals under attack by the new rightwing regime.

Far from the ‘Boom’

Sábato was not a prolific writer, nor strictly a novelist: he outlined his many moral and ethical concerns in collections of essays such as 1945’s One and the Universe and 1951’s Men and Gears. Internationally, he has never enjoyed the fame of Borges or younger writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, his fiction is far removed from the magical-realist school.

That said, his two later novels, On Heroes and Tombs and The Angel of Darkness are among the finest literature to come out of Latin America. Here Sábato further explored the theme of isolation he had portrayed in The Tunnel, seeing humanity as lost in darkness and unable to understand the events around it or to express itself.

Sábato admitted on many occasions that he worked to achieve recognition, and that he enjoyed his prominent role in Argentine society, one that undoubtedly contributed to his longevity. His final opportunity came through his appointment to head CONADEP. The inquiry’s report paved the way for the trials of the military Juntas in 1985/6, and his preface, ‘Never Again’, is as powerful as any of his novels, charting with clinical detachment the horrendous abuses of the military, and arguing with equal precision that respect for individual human rights must be the cornerstone of any decent society.

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Published: May 6 2011
Category: Culture, Featured, Books
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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