Ernesto Sabato; acclaimed Argentine author led inquiry into dictatorship’s crimes

Ernesto Sabato (left) presented his report on crimes committed by Argentina’s dictatorship to President Raul Alfonsin in 1984. Mr. Sabato called his work on the report a “descent into hell.’’ Ernesto Sabato (left) presented his report on crimes committed by Argentina’s dictatorship to President Raul Alfonsin in 1984. Mr. Sabato called his work on the report a “descent into hell.’’ (Eduardo Di Baia/ Associated Press)
By Debora Rey and Daniel Zadunaisky
Associated Press / May 1, 2011

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BUENOS AIRES — Writer Ernesto Sabato, who led the government’s probe of crimes committed by Argentina’s dictatorship, has died at 99.

The writer died of complications of bronchitis, his friend and collaborator Elvira Gonzalez Fraga told Radio Mitre.

Mr. Sabato was a widely admired 73-year-old intellectual, author of works such as “On Heroes and Tombs,’’ when President Raul Alfonsin asked him to lead an investigation into crimes committed under the soldiers who led Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

He called his work of helping to document the murders, tortures, and illegal arrests committed by a regime he had initially supported a “descent into hell.’’ The commission’s report, “Never Again,’’ served as the basis for prosecuting key figures in the dictatorship after the return to civilian rule.

Official and independent agencies estimate that 12,000 to 30,000 were killed by government forces seeking to wipe out leftists.

Like many Argentines, Mr. Sabato initially welcomed the coup that overthrew President Isabel Peron following mounting economic problems, social turmoil, and clashes with leftist guerrillas who carried out kidnappings and killings.

He joined other writers in a meeting with dictator Jorge Rafael Videla shortly after the takeover and described him as “a cultured man, modest, and intelligent.’’

Even as government repression reached its height in 1978, Mr. Sabato said in an interview that “many things have improved: the armed terrorist bands have been put, in large part, under control.’’ He grew critical by 1979, denouncing censorship.

Mr. Sabato was born in Rojas near Buenos Aires.

While studying physics, he joined the Communist Party’s youth wing and rose to become its secretary in the early 1930s, but broke with the party in 1934 over purges by Soviet leader Josef Stalin. It was the first of “the three fundamental crises of my life,’’ he said.

Returning to his studies, he earned a doctorate in physics and went to Paris to work on atomic radiation at the Joliot-Curie laboratories, where he said he suffered a second personal crisis.

“In Paris, I assisted in breaking the uranium atom, which was being disputed by three laboratories: the ‘race’ was won by a German,’’ he said.

The third crisis emerged from his friendship with surrealist artists such as Roberto Matta, Wilfredo Lam, and Andre Breton, and his growing disenchantment with what he saw as the misuse of science. He turned instead to writing.

Mr. Sabato published his first book, “One and the Universe,’’ in 1945 and his first, brief novel, “The Tunnel,’’ which was praised by Thomas Mann and also by Albert Camus, who had it translated into French.

“The Angel of Darkness’’ — “Abaddon el Exterminador’’ in the original Spanish — was honored as the best foreign book of the year by the French book industry in 1976.

He received the French Legion of Honor, the Medici Prize of Italy, and Spain’s Cervantes Prize, the most respected award in Spanish letters.

He was also a painter, and his works were displayed at the Pompidou Center in Paris.

He was married for more than 60 years to Matilde Kuminsky-Richter, who died in 1998, and they had two sons: politician Jorge Federico, who died in 1995, and Mario, a documentary filmmaker.