Antonio Di Benedetto - Widely regarded as an existential masterpiece and one of the great novels of the Spanish language. Written in a style that is both precise and sumptuous, weirdly archaic and powerfully novel, Zama takes place in the last decade of the eighteenth century and describes the solitary, suspended existence of Don Diego de Zama, a highly placed servant of the Spanish crown
Antonio Di Benedetto, Zama, Trans. by Esther Allen, NYRB Classics, 2016.
First published in 1956, Zama is now universally recognized as one of the masterpieces of modern Argentine and Spanish-language literature.
Written in a style that is both precise and sumptuous, weirdly archaic and powerfully novel, Zama takes place in the last decade of the eighteenth century and describes the solitary, suspended existence of Don Diego de Zama, a highly placed servant of the Spanish crown who has been posted to Asunción, the capital of remote Paraguay. There, eaten up by pride, lust, petty grudges, and paranoid fantasies, he does as little as he possibly can while plotting his eventual transfer to Buenos Aires, where everything about his hopeless existence will, he is confident, be miraculously transformed and made good.
Don Diego’s slow, nightmarish slide into the abyss is not just a tale of one man’s perdition but an exploration of existential, and very American, loneliness. Zama, with its stark dreamlike prose and spare imagery, is at once dense and unforeseen, terse and fateful, marked throughout by a haunting movement between sentences, paragraphs, and sections, so that every word seems to emerge from an ocean of things left unsaid. The philosophical depths of this great book spring directly from its dazzling prose.
WIDELY regarded as an existential masterpiece and one of the great novels of the Spanish language, Zama is Antonio di Benedetto’s most famous – and, arguably, his best – work. It is, therefore, hard to explain why this novel, first published in 1956, has never been translated into English and, more broadly, why this author – who occupies an important place in Argentina’s narrative tradition – is not more well known in the English-speaking world. All the more so because the historical and stylistic incisiveness of Di Benedetto’s writing make Zama a timeless achievement, as readable today as when it first came off the presses half a century ago. The author evokes, through the character of Don Diego de Zama, a distance and solitude that recreates a late 18th-century atmosphere pregnant with the philosophical reflection that comes from unrequited expectation. Di Benedetto’s understanding of, indeed love for, silence and his own form of secretiveness was later recreated in Los suicidas (The Suicides, 1969). Small wonder, then, that Julio Cortazar suggested of him that he did not seek the ideological reconstruction of the past, but existed in it.
One can speculate that Di Benedetto’s exile after being jailed and tortured in 1976 under the military dictatorship of Videla stalled a career that might otherwise have gained him global recognition. Indeed, there is irony in the fact that Zama is, alongside being a novel about Latin America, a novel about exile – a condition that curtailed this great writer’s potential. Di Benedetto’s persecution scarred him and, years later, he would tell of how he was never told, exactly, why he had been detained: this uncertainty was the most terrifying of all tortures. Released in 1977, Di Benedetto lived in the US, France and Spain, before returning to Argentina not long before his death in 1986. – GO’T
- The Latin American Review of Books
“[Di Benedetto] has written essential pages that have moved me and that continue to move me.” —Jorge Luis Borges
“Di Benedetto is the rare novelist who doesn’t seek to reconstruct the past to prove a point. He lives the past, and exposes us to experiences and forms of behavior that retain all their weirdness.” —Julio Cortázar
“This year's release of Antonio Di Benedetto’s masterpiece is a literary event of great importance, and it puts an end to an unjust historical neglect.” —Daniel Saldaña París, Publishers Weekly
“Scattered in various corners of Latin America and Spain, [Zama] had a few, fervent readers, almost all of them friends or unwarranted enemies.... [It is written with] the steady pulse of a neurosurgeon.” —Roberto Bolaño, from his story “Sensini”
“[Zama] is comparable to the great existentialist novels such as La Nausée and L’Étranger, but I believe that, given the circumstances in which it was written and the peculiar situation of the person who wrote it, Zama is in many ways superior to those books.” —Juan José Saer
“The structure of Zama is as precise as it is disturbing. Its three chapters, with ellipses of several years between them, contain episodes like entries in an intimate diary that alternate with assaults on consciousness that can neither remain silent nor lie. Thus are readers led ever further into the depths, in an irreparable descent into hell.... The book’s shatteringly audacious conclusion forces us to revise our view of all that has gone before. Zama teaches us to read in a new way, astonishes us with the discovery that we know nothing.” —Raul Cazorla, El Varapalo
