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Center for Latino and Latin American Studies

"A Neglected South American Masterpiece" - The New Yorker

 
 
 
 

A NEGLECTED SOUTH AMERICAN MASTERPIECE

It took sixty years for Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel “Zama,” recognized in the Spanish-speaking world as a classic, to be translated into English. 

“Zama,” a brief, indelible novel by the Argentinean writer Antonio Di Benedetto, is a work of waiting—of enforced lassitude, excruciated anticipation, and final frustration. The story of a man holding out for deliverance from the backwater that turns out to be his destiny (if “destinyisn’t too dignified a word for where character and circumstance conspire to deposit us), it was written by a man likewise toiling in provincial obscurity and had itself to wait decades after its publication, in 1956, before it was recognized in the Spanish-speaking world as a classic. Only now, some sixty years later, and thirty after the death of its author, has the book appeared in English, in a sensitive translation by Esther Allen (New York Review Books). Yet to the late Juan José Saer, the leading Argentinean novelist of recent decades, Di Benedetto’s style was “undoubtedly the most original” in twentieth-century Argentina, and his work “one of the culminating instances of Spanish-language narrative in our century.”

An ardent fan of Dostoyevsky, Di Benedetto is given to portraying states of extremity—of obsession, delusion, wild aggression—but without any nineteenth-century rhetorical overheating. He was a film buff and an occasional scriptwriter, and the narrators of his novels relate their descents into hell in the cool, efficient manner of film treatments. “Zama” is the testimony of one Don Diego de Zama, an administrator of the Spanish crown working in the seventeen-nineties in the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata—a vast territory encompassing much of what is now Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay—and Zama begins his tale with something like an establishing shot: “I left the city and made my way downriver alone, to meet the ship I awaited without knowing when it would come.” The focus tightens on an unabashedly symbolic image, as Zama looks at a “writhing patch of water”:

A dead monkey, still whole, still undecomposed, drifted back and forth with a certain precision upon those ripples and eddies without exit. All his life the water at forest’s edge had beckoned him to a journey, a journey he did not take until he was no longer a monkey but only a monkey’s corpse. The water that bore him up tried to bear him away, but he was caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf and there he was, ready to go and not going. And there we were.

There we were: Ready to go and not going.

“Ready to go and not going” is the purgatorial condition throughout the novel. Zama, a former military hero renowned as a “pacifier of Indians,” has been dispatched to Asunción, in the humid scrubland of what is now Paraguay. He hopes that he will soon be promoted to some better-paid and less far-flung post that might enable him to send for his wife, Marta, and their sons, whom he has left behind in Mendoza, in another corner of the Viceroyalty. Asunción, remote enough today, is immeasurably more so when Zama arrives by boat from Buenos-Ayres (as it was then spelled), hundreds of miles away, and in its flat landscape of “barely perceptible hills” Don Diego’s “temporary, stopgap appointment” will slide toward eternity. In the early nineteenth century, revolutions against Madrid broke up the Viceroyalty into independent republics, and part of the pathos of “Zama” is that the political entity that Don Diego serves will hardly outlast his abbreviated life.

The novel proceeds in short sections, like diary entries. “It was early. I had little to do,” a typical report begins. As a counsellor to the provincial Gobernador, Zama receives occasional distinguished visitors, oversees the odd transfer of a prisoner, or contemplates a petition to requisition a work gang of enslaved Indians. Many tasks are morally dubious—finding a way not to prosecute a well-connected murderer—and others he performs with indifference bordering on incompetence. He is proud of his position as an officer of the crown, and as a white man among native subjects of Indian or African descent. But his obsession with status betrays an insecurity; as a criollo—white but born in the Americas—he ranks below the Spanish-born élite of the colonial ruling class. Aloof even from his peers, he keeps his own (perfectly untrustworthy) counsel, and admires in himself the upright bearing that conceals an “impassioned disposition.” Early on, he tells (or, perhaps, warns) himself that he need only “keep diligently in mind my stability, my post and the duties attendant upon it” to “succeed in disencumbering myself of it—of the post, that is.” The effortful diction suggests the exertions involved for this decorous man to contain “the havoc within me.”

