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Sabato: a living legend dies, at the age of 99

Ernesto Sabato.

By Andrew Graham-Yooll­

­Special for the Herald

"On some days I get up with an outrageous feeling of hope. This is one of those days." That sentence, which became a cliche 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 most downcast and glum-looking person in the world. But elation and optimism contrasting with pessimism were part of the contradictions that filled the life of Ernesto Sábato, the Argentine writer. He was always able to spring surprises.

In August 2003, actor turned film director John Gavin 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 back to the start of his career and success. He was being "discovered" again.

When Sabato marked his 89th birthday one June 24, the report of the "party" at his home in Santos Lugares, on the fringe of the city, made the front page of La Nación. 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 depressing.

The last of Argentina 's "grand old men" of letters was a bundle of contradictions. His face made a (glum) postage stamp. 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. Sabato 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 - and then moved from science to literature.

His first novel The Tunnel, was published in 1949 by the late Victoria Ocampo's Sur imprint - a publisher known for its anti-Communism - and Albert Camus recommended its publication in France . It was published in New York in 1950, and further translations were published in Italy , Japan and Germany .

Sabato was opposed to the government of Juan Domingo Perón, 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 torture and executions of Peronist rebels who had taken part in an abortive uprising in June 1956.

In 1961, the other book, apart from The Tunnel, for which he is best known, On Heroes and Tombs, was printed in Buenos Aires . These two baroque novels, sometimes compared to the writing of Thomas Mann, stand among the leading contemporary literary production in the Spanish language. So prominent are they, that these two titles have left many people in the belief that Sabato has written nothing else.

Sabato used to be placed alongside the late Jorge Luis Borges, in their greatness and often surreal styles. But they were completely different men and authors. Borges played at fleeing publicity. Sabato sought it and made his public statements a challenge, rather than an irony, as did Borges.

His critics rebuked Sabato for agreeing to lunch with the dictator, general Jorge Rafael Videla, in 1976, where the writer really went to demand news of the then recently "disappeared" and later murdered author Haroldo Conti.

In 1984, former president Ral Alfonsn appointed Sabato to lead the committee (CONADEP) charged with investigating the "disappearances" of thousands of people during the dictatorship. The inquiry's report paved the way for the trials of the military Juntas in 1985. His preface to that harrowing report, Nunca Más (Never Again), is probably as important as his novels, and stands above several of his books of essays and other writings (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; Claves polticas/Political clues, 1971, etc.).

Had the military chiefs of the dictatorship been able to read, Sábato's novel, Abaddn, el exterminador/Abaddon the exterminator, published in 1974 - a dark text that almost warns of the horrors that would soon befall Argentina - would certainly not have made lunch a safe event at Government House. Thus, Sabato was able to surprise his audience through much of his life.

When he married Matilde Kusminsky in 1936, she needed authorization from a juvenile court, because she was under age. The journalist Jacobo Timerman, who died in 1999, recalled attending Sábato's literary lectures at the university in order to look at the beautiful woman in the front row. That was Matilde. They had two sons, one of whom died in a road accident in 1995. When Matilde died, aged 82, on September 30, 1998, the notice in La Nación had a Cross and a Star of David. She had come from a Jewish background and lived in a Christian environment. The paper later published an article to explain why they had accepted the Cross and Star.

There are probably more books in print about Sabato than by him, but he wrote almost to the end, if you deduct the last years when he was completely crippled. The two latest about him were the biography by his friend, Julia Constenla, published in 1997, and a compilation by her of interviews with Sabato. For years, as Sabato's sight grew worse, he gave up writing and 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), a collection of below-par ruminations which in the summer of 1999 sold 90,000 copies.

But even though he was preparing for the end, he came back with another volume in June 2000, La resistencia/The Resistance, which opens with that line of optimism. And the short text sustains his good cheer. Sabato advocated the strength to pull through, to make things better by resisting, as against the destructiveness of revolution, which he had supported in his youth.

On his 90th birthday, in June 2001, the occasion again made the front page of Argentine papers, whose editors seemed a little bewildered that he was still around. This is why any mention of Sabato, 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, Sábato was invited to address a literary conference in Córdoba 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 famous, he was also vain right to the end. 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 ." His final crowning was at the third congress of the Spanish language, in Rosario , on November 20, 2004 . Portuguese Nobel prize winner, José Saramago, devoted a moving speech as a tribute to Sabato. He was last trotted out in public for the 2006, Buenos Aires book fair, when the Argentine 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, born in Rojas, Buenos Aires province, Argentina, 24 June 1911. Married Matilde Kusminsky in 1936. Two sons. Died 30 May 2011, aged 99.

 

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