Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Farewell to Sábato, and a Giveaway

The battered paperback in the photograph above is my personal copy of Ernesto Sábato’s On Heroes and Tombs, possibly the definitive Buenos Aires novel but, apparently, no longer in print in English. Far less celebrated for his literary output than his countryman Jorge Luis Borges (who never wrote a novel), Sábato died last Friday at age 99, less than two months short of his 100th birthday. In the immediate aftermath of his death, he was the subject of a tribute at the Feria del Libro, the annual Buenos Aires book fair that will continue through next Monday.

A Communist and a physicist in his youth, a democrat, novelist and painter in his maturity, Sabato was an indefatigable campaigner for human rights. He made his literary reputation with his first novel, The Tunnel (1948), and followed it with On Heroes and Tombs (1961) and The Angel of Darkness (1974, known in Spanish as “Abaddon el Exterminador”). Andrew Graham-Yooll’s obituary of Sábato in the Buenos Aires Herald provides a succinct summary of his career, from both a literary and political perspective.

Not being a literary critic (unlike Graham-Yooll, who is an acquaintance of mine), I can’t do full justice to Sábato’s literary career or personality. Still, I found On Heroes and Tombs absorbing not just because of the tragic tale of an Argentine family in the turmoil of the 1950s. It’s also because the novel is literally grounded in place - many of its scenes occur in and around city landmarks that are still recognizable today, even if they’re not always part of the tourist circuit. A novel within the novel, titled “Report on the Blind,” may be a metaphor for life in the Argentine capital, but it’s equally fascinating if read literally.

As a public intellectual, Sábato opposed human rights abuses under the Peronist governments of the 1940s and 1950s, but also under the military regime that overthrew Perón in 1955. His most visible contribution to public life, though, is his role as president of the Comisión Nacional sobre la Desparición de Personas (CONADEP), created by President Raúl Alfonsín to investigate human rights abuses under the notorious Proceso military dictatorship of 1976-83. The commission’s landmark report, under the title Nunca Más (Never Again) provided concrete evidence of extrajudicial disappearances and executions that led to the successful prosecution of the junta leaders and many of their underlings.

Win This Book!

No, not my precious copy of On Heroes and Tombs, but rather the new fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires. I will award copies of my own guidebook to the city to the first two readers who can identify the church in the photograph below, which plays a key role in On Heroes and Tombs, by either its formal or colloquial name. Since I don’t want to make the contest too difficult, I’ll provide one additional clue: it’s in the northern Buenos Aires barrio of Belgrano. Please send all entries to my personal email, in the header above, not to the comments function of this blog.

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