Feature

Ernesto Sábato, 1911–2011

The writer who became Argentina’s conscience

In 1948, Argentine novelist Ernesto Sábato won literary acclaim for his debut novel, The Tunnel, which portrayed one man’s slide into madness and murder. Sábato would make his own “slow descent into hell” 35 years later, after President Raúl Alfonsín asked him to join a commission investigating atrocities committed by the recently deposed military junta. The resulting 50,000-page report—titled Nunca Más (Never Again)—detailed how 9,000 men, women, and children had been arrested, tortured, and “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983. “We have the certainty that the military dictatorship produced the greatest tragedy of our history,” Sábato wrote in the paper’s preface, “and the most savage.”

Sábato was born in Rojas, a small town 130 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, to Italian immigrants who owned the local flour mill. After earning a doctorate in physics from the National University of La Plata in 1937, he went to work in the atomic radiation laboratories at the Curie Institute in Paris and later at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he abandoned a career in science in 1943, declaring that he was “disgusted” that physics was being used to create ever more destructive weapons, said The Washington Post. On returning to Argentina, Sábato dedicated himself to literature. The Tunnel was hailed as a masterpiece by Thomas Mann and Albert Camus, “who had it translated into French,” said the Associated Press. Sábato published only two more novels—On Heroes and Tombs (1962) and Angel of Darkness (1974)—but was as revered in his homeland as his prolific contemporary, Jorge Luis Borges.

Many Argentines rank Nunca Más as Sábato’s most important work. That report formed “the basis for the prosecution of military leaders,” said The New York Times, and became a cornerstone of the country’s fledgling democracy. Some critics, however, note that Sábato initially supported the 1976 overthrow of President Isabel Perón by Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla; Sábato believed the coup was needed to prevent a takeover by leftist terrorists. The author only began to speak out against the regime in the early 1980s.

In later life, Sábato’s eyes began to fail and he was forced to give up writing. But he continued to express himself through painting. “What is admirable,” said Sábato, “is that man keeps fighting and creating beauty in the midst of a barbaric, hostile world.”

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