Today’s extract from Jose Saramago’s The Notebook.
June 24: Sabato
Nearly a hundred years, ninety-eight to be precise, are what Ernesto Sabato is celebrating today. I first heard his name in the old Café Chiado in Lisbon, way back in the 1950s. It was uttered by a friend whose literary tastes tended toward the then little-known literatures of South America. The rest of our gathering—we met every day in the late afternoon—favored, almost unanimously, a sweet yet immortal France, except for the occasional eccentric who boasted of knowing by heart what was being written in the United States. To this friend, whom in the end I lost sight of, I owe the initial curious impulse that led me to Julio Cortázar, Borges, Bioy Casares, Miguel Angel Astúrias, Rómulo Gallegos, Carlos Fuentes, and so many others who slip from my memory when I attempt to recall them—Sabato among them. For some strange reason I associated those three rapid syllables with a staccato stab from a dagger. Considering what this familiar Italian word actually means, my association might seem all the more incongruous, but truths are there to be told, and this among them. El túnel [The Tunnel, also translated as The Outsider] had been published in 1948, but I had never read it. At that point in time, as an innocent and youthful twenty-six-year-old, I still had a great many roads to travel before I discovered the sea route that would bring me to Buenos Aires. . . Meanwhile, El túnel became my unforgettable companion at many a café table, where I sat musing and perusing, Sabato’s novel in hand. Its very first pages showed me exactly how far an audacious association of ideas had come to bring me from surname to dagger. Any subsequent readings of Sabato’s works, whether novels or essays, only served to confirm my initial impression of an encounter with a tragic and outstandingly lucid writer who was able to open up a path through the labyrinthine corridors of his readers’ souls and would never permit them, even for an instant, to turn their eyes away from the most obscure nook or cranny of their being. Did this make the works difficult to read? Perhaps, but it also made them all the more fascinating. The mixture of surrealism, existentialism and psychoanalysis that provided the theoretical underpinning to the prose composed by the author of Sobre héroes y tumbas should not allow us to forget that this self-proclaimed enemy of reason (called Ernesto Sabato) used his own fallible and humble human reason to describe what was right before his eyes during the apocalypse of bloody repression inflicted on the Argentine people. Works of fiction that recall definite historical periods in objectively named places, such as Eltúnel; Sobre héroes y tumbas; Abbadón el exterminador [Abbadón the Exterminator], not only force one to hear the cries of a conscience afflicted by its own impotence and see the prophetic vision of a sibyl terrified by the future foreseen, but also remind us, like Goya (better known as a painter than as a philosopher) in his famous engravings of the Caprichos of indelible memory: it is always the sleep of reason that bears, grows and makes prosperous an inhuman race of monsters.
Dear Ernesto, this is the tremor and the terror running through all of our lives, and yours is no exception. Perhaps nowadays we are not confronting a situation as dramatic as those you lived through, and for which, endowed with a sense of humanity as you are, you have refused to absolve your own species. You are someone for whom it has become impossible to forgive even his own human condition. No doubt some will not be pleased by this violence of feeling, but I beg you not to disarm yourself of that dagger. Nearly a hundred years old. I am certain that the century we have left behind will become known as the century of Sabato, at least as much as that of Kafka or Proust.