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March 03, 1985|JACK MILES

Today, PEN International's "Peace Day," is a good time to celebrate a writer who has served the cause of peace this year with special grace and talent: Ernesto Sabato of Argentina.

Sabato, born in 1911, is the author of several volumes of essays and two novels, one of which, "The Tunnel," has been translated into French, English, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish, Japanese, Danish and German. If other Latin-American writers can make similar claims now, scarcely any could in 1948 when "The Tunnel" was released. Back then, Sabato was leading his country and even his continent into a new kind of conversation with the rest of the Western world.

"Never Again," Sabato's devastating new work--still untranslated, though I give its title in English--is the December, 1984, report of Argentina's "National Commission on Disappearances." Sabato was the chairman of this commission, and though he cannot have written its final report sentence by sentence, all evidence indicates that his is the literary intelligence behind it.

Published by the University Press of Buenos Aires, "Never Again"--"Nunca Mas" in the Spanish--is a 490-page, heavily illustrated paperback. It is an account rendered nominally to Argentine President Raul Alfonsin but in fact to the nation of how, in the name of "national security," 10,000 innocent Argentines were murdered by their own armed forces and thousands more were tortured and sadistically abused. The "disappearances," to use the now famous code name, took place during the years of a military dictatorship that began with a coup d'etat in March, 1976, and ended only when the dictatorship was overthrown two years ago, partly as a result of the Falklands War.

Some of the architects of this protracted atrocity may yet face legal conviction. What President Alfonsin asked Ernesto Sabato to prepare, however, was not a legal brief. Sabato was not asked to put anybody behind bars. He was asked rather to help the nation understand what it had done to itself. His challenge was broadly human, and in a way, it was also artistic, for if the literature of the Holocaust proves nothing else, it proves that no human tragedy is so immense that it cannot be cheapened by clumsiness and bad taste. Sabato seems to have learned that lesson well.

His commissioners included, among others: two bishops, one Catholic and one Methodist; an American-born rabbi; two scholars of international repute; a former president of the University of Buenos Aires, and a decidedly conservative radio anchorwoman. Fifty thousand interviews were conducted under the auspices of the commission. In the report, the results of that immense research are presented in the form, roughly, of a recurrent narrative. We follow victim after victim on the road from capture to imprisonment to torture to, usually, execution.

Sometimes the horror is lurid. Children are tortured in front of their parents. Prisoners are thrown from airplanes in flight. But Sabato does not strive to be lurid. He strives to be restrained, meticulous, documentary. The illustrations in the book are not photographs of corpses. They are, most often, photographs and floor plans of the schools, hospitals, clubs and barracks where--away from the public eye, but not all that far away--the agony of "national security" unfolded. Sentence by sentence, the style is that of excruciating understatement until, by withholding its own scream so long, the report draws a scream from the reader.

I have my own copy of "Nunca Mas," thanks to Prof. Jack Schmitt of Cal State Long Beach, who crossed into Argentina recently from Chile where he was visiting a young poet whom he is translating. Schmitt's reaction to "Nunca Mas" was first, of course, grief for the victims but then grief for his Argentine friends, for the shame they feel at what this book says about their country. But the Argentines may take a bitter pride in the fact that while the crimes of their military are far from unprecedented, the publication of "Nunca Mas"--its testimony gathered in no conqueror's court, its text from no alien press--almost certainly is unprecedented.

"Nunca Mas" has gone through four printings in three months. It is beginning to be read widely in other countries in Latin America. Ernesto Sabato himself has won the Cervantes Prize and the Gabriela Mistral Prize, the literary prize of the Organization of American States. He deserves the prizes, and he deserves to be read north as well as south of the Rio Grande. His book is in every sense an American story.

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