Thursday, May 5, 2011


Don Ernesto in a file photo from the early 1970s.

On the eve of his receiving the Cervantes Prize—the most prestigious award in Spanish letters—world renowned novelist Ernesto Sabato told me, “They start giving you prizes and medals when they think you’re going to die.” But if that’s what “they” thought, they were in for a surprise. Don Ernesto was 76 when I ventured that getting the Cervantes was a great honor and he gave me that wry answer. He was to live, however, for another 23 years. He died last Saturday, less than two months shy of his hundredth birthday. With his death, Argentina lost its most renowned living literary figure, an informal title that Don Ernesto had held since the death of Jorge Luis Borges in 1986.
That meeting with Sabato a quarter-century ago was an interesting one. I was at a turning point in my writing career. I had gone as far as I could go in the newspaper where I was working. When I landed the job of managing editor of the Buenos Aires Herald in 1986, after a prior decade-long career in that paper, I felt as though I had “arrived”. My loosely envisioned plan for the future was to continue to head up the paper’s editorial department for another twenty years or so while pursuing a parallel career as a free-lance writer and novelist. I couldn’t have guessed then that, within a year and a half, my increasingly hostile relationship with the chairman of the local board of directors and his general administrator over editorial and commercial policy—and the mixing of the two—would have reached such a pitch that I would feel obliged to resign. But by the time I met Don Ernesto, I could have already described myself as less than content with my job. The chance to interview this famous writer was directly linked to a conscious effort to expand my free-lance horizons in new directions.
In this case, I had been contracted by Insight Cityguides to be one of the lead writers for the first Cityguide to Buenos Aires. As such, Project Manager Kathleen Wheaton, left it pretty much up to me what I would write about. I chose to do a couple of light-hearted color pieces—one about the then-disastrous telephone system and another about the city’s multi-faceted kiosks (where you could buy anything from cigarettes and half-pints of liquor to stationery, condoms and ice-cream). But I also set out some serious tasks for myself: a concise history of Argentine politics from Juan Perón to the then-incumbent President Raúl Alfonsín, and two interviews. One of these I did with film director Luis Puenzo, who had just won Hollywood’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (his The Official Story) and the other with Argentina’s by then most famous living writer—Borges had died the year before—Ernesto Sabato.
My first contact with Don Ernesto was iffy. He said that he wasn’t really giving interviews any longer, and anyway, he hardly had the time for such nonsense since he was flying to Spain that very week to receive his Cervantes Prize. But I kept him on the line, talking about his outstanding work in the field of human rights, and reminding him of the parallel human rights track record of the paper I worked for, although making sure he understood that the interview was for the Cityguide, not for the Herald. Finally, reluctantly, he acquiesced.
“Look,” he said, “I’m only going to consent to the interview because of the great respect I have for the Herald. But we’ll do it this way: Write your questions out and I’ll meet with you at my home for ten minutes or so, just so we get to meet each other, then I’ll answer your query in writing and get back to you when I’m done.”
I was thoroughly disappointed, but said, “All right, Don Ernesto, just as you like,” because by the tone of the conversation up to then, I realized that any other answer would probably cause him to hang up on me and I was surprised I’d been able to get him on the telephone in the first place.
I arrived bright and early the next morning, questions in hand, at the large old house in the middle-class western suburb of Santos Lugares where he had lived for almost four decades by that time. When I stepped up to the iron gate beyond the tree-lined door yard and rang the bell, I was immediately accosted by a neighbor, who had been watching me ever since I’d gotten out of my car.
“What do you need, friend?” he asked in a less than amiable tone.
“I have an appointment with Mr. Sabato,” I said.
He nodded, but waited there, vigilant, until I had not only been buzzed through the gate, but also until he was certain that I was expected. Don Ernesto was such a respected figure in Santos Lugares that this was standard operating procedure, I later learned. His neighbors took care of him and his wife, Doña Matilde, in a way that has since been all but lost elsewhere in an ever more cosmopolitan, yet violent and introverted city. Except for his trips abroad, Santos Lugares was Don Ernesto’s everyday world, right down to the neighborhood Club Social across the way, where he was a regular in the table games that the older men of the area played there while they had their coffee or other drinks and swapped stories.
Don Ernesto himself ushered me into a small, sparsely furnished but pleasant room adjoining his large studio. The little room was obviously for just such occasions, a little place in which to receive strangers and get rid of them quickly. He was quite apparently jittery and on edge. He asked me a few questions about my years at the Herald. I asked him a few preliminary questions about the presidential commission he had headed at the behest of President Alfonsín to document the disappearances of thousands of people during the dictatorship that had preceded Dr. Alfonsín’s democratic administration. I had it on good authority that much of that commission’s final report (called Never Again) had been authored by Sabato himself. But he was quite self-effacing about it, taking little of the credit, though it had been he who had delivered it personally into the hands of the President. Then, we talked a little about the Cervantes Prize, but this rendered him even more ill at ease, since that’s where he was headed right now and he was supposed to be in the international airport at Ezeiza by sometime around noon to catch his flight to Madrid.
