Ernesto Sábato (SAH-bah-toh) emerged from the Argentine pampas to examine his nation’s character and to explore the existential crisis of modern humanity. He was born on June 24, 1911, in Rojas, Argentina, where his Italian immigrant parents owned the local flour mill. One of the searing events in Sábato’s life came in 1924, when his parents sent him to La Plata to attend secondary school. Torn from his community and large family, Sábato suffered a nervous collapse. He regained stability by immersing himself in the orderly world of mathematics and science. In 1929 he entered the Institute of Physics at the National University of La Plata, where he became involved with anarchist and communist student groups. In 1934 he attended a student communist congress in Brussels, Belgium, and once more fell into mental despondency. He fled to Paris, again finding peace by immersing himself in science. He returned to La Plata, completed his doctorate in 1937, and received a fellowship to study with French physicist Irène Joliot-Curie. After his time in France, he spent a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1940 he accepted professorships in theoretical physics at schools in La Plata and Buenos Aires.
Although science had provided him with needed mental stability, Sábato came to believe that humanity’s desire to rest its physical, mental, and spiritual well-being on science and reason had led to disaster. Thus, he left science by using his teaching positions to finance his literary apprenticeship, served by writing regularly for Sur and La Nación. In 1945 the dictator Juan Perón, offended by Sábato’s writing, forced him to resign his professorships, which had the effect of freeing him to devote himself fully to literature. It was the first of several times that Sábato’s staunch support of freedom of speech got him in trouble with Argentine caudillos. In 1945 Sábato published a book of essays, Uno y el universo(one and the universe), which earned for him national recognition. In 1948, with Albert Camus’s help, he found a publisher for his first novel, The Outsider, which gained for Sábato international recognition. Two further volumes of essays followed, and in 1955 he became editor of Mundo Argentino until his support of freedom of speech and press brought him into conflict with the military government of Pedro Aramburu. Sábato was forced to resign his position, a decision he made again in 1958, when, as director of cultural relations in the Arturo Frondizi government, he became dissatisfied with government policy.
He had published further volumes of essays in the 1950’s, but it was his second novel, On Heroes and Tombs, appearing in 1961, that assured his stature in Latin American letters. On Heroes and Tombs encompassed themes that concerned Sábato throughout his literary career. The novel begins in May, 1953, when seventeen-year-old Martín meets and falls in love with the mysterious Alejandra. In June, 1955, she kills her father, Fernando, and then commits suicide. To explain the events of those two years, Martín and other central characters journey through 150 years of Argentine history, come into contact with the major social classes and ethnic groups of Argentina, and confront the painful events of their own lives as they try to comprehend the tragedy of Fernando and Alejandra. Few writers have described the existential crisis of modern times more powerfully and clearly than does Sábato in On Heroes and Tombs.
More volumes of essays followed On Heroes and Tombs, and in 1974, Sábato published his third novel, The Angel of Darkness. A nervous condition restricted further literary output, but he has retained his preeminent position in the Argentine literary world. His support of freedom continued to win for him respect. After the brutal military dictatorship that lasted from 1976 to 1983, President Raúl Alfonsín appointed Sábato to head the National Commission for the Disappearance of Persons. Sábato is in the forefront of post-World War II Latin American writers. Recognition of his importance continues to grow in the United States and elsewhere.