Life is horrible, he says almost immediately, and has frequently given him pain. Over his shoulder and through the window, Dupont Circle is shrouded in a gray drizzly dusk as if prearranged for the conversation. But further into the night, as Ernesto Sabato, 74, looks over all the years of novel and essay writing, his mood will lighten and he will speak of hope for man. In spite of all that has happened.
He is dressed elegantly in jacket and tie, and sits motionless in the drawing room of the Argentine ambassador's residence, as if there were little point to shifting one's legs. The eyes, behind tinted glasses, remain largely downcast -- appropriate, perhaps, for a self-described existentialist who has burned much of his material (publishing only three novels), was disillusioned with the promises of communism early in life, recently headed Argentina's Commission on the Disappeared, documenting his country's grimmest epoch, and can no longer write because of an eye affliction.
He does not lack for literary respect, however. He is revered in Latin America and Europe, has been compared to Camus, Gide and Borges and last year received from King Juan Carlos the Premio Cervantes award -- the most prestigious in the world of Spanish letters. Today he will hear accolades from Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, and experts and writers from around the world, as he attends a symposium in his honor at the library. But awards can only do so much for a troubled soul.
"I had a very severe father and a very sad childhood," he says through a translator. "Education at home was very hard . . . And the world appeared to me as chaotic and horrible."
Sabato, the "last but one" of eight children in a family of Italian origin, living in Rojas, Argentina, sought relief in painting and drawing. Yet it was science that offered him his first release: "When I first heard a mathematical theorem, I discovered a perfect order, the harmony of the Platonic objects. And that fascinated me for many years . . . This discovery of the mathematical world absorbed me until at least my college years."
After completing his doctorate at the Universidad de la Plata in Buenos Aires and just before receiving a scholarship to work on atomic radiation at the Curie Laboratory in Paris, he had a falling out with abstract perfection. "There's a kind of mentality of the men of science, a kind of puritanism . . . "
His rejection of science "was not an act of frivolity. I had reached the moment in which I understood that Platonic harmony was not sufficient for me. That abandoning of man made by pure mathematics seemed to me nefarious, and I felt my destiny was to reassure my contact with man. So I retook again my old passion for literature."
While continuing to work at the laboratory, he wrote a novel ("in secret because of negative feelings from the scientists"). The place and period were good for an artist: Paris in the 1930s was abuzz with them, and Sabato soon became acquainted with painters and writers, particularly artists Tristan Zsara and Andre' Breton.
"By day I worked on atomic radiation and at night I'd meet with the painters in Montparnasse. In a way I felt like a housewife who at night is a prostitute."
Ironically, Sabato never published his novel. It went the way of most of his fiction -- to the fire. It is a dissatisfaction with his work, he says, that has made him destroy his writings, as well as "a question of temperament . . . In general I'm unhappy with what I do and I have never written for pleasure. I write, at the risk of appearing grandiloquent, in order not to die."
Only three novels have survived his rigorous self-scrutiny. His first, "El Tu'nel" (translated as "The Outsider" and which Sabato describes as "the story of a hard-luck lad who decides one night to commit suicide if God does not appear to him by daybreak") came out in 1948; "On Heroes and Tombs" in 1961; and "Abaddon the Exterminator" in 1974. "On Heroes and Tombs" was translated into English only recently, because of legal battles with its initial English publisher over the quality of the translation.
Sabato has also written a considerable number of essays on themes ranging from his own work to the dehumanization of science and technology. English translations of them are not in abundance. His work is far less known here than in Latin America and Europe.
"It's something I really lament," says Sabato, "because I have a great admiration for North American literature, from Melville and Hawthorne to Hemingway and Faulkner."
His writing, as Sabato described in a 1977 essay, is an attempt "to examine the last dilemmas of the human condition, loneliness and death, hope and desperation, lust for power, the search for the absolute, the sense of existence, the presence and absence of God."
"At the same time," writes critic Harley Dean Oberhelman in his book "Ernesto Sabato," "the reader sees the inability of man to communicate with others, an almost pathological obsession with blindness, and a great concern for Oedipal involvement . . ."
