I would like to talk about Ernesto Sabato (Sábato if the surname is hispanicized from Italian), just a month later that The Times has published an article explaining why Spaniards, surprisingly, live on average more than the rest of Europeans when we are all junkies. Joy (S)pain will analyse this article when the British newspaper allows us to read the whole piece (they must have hired a Spanish hosting since we are having several problems trying to log in).
«What relationship will there be?», the reader will be wondering, «if Sábato was Argentine, and he wasn’t an inveterate smoker or drinker, nor heroin-addict». The hanger here is that Sábato died at 99 years-old, breaking the statistics not only of an Argentina punished by a never-ending social and economic crisis that in 2011 had the life expectancy around 76 years according to the World Bank, but of every corner of the Earth.
During that century of life, of wars, of military dictatorships, of exiles to Europe, of a prolonged and beautiful marriage with Matilde … During that space between 1911 and 2011, Ernesto Sábato wrote, between existential crisis and existential crisis, some of the literary works most applauded of the twentieth century, and although he only published three novels (he would write some more, especially in his youth, as the unfinished The silent fountain), The Tunnel (1948) has been said to be the Spanish version of The Outsider (1942), blessed by Albert Camus himself, and On Heroes and Tombs, published right in the middle of his life, simply the best Argentine novel of all times (with the permission of Rayuela and apologising many others who have made great Argentine letters with their literary work).
However, what I really wanted to talk about, and forgive me such a long preamble, but I am afraid that I’ve been affected by the famous Argentinean verbosity (Ops! I resorted to cliché, when this media aims to combat it), was an article published by Ernesto Sábato in the newspaper El País back in 1991 on an almost timeless theme that has been debated about immemorial time: the Spanish colonization of America, and that has a very common title with the section in which this piece of information is included.
I would have loved to start by the end and to compare myself to Juan Pablo Castel, protagonist and narrator of The tunnel, who begins his story confessing the murder of María Iribarne to then narrate his relationship with her. But this text is intended to be an exercise closer to journalism than to literature (if it is possible to establish a border between both of them), and the fourth paragraph is suitable to start talking about it.
«Come on, all the conquests were cruel, bloodthirsty and unjust, and it would suffice to read that book by a Belgian priest in which he narrates the horrors, the punishments, the mutilations of hands and sometimes even hands and feet that his coarse and vile compatriots inflicted on black people who committed a robbery of something that belonged to them. And the same could be repeated with sinister symmetry with the Germans, the Dutch and the English. Who are they, what virtues did they have and continue to have, to have forged and continue repeating the Black Legend?»
«The people that repudiate more about the Black Legend are those who have fun giving torture to pariahs who try to build a fairer society»‘, says Max Estrella in the brilliant Bohemian Lights;and as it is always being said that the drama of Valle-Inclán is still terribly current a century later, I will not say, nor is it my intention to pretend, that I reject the Spanish Black Legend, my intention is to make known this intelligent exercise of relativism by Ernesto Sábato. And by the way, my intention is to point out that those individuals of different nationalities who show their accusing finger before the atrocities perpetrated in the 15th century by the Kingdom of Spain in America are the same ones incapable of seeing the beam in their own eye. Or are not well known the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo, in North America, in Indochina, in Korea… or those that are still being committed on all continents with other forms of colonialism and abuse?
And although they are less than a century ago, there are still Germans, Dutch and English (to name the nationalities named by Sábato) capable of criminalizing our legend and, nevertheless, leaving theirs immaculate. These people, no doubt, see even worse than Max Estrella, like that Los Angeles’ councilman who recently removed a Christopher Columbus’ statue claiming it was a great step for historical memory while many descendants of those enslaved and mutilated Indians risk their lifes on the borders of Mexico and United States every day: his government allows such inhuman slaughter, but he look back five hundred years ago. What was said: blinds. The Catalan prisoner, alter ego of Mateo Morral, already said it in Bohemian Lights: «You have a brilliance [Max] that not everyone has».
«That sinister legend was started by the nations that wanted to supplant the most powerful empire of the time, among them England, which not only committed in the whole world atrocities as serious as the Spanish, but aggravated by its classic racism, which still persists, committed until today by the North American empire; not only against the Indians, but, later, against the contemptuously called Hispanics, and finally against the Italians, by virtue of a doctrine according to which Reagan is superior to Julius Caesar, Virgil, Horace, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo and so many that made for universal culture something more than that third category actor. No, here there was no spiritual inferiority that is racism: from Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico, whose wife was indigenous, even those who arrived in that formidable venture to Río de la Plata were mixed with Indians, and thanks to the genetic mystery I have a beautiful granddaughter who subtly reveals Inca traits. Not to mention the remarkable creations of the Iberian baroque in Latin America, which subtly differs from that of the metropolis, in the same way that it happened with our common language: the illustrious language of Cervantes and Quevedo «
It is sad to discover that the racism that Sábato talked about in the 90s has remained, at least in the forms, softened by the figure of Donald Trump. “Cowboy” Ronald would be Bartolomé de las Casas next to the spoilt brat who now occupies the White House. Bartolomé de las Casas that, according to many scholars, was one of the main enhancers of the Black Legend, since the translations of his writings, especially A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (which was also accompanied in some cases by the devastating Thierry De Bray’s illustrations) were largely propagated by European Protestant countries charged with, in turn, spreading the anti-Hispanic propaganda among its citizens. Undoubtedly, Bartolomé de las Casas was a man dedicated body and soul to the protection of the rights of the Indians and his work must be admired and taken into account (North America has not any Bartolome de las Casas, but many Paquitos Pizarro disguised as Generals Custer or English pirates); but reading his writings one sees an idealization of indigenous as if in the pre-Columbian era there were no relations in the American continent between «equals» of subordination, inequality and injustice; and as if the Native American, candid to the eyebrows and good by nature (as various centuries later would hold Jean-Jacques Rosseau), had lived until then in Arcadia.