Di Benedetto furnishes the colonial tedium with the scabbarded swords of Creole gentlemen and the patient embroidery of aristocratic young ladies. There are meals of carne asada and manioc soup; parleys over endless rounds of yerba maté; social scandals that erupt at horse races; deadly tropical fevers; and red dust, relentless sun, and clouds of mosquitoes. But this is not, or not only, a historical novel. “Zama” has been described as a work of existentialist fiction, and its protagonist, alone with a troubled mind, is as much an ambassador from the twentieth century as a Baroque-era bureaucrat. As with novels by Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and Beckett, the story’s preoccupation is the tension between human freedom and constraining circumstance. Zama, a man as impetuous as he is stuck, resembles other existentialist antiheroes as he swings between spellbound passivity and sudden lunges into action. But Don Diego never seems like a figure in an allegory, like K. in “The Castle”; or an ambulatory philosophical argument, like Roquentin in “Nausea.” “Zama” induces a rare feeling—to put it as naïvely as possible—of the main character’s realness. Don Diego is consistently surprised by his own behavior, but not as much as he would like. His abrupt acts and swerving meditations have an air of unplotted inevitability about them. He is a character more convincing than coherent, and more persuasive than intelligible.

It must be admitted that Zama is frequently loathsome. With too much time on his hands, he flings himself into tirades and physical assaults. Caught spying on a group of women bathing in a river, he is pursued by one of them and turns on her: “Naked as she was, I took her by the throat, strangling her cry, and slapped her until my hands were dry of sweat, before sending her sprawling to the ground with a shove.” He is immediately ashamed, in a self-centered way—“Character! My character! Ha!” he snorts—only to be outraged when the woman’s husband later calls him a “filthy, gutless snoop.” Zama’s brittle vanity constantly sets him up for humiliations, producing a vein of black comedy that runs through the book. “It seemed excessive to persecute a man in such fashion,” he concedes after slashing the cheek of a hated colleague, the victim’s inferior rank insuring that he, not Zama, is banished as a result. Di Benedetto presents repellent attitudes and actions with anthropological neutrality and savors the irony that Zama’s inferiors must address him as vuesa merced(Your Mercy).

Don Diego errs through passivity as well as rashness. When he learns that the Gobernador has been given a position in the royal court, back in Spain, he is too glum about his own situation to show enthusiasm. Too late, he realizes that this was an opportunity to ingratiate himself with someone who could lobby for his transfer. Other ripe opportunities are fumbled. Much of the first part of the novel concerns Zama’s attempts to seduce the lonely wife of a rich and often absent landowner. After she complains of being besieged by men who desire her body, he disguises his lust as a grand passion. He dissembles too well, and ends up the object of her chaste infatuation; worse, he finds out that at least two other men are enjoying the physical intimacy he craved. “You are mine and I am yours, yours alone,” she tells him at their last meeting, on the eve of departing with her husband for Spain. “And I would have given what you’ve never asked of me, if only you had asked.” A bleak and ultimately horrific story, the novel is not least painful when it briefly becomes a romance. “It was the only visit that ended without protocol,” Zama recalls. “I walked to the front door alone.”

As if to underscore the ghastliness of inaction, both Zama and his almost-lover have experiences of watching, immobilized, as a large and likely poisonous spider crawls across a sleeping person’s face. The image suggests much of Don Diego’s mood as the years move past. As he recounts, “It stepped down the forehead, edged along the nose and mouth, extending its legs onto the neck. This is when it bites, I said to myself. It did not bite.”

Part two of “Zama” takes place four years later, in 1794, and prolepsis—the narrative technique of jumping forward in time—has seldom been used to crueller effect. Zama is still languishing in Asunción. Far from gaining a promotion and a raise, he has fallen into debt and sold his sword and rapier. Meanwhile, the memory of his family is fading: “The past was a small notebook, much scribbled-upon, that I had somehow mislaid.” He has set aside his matrimonial scruples long enough to have fathered a son with “an impecunious Spanish widow” whom he does not love. Zama neglects the boy entirely, but nurtures a hope that his son will grow up to be a hero, as he himself was in his soldiering days, and you sense that his sanity is slipping. Once another man marries Zama’s mistress and legally adopts his son, Zama’s intimate life comes to consist of tormentingly far-fetched sexual fantasies, plus an arrangement with an ill-favored older woman who gives him a few coins for his services, “her unwanted advances a joke played upon me by time.”