All in all, even when he invited me to take a seat and took one himself, with a coffee table separating us, I got the distinct feeling that he was saying, “Nice to meet you, no need to be in a hurry, here’s your hat!” After a few more pleasantries, he pursed his lips, pushed his iconic horn-rimmed spectacles further up onto the bridge of his nose, gave his brush of a moustache a tweak and said, “Well, let’s see your questions, shall we?” I retrieved my dozen carefully worded, and even more carefully thought-out questions from my briefcase and handed them to him.
“I’ll just have a quick look in case there’s something I don’t understand,” he said. He started to impatiently scan the page I had handed him, but then, I saw him pause, go back, reread, heard him say under his breath, “Oh…oh yes…well…ah yes…” Then he looked up from the page and said, “So you’re a writer!”
I felt myself flush and then hastened to say, “Uh, no, Don Ernesto, I’m a journalist.”
“Nonsense,” he responded with a dismissive wave of his hand. “You may work as a journalist, but you’re a writer. Otherwise you could never ask such intimate questions about writing.” Then, after a pause, he said, “Well, I think we need to talk.”
I stood up and said, “Fine, Don Ernesto, but another day, then. You have a plane to catch.”
“Nonsense,” he said, “sit down, sit down!”
So I sat down.
“Coffee?” he asked.
“No, don’t bother…”
But he was already calling out to his wife, “Matilde, could we have some coffee, please!”
Seizing the opportunity, I immediately started asking him about topics that weren’t included in my list of questions. I asked him about his days as a nuclear physicist. After receiving a PhD in physics from the National University of La Plata in 1938, he was hand-picked by Argentine Nobel Prize-winner Bernardo Houssay to take a research fellowship at the Curie Institute in Paris. Of this period of his life, he  once wrote, “During that time of antagonisms, I buried myself in electrometers and graduated cylinders during the morning and spent nights in bars with the delirious surrealists. At the Dome and the Deux Magot, drunk with those heralds of chaos and excess, we used to spend long hours creating exquisite cadavers.” He is also quoted as saying, “At the Curie Institute, one of the highest goals to which a physicist can aspire, I found myself empty. Battered by disbelief, I kept going on an inertia that my soul rejected.” In 1943, he gave up science entirely to become a fulltime writer and painter.
I asked him too about his checkered political leanings. Early on, he had been an outspoken supporter of communist and anarchist causes, “but today,” I reminded him, “you are an iconic figure in one of the country’s two most traditional political parties,” (referring to his more recent support for Dr. Alfonsín’s center-left Radical Party).
“Any young man who isn’t a staunch leftist or an anarchist is an idiot,” he quipped, “and any old man who’s a leftist or an anarchist is equally an idiot.”
His wife came with coffee and cookies and he presented me to her. Doña Matilde was a pleasant, polite woman, but her only concern was her husband. “Ernesto,” she said raising her eyebrows, “your plane.”
“Yes, yes,” he said impatiently, “I have plenty of time.”
So on we went. He had, he said, devoted nearly forty years exclusively to his writing. If you wanted to be exceptional at something, he said, you had to focus all of your attention on it.
“The thing is,” I said, “despite the decades you spent at it and in spite of your much deserved fame, your total output as a novelist has been just three books. Outstanding, admittedly, Don Ernesto, but just three.” (The first published in 1948, the second in 1961 and the third in 1974).
A grin broke beneath his moustache and he said, “I’m self-destructive. I’ve burned almost everything I’ve ever written.”
“Why?” I asked in alarm.
“I guess maybe I’m an arsonist at heart,” he laughed.
“So, is there anything that’s been spared from the flames lately?” I ventured to ask.
He shook his head. “No, I don’t write any more. My eyes won’t take the strain…so I paint.”
I gazed at him in surprise. “Your eyes won’t take writing so you paint?”
He laughed aloud and said, “I can tell you’ve never seen any of my paintings!” He explained that as a youth he had been torn between painting and writing and that for those forty years after he quit being a physicist, writing had willed out. So now, he was indulging himself as a painter.
By the end of the interview, I felt a surprising closeness to the aging writer and, for days, couldn’t stop thinking about a lot of the things we had discussed.
It was only a matter of months after that—after yet another major run-in with the Chairman of the Board—before I decided that my career at the Buenos Aires Herald was at an end and tendered my resignation. It was at about that time too that I received author copies of the Insight Cityguide to Buenos Aires, one of which I earmarked for Ernesto Sabato. I sent it with a letter in which I explained to him that I had resigned from the newspaper and now was devoting my time to free-lancing, while also exploring my worth as a fiction writer. I added that my interview with him had given me the self-confidence I needed to become an independent writer—no matter what it was that I ended up writing. Writing was my calling and while running a newspaper had been good while it lasted, I was no longer willing to compromise my own goals and ideals to fit someone else’s.
By return post, I received a copy of Don Ernesto’s first published novel, El Tunel. He had dedicated it, “To Dan, with affection always, E. Sabato”. Just inside the cover, there was a small piece of memo paper and, on it, the writer had typed:
Dear Dan,
How glad I am for you.
E. Sabato