Nobel Sabato

6 01 2010

What if Ernesto Sabato wins the Nobel Prize for Literature?

He has been nominated once again, as has been the case every year since 2007. It will probably foment much discussion in Argentina. I don’t presume to know all the details of the “Sabato Question.” The rivalry between Sabato and Borges is oft-mentioned, and as we all know, Borges never got the Nobel. Most chalk this up to a political issue: Borges, to be incredibly lenient, didn’t exactly bemoan the Military Dictatorships. Sabato would be his political opponent, being the leftist writer who presided over the CONADEP Report on the disappeared once the final Military Dictatorship in Argentina fell to its ruin. It’s also worth noting that in The Exterminating Angel, written in 1974, Sabato already protested the right-wing death squads two years before the onslaught of the Dictatorship. He also, if cautiously, falls on the side of the leftists, although he doesn’t agree with some of their ideological tendencies. Nevertheless, we still get a glowing rendition of Che Guevara inside the novel’s fragmented melange. We also get similarly glowing renditions of honorable and leftist common people. Now, it’s not always Sabato doing the ‘talking.’ He often writes through the voice of other characters, who narrate or speak certain passages. The Exterminating Angel is far from being an unambiguous pamphlet. But it does seem to ultimately pick a side, and it’s decidedly not with the right-wingers.

So, is Sabato the good guy in the Sabato vs. Borges fight? Well…

The problem — the “Sabato Question” — is that for all his symbolic status as the progressive saint, he didn’t really oppose the Military Dictatorships. He would criticize them a bit, call them out on their interrogation techniques, suggest that Peronists should not be persecuted, and so on, but he basically supported them and didn’t antagonize them too much. You could say that nobody could antagonize them that much and that The Exterminating Angel was so prescient regarding the hell that awaited the country, that his labor, warts and all, is perfectly admirable. Alright, but his symbolic status suggests that he should have crusaded against the Dictatorships, not meekly accepted them. There’s also the matter of that infamous dinner, where four Argentine writers, among them Borges and Sabato, met with the Argentine Dictator General Videla. What did Sabato say about the General after this unfortunate meeting? That he was a smart and impressive man. The other two writers in attendance at least brought up the disappearance of a few of their fellow writers. Sabato said nothing.

Of course, Borges said nothing either, but who expected any different from Borges? He’s not the progressive symbol. And, more crucially, he was not the political writer. You can actually do that whole “separate the man from his art” thing with Borges. His writing, his legacy — outside of a few exemplars like La Fiesta del Monstruo — is apolitical, literary, and personal. I’m not sure you can do the same with Sabato. How do you separate the man from his art, the man’s politics from his art, when he writes a whole book about his politics and his art and how they combine? Granted, there’s more to The Exterminating Angel than that — a whole cosmology, a spiritual vantage point, a literary philosophy, etc. But Sabato encourages us to not separate man from art by writing about himself.

Do I personally look down upon him for his mistakes? Not really, but many do. Borges has his share of detractors. But, like I said above, it’s easier to put aside his politics when he does exactly that for much of his corpus. I don’t really know that much about this whole debate, to be honest. I just learned of the Sabato Question — or, if you will, the Borges Question — this year. It’s often a bit unnerving for a young reader to stumble upon lengthy debates that reach back to decades before his or her birth. How can the young reader hope to catch up? Like that great exchange from Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo: “What do you understand?” “Nothing — every day I understand less.”

If Sabato were to win the Nobel Prize, a lot of these issues would rise to the surface of Argentine discourse. Did he win because he fell on the happier side of history, even though he might not deserve to have done so? Should he really be the Argentine writer with the Nobel, over the more internationally-renowned and influential Borges? Does his literature deserve the distinction? Do his politics?

To close, I like one thing I read in Jose Pablo Feinmann’s project on Peronism and the dark period between 1955 and 1983: “We have to look back at those times with a bit of pity.” It was impossible to not make a mistake.

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