"On some days I get up with an outrageous feeling of hope. This is one of those days." That sentence, which became a cliché in Buenos Aires close to the end of his life, is in the opening paragraph of the last book by the man who could probably have won top prize in a championship to find the world's most downcast and glum-looking person. But elation and optimism contrasting with pessimism were part of the contradictions that filled the life of Ernesto Sabato, the Argentinian writer. He was always able to spring surprises.
In August 2003, the actor John Malkovich announced that he wanted to make a film of Sabato's best known of his two novels, On Heroes and Tombs, and the writer's life seemed to turn full circle; he was being "discovered" again. When Sabato marked his 89th birthday, the report of the party at his home in Santos Lugares, on the fringe of the city, made the front page of La Nacion. Sabato explained that he had a box full of grey scarves that people gave him each birthday. "They think I am old, that's why they don't give me things with bright colours. They associate age with grey." He could be amusing, but he usually managed to look depressed.
There were more books about Sabato than by him. He started out studying physics at the University of La Plata, in 1929, and graduated in 1937. He joined the Communist Party in 1929 and fled from it in 1934. He worked for two months at Unesco in Paris in 1947, on a recommendation by Julian Huxley, then moved from science to literature.
His first novel, The Tunnel, was published in 1949 by Victoria Ocampo's Sur imprint, known for its anti-Communism, and Albert Camus recommended its publication in France. It was published in New York in 1950, and translations were published in Italy, Japan and Germany.
Sabato was opposed to the government of Juan Domingo Peron, between 1946 and 1955. 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 the torture and executions of Peronist rebels who had taken part in an abortive uprising in June 1956.
In 1961 came the other book for which he is best known, On Heroes and Tombs. These two baroque novels, sometimes compared to Thomas Mann, stand among the leading contemporary literature in Spanish. So prominent are they that these two titles have left many believing he wrote nothing else. Sabato used to be placed alongside Jorge Luis Borges, but they were completely different, as men and authors. Borges played at fleeing publicity; Sabato sought it and made his public statements a challenge rather than an irony.
His critics rebuked Sabato for agreeing to lunch with the dictator, General Jorge Rafael Videla, in 1976; in fact he went in order to demand news of the then recently "disappeared", and later murdered, author, Haroldo Conti.
Had the military chiefs read Sabato's novel Abaddon, el Exterminador (Abaddon the Exterminator, 1974), a dark text that almost warns of the horrors that would soon befall Argentina, lunch would not have been a safe event.
In 1984, the former president Raul Alfonsin appointed Sabato to lead the committee charged with investigating the "disappearances" during the dictatorship. Their report paved the way for the trials of the juntas in 1985. His preface to that harrowing report, Nunca Mas [Never Again], is probably as important as his novels, and stands above several of his books of essays and other writings, such as Hombres y Engranajes (Men and Cogs, 1951), Romance de la Muerte de Juan Lavalle (Romance of the Death of Juan Lavalle, 1966), Itinerario (Itinerary, 1969) and Claves Politicas (Political clues, 1971).
Sabato was able to surprise his audience through much of his life. When he married Matilde Kusminsky in 1936, she needed authorisation from a juvenile court because she was under-age. They had two sons, one of whom died in a road accident in 1995.
Sabato wrote until late in life, but as his sight grew worse he turned to painting. He had one big exhibition, in Spain, but his art was for his own relaxation, and never much good – although on the strength of his fame he managed to sell a few pieces to buyers with more money than knowledge of art. After his wife's death, Sabato surprised his readers with a requiem for himself, Antes del Fin (Before the End, 1999), a collection of below-par ruminations.
But he came back with another volume the following year, La Resistencia (The Resistance), which opens with the optimistic line at the top of this piece. He advocated the strength to pull through, to make things better by resisting. On his 90th birthday, in June 2001, the occasion again made the front pages, editors seeming a little bewildered that he was still around. This is why any mention of him, almost in any context, prompts a smile, however glum he looked and even if he will be remembered mainly for those two novels.
In January 2002, as Argentina slipped deeper into economic chaos, Sabato was invited to address a literary conference in Cordoba province. His parting shot was this: "To understand Argentina and this crisis, we have to go back 70 years, to military dictators and policies dictated by corporations. We are seeing such a degree of immorality that corruption seems to be endorsed by the Supreme Court."
In addition to being famous, he was also vain; he always wanted to feel he was well known. When asked by visitors and interviewers what his address was, he would say, "Just put 'Ernesto Sabato, Argentina'."
At the third Congress of the Spanish Language, in Rosario in 2004, the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago devoted a moving speech to Sabato. And at the 2006,Buenos Aires Book Fair, the Argentinian education minister paid tribute to the "grand old man". He may have liked that, but it was not easy to know. He was confined to a wheelchair, and had constant assistance after that.
Ernesto Roque Sabato, writer: born Rojas, Buenos Aires province, Argentina 24 June 1911; married 1936 Matilde Kusminsky (one son, and one son deceased); died Santos Lugares, Buenos Aires province 30 April 2011.
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