It’s been over 50 years since one of the best Latin American novels was written. When the Argentine Antonio di Benedetto set out to write Zama (1956), he shut himself away of for a long time with books on the history and geography of Paraguay, a territory which was dependent on Buenos Aires in colonial times. The product of di Benedetto’s seclusion was not simply a novel of historical interpretation and re-creation. On the contrary, in this misty, far-off time and now-disappeared scenery, we discover the tortuous personality of a mid-20th century hero burdened by existential frustration and conformist fatalism. Former magistrate don Diego de Zama is a member of the colonial bureaucracy who arrives in Asuncion to fulfill the vaguely delineated job as a learned adviser to the governor. For this, he had to leave his wife and children. The first lines of the novel describe the corpse of a monkey floating trapped between the pillars of a wharf, the rocking waves subjecting it to a battle between persistent confinement and imminent separation. Obviously, this is also the situation that Diego de Zama himself faces. The story tells of his civil degradation and ethical dissolution. It has the beauty and force of a classic, but also the attributes of an overlooked masterpiece. To say that this work, like others from Latin American, was overshadowed by magical realism when it became the only literary style of the continent is only part of the truth. What’s certain is that Zama is within a certain timeless, solipsistic mode, which speaks of useless memory and the irresolute colonial past of these countries where nature turned into trauma. Its brief and touchingly eloquent sentences put this work far, far from the exuberant declamation of magical realism. One of the most enduring lessons of this novel is that nature has no prefabricated models; it can be mute, cruel and desolate all at the same time, although it seems the opposite. Di Benedetto makes this muteness and desolation speak a new language. I think that Zama should be translated into English simply because so many English-speaking readers and authors haven’t read one of the best novels of the 20th century. Good books are unique and need no justification. (Translation by Beth Wadell and Scott Esposito) -
Antonio di Benedetto’s first novel, Zama, first came to my attention in 2009, when I asked Sergio Chejfec to recommend a title for Translate This Book! Chejfec’s recommendation ended with these unequivocal words:
I think that Zama should be translated into English simply because so many English-speaking readers and authors haven’t read one of the best novels of the 20th century. Good books are unique and need no justification.For years, it seemed, Esther Allen was working on the English-language translation of Zama.
Ever since I first heard of this book in 2009, it has been in the back of my mind as an important thing to read. I received an advance copy from the publisher last week. I do my best to retain my fidelity and monogamy as a reader, so when I got my copy of Zama, my first instinct was to do what I would do with any promising title: put it in the proper stack and make it wait its turn. But then I tweeted a photo of the book.
And before I knew it I was besieged with enthusiastic responses by some of the best Latin American writers:
So, I couldn’t help myself. Fidelity be damned. I just went ahead and read it.
At some point near the end, it seemed to me that Zama might be described as something like an Argentine Stoner. I know, comparisons like this are tough, but stay with me. The book was written in the 1950s by di Benedetto, and it looks back to the late 18th century, when Buenos Aires was a colonial seat of power, and the land that would become Paraguay was a distant province. Zama is a bureaucrat there, always hoping that he will soon be promoted, be given his back pay (he is kept penurious by the distant king that only deigns to pay his bureaucrats infrequently), and be allowed to move back into proximity of his beloved wife and mother. With some comedy and much tragedy, di Benedetto shows how all of Zama’s hopes come to naught. His life is very much like that of a fish that he describes on the book’s second page:
Along the way, Zama has strange encounters with the powers that be and the women of the colonies. Everything occurs through a screen of 18th-century manners and propriety. At length, he meets his end as tragically and ineffectually as he has lived his wife.
I think the elements, from the tragic life of a bureaucrat hoping to survive to the historical era and the feel of the book, makes Stoner at least a decent point of reference. Of course, this book was written by an Argentine, not an American, and it takes place in colonial Paraguay, not the Midwest, so there are some considerable differences.
And of course, there is the fact that Zama is a powerful novel. It stands entirely on its own. As Chejfec says, it is unique. It doesn’t need to be compared to anything.
Beyond that, what I might also tell you is that the book is quite strange and elusive. It is a “realist” novel that mostly concerns itself with the day-to-day life of its protagonist, but di Benedetto hides profound existential concerns in the texture of his prose, and at times it swings into very bizarre territory. The writing here is amazingly well controlled and measured; so much can turn on a phrase or a sentence of this book. This is writing that is 100% muscle, or, at least, 0% fat, 100% economy and purpose. Much praise is due to Esther Allen for making this book feel so sharp and elusive, for giving di Benedetto’s sentences such a penetrating power, and also for implementing archaic words and terms of the era with consummate skill—it is a translation that feels new and old all at once, and in the appropriate ways. She even manages to make an important pun toward the end accessible to a reader with no Spanish-language knowledge without belaboring the matter.
This is a book that I could see myself reading many times, and always profiting from, seeing it each time as if was reading a whole other book. If my words don’t sway you, look at all the words above of the authors who swayed me. Read it. Zama has been worth waiting 7 years for. - Scott Esposito
When government official Don Diego de Zama begins his account, in 1790, he has been stationed in a provincial outpost, away from his family -- wife Marta, their sons, his mother --, for only fourteen months, but he's desperate to get away. This was supposedly: "only a temporary, stopgap appointment", and he harbors considerable ambitions, and not just hopes but expectations for career advancement -- a posting in Buenos-Ayres, for a start:
Peru was next in the line of my aspirations; the most longed-for, the culmination, was Spain.