Perhaps, all this article could be summarized with the following paragraph of Tree Hate, written by the American historian Philipp Wayne Powell in the 20th century: “Spaniards who came to the New World seeking opportunities beyond the prospects of their European environment are contemptuously called cruel and greedy «goldseekers,» or other opprobrious epithets virtually synonymous with Devils; but Englishmen who sought New World opportunities are more respectfully called «colonists,» or «homebuilders,» or «seekers after liberty.» (…) When Spaniards expelled or punished religious dissidents that was called «bigotry,» «intolerance,» «fanaticism» … When Englishmen, Dutchmen, or Frenchmen did the same thing, it is known as «unifying the nation».
And perhaps this argument is more correct than those offered by Sábato in the above paragraph. It is true that Latin America is more famous for its miscegenation than North America, and it is pathetic to see how characters like Bolsonaro in Brazil, a manual on racism with legs, aims to end this miscegenation in the heart of the continent, precisely in a country that was not conquered by the Spaniards but our brothers the Portuguese. But abuses were committed in both latitudes, with the difference that the harassment and counterpropaganda was much higher from North to South than vice versa and no longer for a moral question or analysis of the facts, but for the simple reason of undermining the enemy. The example of Hernán Cortés, however, is somewhat opportunistic, if he married La Malinche (I would not be so crazy to enter to assess if there was love or not) it was for interest: having an interpreter and a knowledge of culture is an advantage immense, and to affirm that Cortés was not racist is an absolute daring: it is almost impossible not to have racist behaviour when a new race is discovered. As opportunistic is the hackneyed example of the language used on several occasions: it is natural that the inhabitants of these unknown lands adopt the foreign Castilian language, but it is mainly due to the use of the whip. You can praise the work of the great Spaniards writers and at the same time defend the pre-Columbian customs and denounce the Hispanic cultural imposition.
Sábato, in an effort to justify the Conquest, or to take the pain out of the issue, as if it were an indispensable condition of the human being that this kind of historical events should occur…
«Similar facts could be stated in different European regions where slaughter, plague, rape and torture were inevitable, since the condition of man is like this: capable of the greatest portents and the most atrocious ferocities, as in other words Pascal said it. Let us accept, then, history as it is, always dirty and interspersed, and do not run after presumed identities. Neither the Olympian Hellenic gods, who appear as archetypes of Greek identity, were untouched: they were contaminated with Egyptian and Asian deities.»
…, it raises the flag of miscegenation and flatly rejects the misleading idea of identity as something pure and indissoluble, and in that pursuit he resorts to arguments that are not as lucid as the others exposed, and that sometimes fall into simplicity or sentimentality, see the case of his mestiza granddaughter or that he himself, who feels purely American, is not really so since his family is practically all European (Italian and Albanian in this case).
“This whole issue is linked to the problem of the famous «identity of a nation», the Byzantine problem par excellence. There is a lot of talk about «recovering our American identity.» But what and how? When we say ours, people like me, who consider themselves deeply Argentine, would be eliminated because my parents were European, like most of the members of our nation. Which identity, then? That of the nomadic and warrior Indians who roamed our immense planetary plains, where there were not even ancient civilizations such as the Incas, Mayas or Aztecs? A land that has been made with the hybridization of Spaniards, Indians, Italians, Basques, French, Slavs, Jews, Syrians, Lebanese, Japanese and now with Chinese and Koreans, and what language to claim? It is curious that many of those who propose this recovery of our identity speak in good and long-lived language of Castile, and not in indigenous languages. Paradoxical way to claim the autochthonous.”
But is not he right? If it existed the Reason as the Identity, something that is possessed 100%, in an authoritative and undoubted way. His discourse, beyond discursive traps, of some hasty generalization (as if by the fact of having a mestizo daughter, a high percentage of white grandparents with brown hair and light eyes had to have a family member of another ethnic group) and of fallacies ad verecundiam (Rubén Darío could praise the very Marquess of Bradomín [Catholic, ugly and Spanish], but that does not mean that his opinion is the most valid) is a sensible discourse, which calls for reflection and conciliation.
Ernesto Sábato was the tenth of eleven brothers, the ninth, called Ernestito, died a few days after birth. This simple fact: adopting the name of a dead or being that child born after a dead son, could have marked, since the very first origin, the entire existence of our future writer. Perhaps, if his mother had not overprotected her, if Ernestito had played tricks on him during his childhood and they had had conversations about initiation sex or soccer with him, Ernesto, our Ernesto, would never have abandoned his scientific devotion, or become a priest. This is what comes to say the conclusion of the article, demonstrating the relativism of those who give too many twists to things: of course the Conquest was bloody, but what would have happened if instead of Columbus, America would have remained two centuries more ignored by the European continent? If the Innuits, tired of the polar cold, had taken their kayaks and had lived with the natives of those lands? If the Vikings had found the Canadian lands interesting and would have gone down to the south? In that case, surely Américo Vespucio had not baptized her, but there is no one in charge of writing the History of things that never happened.
«History is made of fallacies, sophisms and oblivions. I myself, without going any further, I do not remember who was the prisoner who in the ill-fated Tower of London, waiting for his customary beheading, devoted his waning existence to writing the history of England, when, through the servants who brought him his slop Everyday, news reached him of a great fight that had taken place at the foot of his prison, information so confused and contradictory that he stopped writing the history of his country, since not even, he mused, he was able to know for sure what the hell there was gone down there.»