A Letter to Ernesto Sábato

Norman Manea
(Translated from Romanian by Stephen Kessler and Daniela Hurezanu.)
Author's Note

Ernesto Sábato's novel Abaddón el exterminador (1974) includes a dense epistolary chapter addressed to a virtual fellow writer, which begins "Dear, distant young man..." This response (published March 20, 1984, in the Romanian literary monthly Vatra) borrows ideas, themes, and even expressions from that and other novels by Ernesto Sábato, using them as references for a publicly declared solidarity. But the "open letter" to Sábato the reader familiar with the codified language of the sinister period of the Ceausescu regime will easily understandówas also addressed to a Romania traumatized by oppression and poverty, to its writers suffocated by the dictatorship's terror and depravity.

This rather obscure text signaled to the Romanian reader, through a mutually known code and an already established complicity (those "signals with hidden meanings"), what the author meant when he wrote about mineral passivity, the unspoken, ciphered "call" of the captive whose destiny is sealed, the dictator, the blind terror, the deaf-mute boredom of the gregarious slave, the all-powerful blind Order, the project of organized evil, the very atomization of existence, depersonalization, fear's chaos, apathy's opacity, a perfect frozen state of terror, the blind orchestrated oppression concerning a collectivity massified in a unique, enormous, servile body, an inert, "global" body, whose only chance of solidarity is to mimic, in code, signals with hidden meanings, a deaf-mute alphabet of a strangled apathy, and a forced and embittered silence postpone the explosion.

It certainly was not too difficult for the citizen of the Romanian socialist dictatorship and I hope it is not impossible even for somebody living in the Western democracies to guess how, in a police state, "the blind terror" or "the blind orchestrated oppression" or the "project of organized evil" and, on the other hand, "poisoned, strangled apathy," "depersonalization," "fear's chaos," "embittered silence" work together. The text is full of, even overwhelmed by this Aesopian language, typical for a closed society and a totalitarian system: an artist who has unmasked the blind, ravenous monster, a world that has lost its spirit and yet is thirsty for faith and truth, the abstruse Byzantine muteness, away from the stares of the administrators and militaristic priests, a city tied up like a sack and devastated by barbarians, etc., etc.

Amid the many homages to Ernesto Sábatoó evoked as a major contemporary writer, as well as a high ethical model of freedom that kept increasing in those years, the "Romanian" text embodied a specific fraternal vibration, which one could probably also feel in the novel The Black Envelope I was then working on. Translated into Spanish by Domnita Dumitrescu (now a professor at California State University in Los Angeles), the "open letter" brought a flattering response from the addressee. "Su 'carta' me pareció magnífica," Sábato wrote: "I thought your 'letter' magnificent."

The short essay written over twenty years ago may retain even today, in the spring of 2005, a certain relevance, and not just a documentary one.

To Ernesto Sábato

My dear, distant young man,

In the letter you sent me by way of Abaddón, I found the obsessions around which many of my days and pages, under circumstances so different from yours, have turned.

I, too, would have preferred, instead of a letter, a gaze or a coffee shared in silence together. Nevertheless, the letter has accomplished more. It confirmed that in life's crucial momentsóthat is to say, also in creation's crucial momentsóthe work of great artists can give us strength; their fraternal suffering, redeemed through creativity, proves in this way its paradoxical, therapeutic "usefulness." The courage to face horror, the tenacity to continue in spite of hopelessness and despair, faith and doubt united in solitude's indestructible force are revitalized through a surprising reunion in that "contemporary posterity" represented, as you say so well, by the stranger, the one from far away, who doesn't see you drinking your coffee or putting on your daily masks or crushed by the hostility of aggressive and duplicitous concreteness. This time, however, the "stranger" was a loved master; distance had long ago been annihilated by the books that have united us.

I reread the letter from Abaddón, pursued by the spectral gazes of familiar presences: Martín, Fernando Vidal, Marcelo, Nacho and Augustina. I was running away and I found myself again, on the phosphorescent trace of words, while Alejandra the bonfire smoked on the horizon, and in Juan Pablo Castel's tunnel the ghost of the dead María meandered blindly. I found myself in dialogue with the character-author and with Ernesto Sábato himself, who was summoned to respond to the numerous, dramatic, bitter questions, not only from the reader, but from the author I am. A contemplative, to be sure, like Bruno, but who went beyond the "excess of honesty," that is to say, of inefficiency, by committing the sin of publishing several books I wouldn't mention, if the gift of the renewed encounter with the work of my Argentine friend hadn't eventually imposed some critical summaries and demands.

The ideas pulsating through the turmoil of your novels, mixed with the vociferous or voiceless phantoms of the torrid inner life, materialize that preliminary "global intuition" where epic projects originate, driven on by a central theme, preceding form, but which creates its theme while gradually developing its surprises, until reaching that unmistakable identity, which is the strongly particularized, inseparable fit between the meat and the husk: the protean and perennially unique fruit of true art.

Yes, rereading the letter, I reread Ernesto Sábato's novels.