But he is stuck fast in this backwater, where he can't even count on his measly pay arriving within months of it being due. The novel opens with a beautiful scene of him going to the waterfront, hoping for a ship to come -- with a letter from Marta, perhaps. There's a dead monkey in the water, washing back and forth, and Zama sees himself and his own fate in it:
There we were: Ready to go and not going.
Yes, he comforts himself that advancement must be coming -- "Assurances had been offered, without mention of a specific date. But the signs were positive". But even as he tries always to remain optimistic, he struggles with his situation.
Among his problems is that, distant from Marta, he finds himself overwhelmed by lust. He works hard at remaining true to his wife, but: "I needed physical love as badly as I needed to eat". White -- though born in the Americas, not Spain -- he also doesn't want to sully himself with women of mixed or other races, limiting his (main) interest to those that are most inaccessible.
Europe is in all regards the ideal -- the place he wants to reach -- and so too the women from there are part of his grander dream:
Europe, snow, clean-scrubbed women wh never sweat to excess and dwell in sparkling houses where no floor is made of packed earth. Unclothed bodies in heated chambers adorned with lamps and carpets.
Impetuous and entitled, Zama does himself no favors with his behavior -- failing to take some opportunities that are practically handed to him on a platter. He recognizes that there is something about him that contributes to his lack of desired (and, so he thinks, deserved) success, but isn't quite willing to take responsibility (much less change):
(I)t was as if I, I myself, might generate failure. Not that I judged myself guilty of this failure; it was as if the guilt were an inheritance and had little to do with me.
His sexual frustration plays no small role in compounding his situation, leading to rash misjudgments. Predictably, too, he doesn't really get anywhere in his courting efforts with the married Luciana -- unsure also the extent to which he is being toyed with. Ultimately, there's at least the promise of intercession on his behalf back in Spain -- but by this point readers can already guess how much will come of that. It's no surprise that Zama admits:
I had only to move forward, farther and farther. But I feared the end. For, presumably, there was no end.
Zama is a three-part novel. The first, set in 1790, is the longest, taking up about half the story. It's no surprise, either, when it jumps ahead several years, to 1794, that Zama's situation is, if anything, only worse
Zama has now taken a mistress -- Emilia, "an impecunious Spanish widow" -- and even has a child with her, but he can't bring himself to set up house with her. His financial situation has also worsened, the back wages he hasn't been paid mounting. He is losing whatever hold he had -- his longing for Marta and the kids, his impatient certainty of career-advancement:
The past was a small notebook, much scribbled upon, that I had somehow mislaid.
He is -- and vaguely recognizes that he remains -- his own worst enemy, knowing when he should know better:
A single word of response sufficed: No.
I wrote: Sí.
Each point seems a lowpoint, and he can't escape or improve his situation:
The horror of being trapped in absurdity.
The horror of fascination.
The final, shortest section jumps five more years ahead, to 1799, with Zama and his situation even more desperate. Always a man of rash decisions, he now takes his rashest step. His early claim to fame had been in putting down: "a native rebellion without wasting a drop of Spanish blood". As asesor letrado, a sort of legal counsel, "he was second in rank only to the governor" -- but over the years evermore distinctly second-rank (his secretary's desk, for example, humiliatingly being put right next to his). His is a passive position -- a desk-job -- but he decides it is time for action, and insists on joining an expedition to hunt down Vicuña Porto, who has been terrorizing the city.
If not quite tilting at windmills, Zama chooses to hunt a phantom:
No one had ever seen Vicuña or had any notion of where his tracks lay. He chose his own name; no one gave it to him.
Just as Vicuña, in complete freedom, creates his own identity (as he demonstrates soon enough again), Zama is stuck in his, held back by the social and political conventions and expectations that define him (even as he also (futilely) struggles against them).
The short final section, this expedition to hunt down Vicuña, is almost surreal in its turns and outcome, a beautifully if horribly conceived final passage for Zama (that of course doesn't lead him anywhere near to where he'd hoped to get). As always, Zama fails to take advantage of what opportunities he has -- and then misplays what hand he is left with, with catastrophic results. Redemption, in any form, -- much less fulfilment -- eludes him even at the bitterest end.
Di Benedetto's detail-work here is marvelous, and the haughty, slightly ridiculous Zama a (horribly) fascinating protagonist with a convincing voice. Di Benedetto shows great range in the shift from longer exposition to more terse expression. The way Zama's limited awareness of his faults -- there's always some awareness, but he's never willing to fully admit to them -- is used also contributes to the story's power. Esther Allen's translation is an achievement too, beautifully capturing Di Benedetto's style, especially at its most succinct.
A small but major novel, and a consistently captivating read. - M.A.Orthofer