July 25, 2021

Ernesto Sabato, life & work

One of the most recognized writers in Argentina and abroad. With just three novels, he garnered praise from great authors like Albert Camus, Graham Greene, and Thomas Mann, and was one of the best-selling authors of his day. Sandra Di Luca and Pablo Morosi, authors of one of Sabato’s most exhaustive biographies, tell us more about his indelible legacy in Latin American letters.

The tunnel; On heroes and tombs, and Abaddon the Exterminator are the only three novels that Ernesto Sabato wrote and with which he achieved the praise of other greats, such as Albert Camus, Graham Greene and Thomas Mann. Since the 1950s, the Argentine author has become an editorial phenomenon not only because of those literary texts, but also because of his extensive essay work, which made him one of the most widely read and admired. Then, over the years, there are those who say that it lost some validity. However, 110 years after his birth and ten years after his death, Sabato continues to be part of the pantheon of writers who, with their own talent and style, were part of the intellectual debate in Argentina of his time and composed some of the best literary books. Hispanic Americans.

Ernesto Sabato was born on June 24, 1911, in the city of Rojas in the Province of Buenos Aires. The son of Italian immigrants, he was the tenth of eleven siblings. He studied in La Plata and, although the writers Pedro Henríquez Ureña and Ezequiel Martínez Estrada were of great influence, during his early youth he chose to study physical sciences at the University of La Plata, where he received his doctorate in 1938. During that period, he approached the Communist party and, in 1933, he was elected Secretary General of the Communist Youth Federation.

“110 years after his birth and ten years after his death, Sabato continues to be part of the pantheon of writers who, with their own talent and style, integrated the intellectual debate of the Argentina of his time and composed some of the best books on Latin American literature. “

It is said that during that time he met the student Matilde Kusminsky Richter, whom he married in 1936. His communist ideals were diluted, starting with the news that arrived about the Soviet dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. The very party in which he was a member tried to send the future author to the Leninist Schools in Moscow. About the Soviet Union, Sabato believed that “it was a place where one was cured or ended up in a gulag or a psychiatric hospital.” For this reason, when he was still in Brussels as a delegate of the Communist Party of Argentina for the Congress against Fascism and War, he decided to travel to Paris, since he believed that, in the Eurasian giant, he would not survive. It was in the French capital when he made contact with the referents of surrealism and began to write his first novel, La fuente muda, of which he would only publish a part (El tunnel) in the magazine Sur, edited by Victoria Ocampo.

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The beginning of the 1940s was also the beginning of his writing career. And he did it in the field of criticism and essay. His first collaborations appeared in the magazine Teseo de La Plata, with an article on the novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel; and others in the newspaper La Nación and in the magazine Sur. He also made his way as a translator: he brought into Spanish the works Birth and Death of the Sun, by George Gamow, and The ABC of Relativity, by Bertrand Russell. In 1945, he published his first book, One and the Universe, in which he brings together different articles with which he begins to explore and criticize that apparent moral neutrality attributed to science. From there he also warned, with the frantic advance of technologies, certain dehumanizing consequences. For this publication, he obtained the First Prize for Prose from the Municipality of Buenos Aires.

Three years later, and after the rejection of different publishers, the Sur publishing house published El tunnel, his first psychological and existentialist novel that tells the story of the painter Juan Pablo Castel who, from prison, reflects on the causes that led him to kill the woman he loved, María Iribarne. The novel reached the big screen on three occasions, by the hand of the Argentine director León Klimovsky, and the Spanish directors José Luis Cuerda and Antonio Drove. With El tunnel, Ernesto Sabato took a strong and firm step into the Argentine letters of the late 1940s, which positioned him as one of the most promising writers of his generation.

However, beyond the stardom that the Argentine author knew how to achieve – in 1984 he won the prestigious Miguel de Cervantes Prize, the same that Borges had won in 1979, among multiple distinctions he received in his life – there are those who comment that during the last years, especially after his death on April 30, 2011, he is named very little beyond certain specific academic circles. Abroad, the matter seems to be different. Still, there are different positions on the matter. Argentine writer María Rosa Lojo, for her part, commented: “It seems to me that Sabato was, in a way, excluded from a certain dominant Argentine academic canon. And this is not the case in other parts of the world. On the other hand, in Argentina beyond certain academic circuits, Sabato is also a read author, who continues to sell books. The tunnel, for example, continues to have an impact. On heroes and tombs it continues to be a very important novel, a classic of Spanish-American literature and it is considered that way in other places ”.