In the novel’s short, unsparing final section, set in 1799, Zama joins a military expedition to track down a notorious bandit. He hopes that “a daring feat of arms in the service of public order would place me in the monarch’s hand, to be set down in a position more to my liking”—and nothing in the book is funnier or sadder than this invincible desire for promotion, a goal by now as abstract as God’s grace. Captured by the bandit he was pursuing, Zama is tortured and condemned to death, but not before scrawling a last note home—“Marta, I haven’t gone under”—in his own blood, with an ostrich quill. He slips the message into a bottle and tosses it into the river, this hero of futility.

The so-called Latin-American Boom of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, which made international celebrities of Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Di Benedetto’s compatriot Julio Cortázar, passed him by. Even in Argentina, he was not well known during his lifetime. Argentinean literary culture is ruthlessly centered in Buenos Aires—“that bad habit, Buenos Aires,” Jorge Luis Borges called the city—but Di Benedetto resisted the time-honored impulse of literary young men toward the capital. Instead, he lived in Mendoza, where he was born in 1922, a small city far inland, at the foot of the Andes. (It’s Zama’s home town.) He worked there for most of his life, as a journalist and editor.

“Zama” is the first of a loose trio of novels about waiting, now known as “The Trilogy of Expectation.” (Esther Allen will soon translate the other two.) The trilogy displays one of Di Benedetto’s most distinctive characteristics—his laconic prose. Writers of literary Spanish, from Gongora to the present, have often tended toward rhetorical extravagance and ornate grammar, but Di Benedetto the newspaperman favors sentences as clipped as telegrams, moving adeptly between lyrical, objective, colloquial, and philosophical registers. In the course of the three books, the language grows simpler and simpler, but avoids the tough-guy impression frequently associated with terseness. The effect is nearly the opposite: deprived of rhetorical shelter, Di Benedetto’s narrators seem mercilessly exposed to the events they recount. The narrator of the second book in the trilogy, “El Silenciero” (1964), wonders if his fiancée knows she will be marrying un hombre vulnerable, a vulnerable man. Vulnerable to what? one might ask. The best answer is: everything. The third book ends like this, with an effect of existential nudity:

I have to get dressed, because I’m naked.

Completely naked.

We’re born thus.

The title of “El Silenciero” is a neologism that isn’t easy to translate but might be rendered as “The Silence-Maker” or “The Silentist.” Much as Zama wants a promotion, the unnamed narrator of this novel wants quiet—that’s all. Tormented by the sound of an idling bus outside the small apartment he shares with his mother, by the squall of a neighbor’s radio, or by the noise of metal on metal in a machine shop down the block, he moves the household to a new address. Nothing changes except the sources of the din. “I consider man a maker of noises,” the narrator declares. The omnipresent racket is obviously some kind of symbol, in the existential way: its significance may be that it has none. This calls to mind Kafka’s pregnantly indecipherable novels, but Di Benedetto fills out his quasi-allegorical premise with so many dingy particulars that his narrator seems to experience his universal problem, in what may be the universal way, as a private shame and defeat. A special aversion to noise is patent, anyway, in Di Benedetto’s prose: no waste sound.

The narrator of “The Suicides” (1969), also unnamed, is preoccupied with a darker kind of deliverance than his predecessors. On the brink of thirty-three, he is not so much debating whether to kill himself, as his father did at the same age, as waiting to find out whether he will do so. No doubt alert to the lugubrious potential of his material, Di Benedetto is more than usually matter-of-fact. Much of the novel amounts to a sort of dossier on the phenomenon of self-slaughter. The narrator, a reporter, and two of his newspaper colleagues share their research on suicide: social and psychological precipitants; variations in incidence by season and country; philosophical and religious arguments for and against; and so on. The blank tone, which seems to express numbness and dread, changes only when the narrator and a colleague named Marcela form a suicide pact. The dire agreement affects him almost as a betrothal might. Confusedly reawakened to the world by love for the woman with whom he has agreed to leave it, he is visited by a sensation of “beauty,” as he calls it: “There it is, it exists, it circulates. It almost abounds. Svelte bodies, the young with their heads held high, a face, eyes, colors that descend from the air onto people, an adult forehead, a well-formed hand as it gestures.” The moment expresses an intuition that seems to underwrite the entire trilogy: bliss is possible. Too frail, ordinarily, to be uttered, some anticipation of fulfillment sponsors these calamitous pursuits of happiness and curtly eloquent confessions.