The facts we see, through your novels' rough terseness, are apparently trivial in their spectacular banality. Their true "face" reveals itself only through the multiplication of the inner life and of what is transitory, through fluid, uncanny, black mirrors, whose carnivals grotesquely intersect. "The event" is no longer only the effect of someone's action, but rather, the fulfillment of a confused waiting and pre-sentiment, belonging to the one who will have to experience it like an involuntary "provocation" of the primordial, life surging out of mineral passivity, unfolding out of dark depths, exploding despotically at the unspoken, ciphered "call" of the captive one whose destiny is sealed. Embracing existence means embracing a sense: usually scattered, absent, obscured, but nevertheless sought; ignored, at times; heavy and perhaps crushing in the end. Love itself tries to find and introduce into the Brownian fog of consumed time and the centrifugal comings and goings that unpredictably intersect each other and that are crossed by human happenings, an order (of feeling, waiting, interest, resentment, failures, duplicity). Shaped out of chaos while shaping it, the particularization of existence, the "personalization" of human destiny finally "gazed upon" (embraced) expresses its real tragedy, that is to say its defiant failure (failure, which is always hard to take, as you say, and especially tragic for the artist), its solitude in defiance, its skepticism in regard to the vulgar vanity of success (this made up of numerous misunderstandings, as you always remind us).

Man remains the true mystery of existence. In man, in fact, one can find the potential dictator, as well as the adolescent lover, the blind torturer, the enigma of the passionate amphora and the deaf-mute boredom of the gregarious slave. Not pious "myth," nor facile mythologizing through vast panoramas of a stupefying puerile seduction, prolific legacy of fairy tales and mass-productions of exotic grandeur, served by so many noisy stars of success, but reason, soul and the chimera called man propose the true mystery, twisting the daily vibrations of the forever disquieted spirit on the laborious path to the making of the self.

One "accidental" step... the next could follow, beginning a mechanical progression into chaos. But the second step can be something else too: danger, nothingness or... some meaning or... order. The banal dynamics of life, the expansive vitality belong to emptiness in Sábato's novels. And organization, rule, order, in compressed appearances devoid of sign or sense, contain the roots of the evil called Order. The all-powerful blind Order manifested "through illness or torture, through deception and false pity, through mystification or anonymous letters, through little schoolteachers or inquisitors." The configuration of hierarchies, codes and objectives achieves in the end, by following the project of organized evil, the very atomization of existence, the emptiness of communication, depersonalization, fear's chaos, apathy's opacity, the perfect frozen state of terror. The blind, orchestrated oppression concerns a collectivity unified in a unique, enormous, servile body, able nevertheless to "see" everything, but without grasping the hidden source that has deformed and degraded its instant: an inert "global" body, whose only chance of solidarity is to mimic, in code, signals with hidden meanings, "signs" from a collective deaf-mute alphabet of a strangled rebellion, of a poisoned apathy, of a forced and embittered silence, postponing the explosion. "The difficulties that a person able to see could expect in exploring this universe would not be very different from those an English spy could have encountered during the war, in the systematic, albeit full of cracks and hatreds, Nazi regime." The sect from Alejandra's great novel can (also) be understood as a symbol of a totalitarian regime; the malefic potential on which it builds its dark utopia of terror is virtually present in anyone's dazed selfish somnolence; no more than a dazzling flash, at times; more often, a pathological handicap, waiting to be activated, manipulated, harnessed in the militaristic bureaucratic valorizations of cruelty and servility, of duplicity, of numbing indifference.

The Angel of Darkness is not only the chronicle of the persecutions undergone by the artist who has unmasked the blind, ravenous monster; is not only the fractured cardiogram of a world that has lost its spirit and yet is thirsty for faith and truth. It is first and foremost a "total novel," made of dreams, doubts, newspaper events, fortuitous conversations, through that elusive "hypnosis" that summons again characters already known (Bruno, Martín, Alejandra from On Heroes and Tombs, Juan and María from The Tunnel) and the current hero Marcelo, killed during police interrogations, but also Sartre who meets, in these tumultuous pages, Baudelaire, Victor Brauner, Che Guevara, the dark Schneider, Isaac the Blind (father of modern Kabala), and engages in polemics about terrorism and art, sexual freedom and crime, responsibility and occultism, tyranny, science, antisemitism, craziness, poverty, Stalinism, the avant-garde. Sábato the character converses with his character Bruno, and, like a zealous, competitive reporter, Bruno gives accounts of Sábato's appearances on the streets, in the coffeehouses and homes of Buenos Aires. The devil and love, suffering, the drastic Jesuit pedagogy of the "new man," the wanderings of faith, violence, the blunt summonses of the left and of the right, fanaticism, numbness, resignation, illusions, doubts, confidence.

Resistance, confrontation, warning intersect passionately with the tragic, creative acceptance of destiny. Man as an artist, man as a creation is presented as the martyr-emblem of unconquered solitude, the one who redeems his questioning vulnerability, like a sign of "coherence" with himself and the world.