Sabato, in addition to his three novels, left an extensive series of essays, among which the following stand out: Men and Gears (1951); Heterodoxy (1952); The writer and his ghosts (1963); Letters to a young writer (1975); Dialogues with Jorge Luis Borges (1976), among many others. In many of these essays, as in his literary production, different concerns and thematic axes that were maintained throughout his production can be recognized. But in his novels there seems to be a deepening of many of his ideas. In this regard, Lojo added: “The thought that he himself called the ‘daytime’ of the rehearsals was poor to what art as an integral language could express. All his novels critically raises where knowledge passes in our society and the problem of order, power, knowledge and the need to break these stereotypes and schemes to enter other ways of knowing. That is one of the great axes of his novels ”.

However, the essayist Sabato did not stop reflecting to expose “lucidly the dangers that threatened humanity”, as argued by Argentine journalists Sandra Di Luca and Pablo Morosi, in one of the most complete biographies on the Argentine author: Sabato, the metaphysical writer (Editorial Marea). In this exhaustive text, both tell us more about the life and legacy not only of the author of El tunnel, but also of the “child born in Rojas, the outstanding physicist, the militant anarchist, the successful writer, the polemicist, the womanizer, the illustrious citizen, the benchmark of morality, the celebrity that attracted photographers, and also the guilty, overwhelmed, deeply melancholic and eternal seeker of the meaning of human existence ”.

What is the importance of Ernesto Sabato within the Argentine letters? What were your contributions to literature and essays in this part of the region?

Sabato was the most widely read writer of his time. He was an editorial phenomenon, but he also emerged as a highly participatory figure, whose ideas influenced the social and political sphere of the country. The tunnel has been the gateway to literature for many generations and On heroes and tombs is one of the most important novels of the 20th century in the Spanish language. His essays on the fate of humanity and the crisis of the deification of technology are still enormously valid today, despite the fact that they were written in the middle of the last century. Many of his attitudes and political proposals, not exempt from some sinuosities, always generated feverish discussions, but never indifference.

Are there similarities and differences between the literary Sabbath and the essayist?

In general, it traces in both registers a rather dark panorama for man, following a consistent itinerary that investigates the mysteries of human existence. The novels have been considered as an enormous exercise of self-affirmation by means of which the author purges his troubled interiority, but this tear comes from the reality on which he reflects in his essays and that question the way of life, alienation, lack of affection of modern life that has as its background a crisis of a spiritual nature. However, he always left open a loophole for rebirth from the hope that is, in his universe, one of the engines that fuels humanity. He was a great polemicist and, from the journalism platform, defended his ideas with firmness, independence and authenticity.

In relation to the guilty, burdened and melancholic Sabato that they also describe in the biography, do you think that in his own work he managed to find meaning in human existence or are the questions and concerns stronger than the answers?

Sabato obsessively haunts the mystery of the human condition. He is extremely effective in finding in his texts the tone with which he paints the colors, dramas and emotions that human actions go through. This type of questioning constitutes a conscious and constant search in his work. Although many of your questions do not have an accurate answer, they are equally revealing and, even today, connect with those that any of us could ask.

Does your literary and essay production continue to summon us today? Why do you think we should keep reading it?

In his metaphysical search, Sabato investigates the ambiguous and contradictory nature of the human condition and in this lies, precisely, the universality and validity of his work. The destiny of humanity; the meaning of life, passions, loneliness, beliefs, obsessions are clichés with no expiration date. It should not be forgotten that his beginnings in literature converged with his abandonment of science and his misgivings about the reality that technological advances would lead us to, life in cities – which he hated – injustice, care for the environment, among others. other issues.

Lately, do you think there was a bit of forgetfulness regarding your work or is it a wrong perception?

Sabato was subjected to a cancellation process that started in academic and intellectual sectors that skewed his gaze, forcing an excessive criticism and without too many bases. On the other hand, it must be taken into account that his literary production stopped in 1974 after the publication of Abaddon, the exterminator. Although he tried to return to the production of essays in the 1990s, when he produced books such as La Resistencia and Before del fin in which he condensed memories and reflections, the absence of new novels also operated as an element of marginalization. Finally, it must be taken into account that during the last five years of his life he was totally isolated and very ill, practically oblivious to social life.

For those of you who haven’t read it yet, where to start and what to keep in mind?

The novels work like a trilogy. So it would be advisable to read them in chronological order. As for his essays, if we had to highlight one, it would be Men and Gears, because it is a complete guide to his vision of the world.