Ernesto Sábato

The novelist and essayist Ernesto Sábato (born 1911) was one of Argentina's most challenging 20th-century intellectuals, concerned with both surrealist and real interpretations of phenomena, in real and imagined life.

Ernesto Sábato was born in Rojas, a provincial town of Buenos Aires Province, on June 24, 1911. One of 11 children of immigrant Italian parents, he received secondary and university training in La Plata, the provincial capital. Receiving a university degree in physics in 1937, he worked on a scholarship at the Joliot-Curie laboratory in Paris in 1938 and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939. In 1939 he published a professional paper on his specialty, cosmic radiation. From 1940 to 1945 he taught at the University of La Plata but was forced to resign by the Perón dictatorship as politically undesirable.

As a student, Sábato had been deeply involved in protest against the corrupting military manipulation of the country, and after discarding anarchism as a philosophy he became a leader of the Communist party's youth movement. In 1935 he attended the international Antifascist Congress in Brussels but refused to go to Moscow for indoctrination. After many months of traumatic self-examination in Paris, he broke with the party and returned to Argentina. To a degree, he remained a political iconoclast thereafter.

Simultaneously, Sábato became much interested in philosophy and literature. He credited Pedro Henríquez Ureña, the noted Mexican philosopher and writer, who was his teacher, with being the greatest early influence in his life. Sábato read with extraordinary breadth and increasingly skimped on his scientific work. By 1938 he already was doubted by his professional colleagues to some extent, and his expulsion from teaching in 1945 therefore was not a shock except to family income.

Sábato endured the Perón dictatorship through work for publishers and writing essays and articles. In 1955, when Perón fell, Sábato became director of Mundo Argentino, a reputable intellectual journal, but was removed when he took a dogmatic position against the torture of political opponents of the post-Perón military government of Pedro Aramburu. Sábato returned briefly to public life in 1958-1959, under Arturo Frondizi, but soon resigned.

Sábato's three novels, which have been translated into more than 30 languages, are in English The Tunnel (1948); On Heroes and Tombs (1961); and The Angel of Darkness (1974). His principal essays are Uno y el universo (1946); Hombres y engranajes (1951); Heterodoxia (1953); El otro rostro del peronismo (1956); El escritor y sus fantasmas (1963), and Apologías y rechazos (1979).

El túnel, a very short novel, is concerned with a figure unable to establish his own identity or effective relationships with others. Some autobiographical elements are suggested by the figure's anomie. Eventually the person resorts to violence against others, seeking a general understanding and awareness. Sobre héroes y tumbas is a longer and sweeping work and examines a variety of Argentine types, mores, and scenes. Critics find Sábato's novels influenced to some degree by the torment and anxiety of prerevolutionary Russian works. He employs imaginative metaphors and many asides in narration, in the style of romantic German novels. On the other hand, his scientific and epistemological training seems to have effected a precision and use of clarifying comparisons, especially in his novels.

Sábato's essays derive from his social and political concerns for the most part. At first he dealt with man's search for self and identity in a technocratic and indifferent society. His work of the Perón period was aphoristic, sarcastic, and critical of political abuses, but his later political essays show greater maturity of understanding and emphasize social morality and the need for consensual action to establish the responsibility and dignity of the society as well as of the individual.

In his later years, Sábato's work yielded to public appearances throughout the world and to popular television activity in Buenos Aires. In 1985 he received the prestigious Cervantes Prize for a lifetime of literary achievement. In 1996 Sábato was presented an Honorary Doctorate Degree by the University of the Republic. He had married Matilde Kusminsky-Richter, a fellow student, and they had two children.


Further Reading on Ernesto Sábato

A work on Sábato in English is in the Twayne World Authors series, Harley Oberhelman, Ernesto S&aacute (1970). For discussions of his work see Enrique Anderson-Imbert, Spanish-American Literature: A History (1954; trans. 1963; 2d ed., 2 vols., 1969), and Jean Franco, The Modern Culture of Latin America: Society and the Artist (1967). A collection of his essays in English is Selections: The Writer in the Catastrophe of Our Time, Ernesto Sábato (1990)