Scrutinizing Darkness and Blindness, refusing benevolent complacencies (toward extermination camps, toward the atomic apocalypse, toward organized hatred, as well as toward so many corrupt forms of seduction and commercialization of writing), toward all traps of collusion with evil, Sábato affirms (through negation) and proposes (through the refusal of evasions and complicity) an exemplary faithfulness for the multilayered and deep truth of major art. Realism? "Boundless," "magic," "objective"?! A single absolute reality: spirit. Sabatic "realism" is that of the sober, solitary spirit, a truly full, substantial engagement, contrasting with so many profitable conventional verbalizations of innumerable sensational mass-market fairy tales.

In Ernesto Sábato's work, death "chooses" only those who deserve "to transform their life into destiny." Death offers its eternity only to those who face it: tragic embodiments of human rebellion, of resistance. Not at all a validation of nothingness, but paradoxically, a test of life, in other words, truth, at its tragic, ultimate limit, which doesn't mean the final one. Death as the decisive testimony of the essence of life, that is, of memory... of enduring time. In the realm of those who only appear to be alive, those who neither live nor die, dissipated in noncommitment, there is neither life nor aspiration to immortality. In The Tunnel, María (the wife of a blind man) is killed by her artist lover, so that the lacerated voice of the tormented painter, Juan Pablo, can find expression. Alejandra, killer and martyr of the horror in On Heroes and Tombs, spreads an uncanny light, around which the questions of all those who knew her will gravitate, as if toward an everlasting metaphor of dream and fire. Fernando Vidal is a damned person who has gone beyond human limits, Marcelo Carranza is a young rebel who refuses annihilation and tyranny, ready to sacrifice himself through an absolute act.

Abaddón el exterminador (The Angel of Darkness) closes with Sábato's epitaph; on his tombstone only one word is inscribed: Peace... "it was peace that S. no doubt needed and yearned after-the peace longed for by every creator, by every man born under the curse of refusing to resign himself to the life he's been given to live, by every man for whom the universe is horrible, or tragically transitory and imperfect," adding the words that could be those of all the writer's admirers: "Oh, my brother... you at least tried."

Rereading The Tunnel, On Heroes and Tombs, and The Angel of Darkness on one summer day in 1983, I suddenly remembered, that my young faraway friend was now over seventy years old. "You will feel the yearned-for presence, the long-awaited sign of someone who hears your cries from somewhere else"... I pondered these words a long time. I rewrite them, in turn, as an answer and a confirmation.

Full of anxiety, like a teenager, I dived into that strange corner of the world where Alejandra has loved and burned. Facing the arrogant and ferocious strategy practiced by the Sect of the Blind among the martyrs of fire and hopelessness, amid the statuesque tombs of magnetic boulevards, the abstruse Byzantine muteness of the characters who summoned my insomnia, their suffering mole-like alertness, claimed contrasts that abolished symmetry and forbade comparisons. But I suddenly needed to "see" the places where Alejandra's soul had roamed...

For a reader to look for the place where a character from a novel has suffered is puerile enough, but when a novelist does it, knowing only too well that the fiction has come to life purely out of its author's obsessions, it would be proof not just that art is sometimes more powerful than life, but that this proof could help the artist in a time of crisis, as an active stimulus and an opportunity to find himself again.

But instead of Alejandra, my dream has captured only Sábato, a young man once frightened by the grin of the world, taking refuge between the differentials and integrals of analytical mathematics, as I myself once did, away from the stares of the administrators and militaristic priests, between the covers of treatises of algebraic calculus, as if in a sanctuary meant to protect me from the city that was tied up like a sack and devastated by barbarians. Theorems had once stuck with me too, like delicate nurses attending a wounded man with a burned back... That's how youth punished itself, for a long time, content to glimpse, through the cracks of the imperfect spirit, the beautiful towers of the impossible, until I woke up one day, listening again, somehow without listening, to the sounds of men... in the novel's smoky meanderings, half-way between "madness and the convent..."

My unknown faraway friend, Ernesto Sábato, one of the major contemporary writers, has repeatedly told me, "There is a recurrent dialectic between life and art, between truth and artifice. It is the manifestation of Heraclitus's oppositions; in the world of the spirit, everything flows toward its opposite." His words have helped me take up again the fight that had seemed finished, and made me return to my own words and obsessions.

Away from the publicity surrounding so many fellow writers showered with praise and clamor, Sábato the solitary remains entrusted with the high creative spirituality of the "specifically human" painful truth, known as soul, the "dark, abysmal" quarry out of which the slim sharp granite of his great, lasting work as a novelist is erected. The power of authentic creation, as an original synthesis of natural gift, sacrifice and lucidity, always signifies the surprise of a superb human victory, even when (maybe because) it rises out of darkness and adversity.

May we find ourselves in the presence of Ernesto Sábato, as we remember the words that his admirer Witold Gombrowicz borrowed from an old wise man, Rabbi Moshe Levi: "The road of our lives is like a blade's edge: on one side, hell; on the other, hell. Between them, the path of life."





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