Perhaps Di Benedetto sensed that his refusal to pursue a career in Buenos Aires would thwart his ambitions. “Zama” handles the theme of geographical perdition with the offhand anguish of familiarity. More remarkably, the novel’s concluding scenes of torture anticipate an ordeal that began for Di Benedetto twenty years after his novel was published. In 1976, mere hours after a military coup toppled Argentina’s government, soldiers arrested him for no apparent reason. He was not a leftist and may simply have committed the offense of journalism; another theory is that a well-placed rival for a woman’s affections wanted him out of the way. As the junta set about kidnapping and killing (tens of thousands were “disappeared” in the seven years of the regime), Di Benedetto was imprisoned for eighteen months and sometimes tortured. On four occasions, he was—like the young Dostoyevsky, in 1849—subject to mock executions, taken out to be shot only to be “reprieved” at the last moment.

Di Benedetto was released in 1977, thanks to the intercession of the renowned Argentinean writer Ernesto Sábato and of the Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll, who wrote to the head of the military government. Di Benedetto immediately left the country and settled in Madrid, where he published a book of stories called “Absurdos”; prohibited by his jailers from writing fiction, he had composed them in letters to a friend, under the pretext that he was merely recounting his dreams. The book was no more successful than his other works. In 1984, the year after the dictatorship ended, he returned to Argentina and finally gave Buenos Aires a try. But he had just two years to live. The novelist Sergio Chejfec caught sight of him one day sitting alone in a pizzeria, and enthusiastically tried to engage him on the subject of his work. The older writer told him, “You’re young. That’s why you can believe my work is good. But that’s not how it is. I am delivered up to nothingness.”

Only posthumously has this gloomy self-assessment been disproved. In 1997, the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño published a short story, “Sensini,” in which the narrator befriends a writer named Sensini, recognizably Di Benedetto, who is the author of a cult classic about a bureaucrat in the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. Now living in poverty in Spain, he supplements his meagre income with prize money from municipal literary competitions. Though critics dismissed Sensini’s novel as “Kafka in the colonies,” Bolaño writes, “the book recruited a small group of devoted readers.” Bolaño was one such fan of Di Benedetto’s books, and the posthumous fame of Bolaño’s hardboiled, antipoetic fiction, so far from the surreal and sometimes whimsical tropics of magical realism, may have prepared a welcome for Di Benedetto.

Alfred Kazin, in “God and the American Writer,” stressed an “American tradition of unavailing solitude,” and quoted the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: “Religion is what man does with his solitariness.” The belated arrival of “Zama” in the United States raises an admittedly hyperbolic question: Can it be that the Great American Novel was written by an Argentinean? It’s hard, anyway, to think of a superior novel about the bloody life of the frontier. Here is a white man whose whiteness fails to yield any providential good fortune, and a sojourner in the wilderness of himself confronting the cipher of the universe with religious dread. Americans—in the sense of the word that covers Alaska and Tierra del Fuego alike—live in a hemisphere that was conquered and settled by people who saw it as a place in which to realize their dreams. “Zama” is, among other things, a ringing statement of this hemispheric condition, in an unaccustomed key of defeat: “Here was I in the midst of a vast continent that was invisible to me though I felt it all around, a desolate paradise, far too immense for my legs,” Zama tells us. “America existed for no one if not for me, but it existed only in my needs, my desires, and my fears.”

The sense of matching immensities, inside and out, brings to mind Huck Finn lighting out for the territories or Augie March footloose in Mexico. But Don Diego de Zama isn’t a young man exuberantly exploring liberty; he is a married bureaucrat in deepening middle age. As he tells his story, the boundless landscape takes on a look of confinement, and his New World conviction of a brighter tomorrow is ridiculed at each turn. ♦

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