Sabato acknowledges more than a passing interest in the theme of blindness. The theme is touched upon in "El Tu'nel" and, in "On Heroes and Tombs," there is a novel within a novel ("Report on the Blind") in which a character, Fernando Vidal Olmos (who shares the same birthday as Sabato), elucidates his paranoid belief that blind people ("The Sect of the Blind") are really a secret organization carrying out the work of Satan, and that the character's life is in danger.
"I don't know why I have this [interest]. All I know [about blindness] is what I've written in 'Heroes and Tombs,' " he says. "And the word 'know' must go in quotations. My knowledge of blindness is not a conceptual knowledge. These messages come from the deepest part of the unconsciousness."
Lesions in his retinas and other eye afflictions in recent years now prevent Sabato from writing and severely hamper his reading.
"I sometimes believe it's revenge by the Sect of the Blind," he says.
There have been other forms of blindness around Sabato. In the late 1970s, three junta governments launched the systematic persecution, imprisonment, torture and executions of thousands of Argentine citizens in what is now referred to as "The Dirty War." The estimated numbers of people listed as "disappeared" from that time have ranged from 8,000 to 30,000. And although Sabato himself was outspoken in his criticism of the secret activities, many friends and associates around him turned their eyes safely away. "That is true," he says, of the averters. "And very human."
Sabato readily accepted the newly elected President Raul Alfonsin's offer to head a commission to log the testimony of relatives and associates of the missing for military and civil tribunals. And after more than 50,000 pages of gathered testimony speaking of kidnaping, rape, secret torture camps, mass graves, and even crematoria, Sabato says, "My life has changed. Even though I know that evil is an inherent feature of the human being . . . In the classic sense, this has been a descent into Hell."
But there are things with which Sabato seems satisfied. "The Federal Court of Appeals has evaluated the evidence . . . and has sentenced and punished" the culprits. In addition, he states, "The violations were committed by an infinitesimal minority."
There is little danger of another military takeover of the country, he believes. "The horrors assure democracy for a long time."
Sabato is thinking now of his philosophies, of his political influences. There was an adolescent fling with communism, but he soon rejected it "because of its philosophical discrepancies and also because of the crimes of Stalin."
More than anything else he has embraced existentialism, which, he believes, "is the philosophy that is proper and the most adequate for the novelist because it is concerned with man as a creature of flesh and blood . . . it is the romantic movement of philosophy [and] revindicated passion."
"I want justice," he continues. "But . . . above all I want freedom. I don't want to see children die of hunger or countries oppressed by greater powers . . . I don't believe in the words 'left' and 'right.' They have lost their meaning in our time. You can belong to the left and approve of concentration camps. So we should bring an end to these nomenclatures . . .
"Maybe deep down I'm an anarchist."
Without explanation Sabato rises from his seat and leaves the drawing room. A few minutes later he returns with what appears to be a whiskey sour. (It is a good sign, the translator says later; it means he was cheered by the conversation.) And now the talk is of his family.
He laughs when asked whether his "severe" father told him to seek a more practical profession than writing. No, he was not ordered to do such a thing, because his preceding siblings "had been engineers and chemists, so there was no pressure."
The strain on a woman married to a writer is strong, he says. "I must say, in honor of truth, I have had systematic support of my wife. She's a woman of courage."
Sabato and Matilde Kusminsky-Richter were forced to elope because their faiths were not compatible. "I was an undesirable for her family and also she was not of the right age." But they have now been married for 50 years and he has made his peace with his in-laws. One of his sons is a filmmaker and the other is a vice chancellor of the foreign ministry. "I have an intense and very deep family life . . . Perhaps it is my sign of Cancer, but I am conservative, I want peace and I like to stay at home with my roots and my children.
"But I'm essentially a novelist," says the man who can no longer write. "The novel has the advantage of expressing the total reality of man. The novel brings ideas, dreams, symbols, myths. And it brings together logical thought and magical thought . . . "
He not only ends his novels with hope, he says, but it is a general attitude of his. And it is entirely consistent with his previous statements, he says, because "the more desperate a man you are, the more you have hope."