A Masterpiece of Latin American Literature Finally Appears in English
Antonio di Benedetto's Zama is Here
On December 23rd, 1849, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, arrested and imprisoned seven months earlier, stood in the heart of St. Petersburg with other members of the Petrashevsky Circle while an officer read out a sentence condemning them all to death by firing squad. For five minutes, the 28-year-old Dostoyevsky knew his life was about to end. The first three men were tied to stakes, guns lowered in their faces; the future author of Crime and Punishment was in the next group. Just as the shots were about to be fired, an aide-de-camp arrived at a gallop, bearing a stay of execution from the tsar that commuted the group’s sentence to exile and hard labor in Siberia. Many a biographer has linked that moment to themes and passages in the subsequent works. “The memory of this false execution,” observes Henri Troyat, “remained alive in Dostoyevsky’s writing.”
Antonio Di Benedetto, a writer so influenced he would say he was “invented” by Dostoyevsky, also heard his own execution read out and knew he was about to die. For 18 months during Argentina’s Dirty War, from March 24th, 1976 to September 3rd, 1977, he was imprisoned, tortured, and, on four occasions, taken from his cell and placed before a firing squad. For the Di Benedetto biographer, however, the impact of the mock executions on the literary work requires a more complex calculation. Di Benedetto faced the firing squads two decades after writing Zama, his first novel and third book, which in its growing and inexorable dread, its sense that the present results not only from the past but also from the future, seems uncannily imbued with what its author would live through 20 years later.
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Antonio Di Benedetto was born on the Day of the Dead, a fact he liked to underscore. He grew up in Mendoza, a city of 50,000 inhabitants at the base of the Andes in an area of west-central Argentina that by 1922, the year of his birth, was already Latin America’s foremost wine-growing region, famous especially for its Malbecs. His parents were both of Italian descent, his father born in Mendoza, his mother in Brazil. His childhood was marked by the sudden and unexplained death of his father, a former soldier turned oenologist, in 1933. The following year, at the age of 12, Di Benedetto published his first short story, “Soliloquy of a Boy Prince,” in a student newspaper. He completed a university degree and began studying law but never finished; he was already publishing regularly as a journalist by the time he was 18. In 1949 he became the editor of the arts and letters section of Los Andes, a Mendoza newspaper.
The nameless protagonist of a story in his first book, Mundo animal (1953), muses “Maybe everything depends… on where you’re born, and the inadequacy of the destiny that follows from that. I don’t know. Maybe I should have been born somewhere else, maybe not. Maybe I shouldn’t have been born in this era. I don’t mean I should have been born during the Middle Ages or the same year as Dostoyevsky. No. Maybe I should have been born in the 21st century, or the 22nd.” However out of place the author of these words felt in space and in time, he had by the time he wrote them made a crucial decision: to remain in the town where he was born and keep a deliberate distance from the cultural and political power center of Buenos Aires. It was a decision he would hold to until history intervened to take the matter out of his hands, and it was as peculiar a stance for a person of literary ambition in Argentina as it would have been for a 19th-century Russian writer to stay away from St. Petersburg or for a French writer to opt not to move to Paris.
Di Benedetto—along with a few other Argentines of his generation, such as Juan José Saer and Daniel Moyano—was a regionalist whose work did not seek to circumnavigate world literature, as Jorge Luis Borges and the coterie of cosmopolitan littérateurs in the nation’s capital were doing, but delved instead into the particular reality, past and present, of specific, primarily Latin American places. Most of Zama takes place in and around Asunción, now the capital of Paraguay, but for the eponymous main character of the novel, which is set during the last decade of the 18th century, a backwater of the Spanish Empire. Asunción lies well over a thousand miles to the northeast of Di Benedetto’s hometown, and Mendoza seems to be the hometown of the novel’s protagonist, as well—the place where Zama’s wife, Marta, lives with their children and his mother, “half the length of two countries and all the width of the second” away from him.
Without much claim to cultural prestige or international standing, Asunción suited Di Benedetto’s regionalist impulse, while an odd twist of the city’s origins suited the novel’s enigmatic temporality. In 1537, a group of Spanish soldiers sent out from the first settlement at Buenos Aires chose a bend in the Paraguay River where they were given a generous welcome by the local Guarani as the place to establish a fort. Asunción, which grew up around that fort, would become known as the Mother of Cities; expeditions sent out from it founded a number of other cities in the region, including, curiously enough, Buenos Aires itself, initially settled in 1536, then abandoned, then refounded in 1580—this time successfully—by a group sent out from Asunción consisting of ten Spaniards and fifty Paraguayan mestizos. The mestizos were the result of intermarriage among Guarani women and the conquistadors, who so habitually kept harems of five or six native wives that by the late 16th century the local Catholic authorities complained to the Spanish king that Asunción had become a veritable “Mohammedan paradise.”
When we meet him in 1790, Don Diego de Zama is a highly placed administrator chafing against his posting to a provincial outpost founded a quarter millennium earlier, which reached the apogee of its power at the end of the 16th century and is now, two centuries later, far outstripped by Buenos Aires—one of several imperial power centers Zama yearns to be transferred to. Zama is a criollo, an americano—a Creole of unmixed Spanish blood born in the Americas—and is therefore an anomaly in the bureaucracy of the Spanish Empire, whose administrators were almost invariably born and educated in the metropolitan homeland, then sent across the Atlantic to serve. Those men’s children were ineligible for service even if well-educated and of full Spanish blood; the risk that those born in the colonies might identify more with the conquered than with the conquerors was too great.
As it turned out, this fear was well-founded. It was the Creoles who rose up across South America to gain their independence from Spain in the early 19th century—a movement that Benedict Anderson, in his landmark 1983 study Imagined Communities, sees as a key to the emergence of nationalism across the globe. “Why was it precisely creole communities that developed so early conceptions of their nation-ness—well before most of Europe?” Anderson wonders. “Why did such colonial provinces, usually containing large, oppressed, non-Spanish-speaking populations, produce creoles who consciously redefined these populations as fellow-nationals?” In Di Benedetto’s novel, this revolutionary merging of Creoles, mestizos, former slaves, and natives into a new consciousness of shared nationhood belongs to a near future of which Zama, a man lost in time, never has the faintest inkling.
Zama belongs to no community or class of people. His status in the imperial bureaucracy alienates him from the americanos like himself and makes him an object of suspicion for the imperial overlords with whom he works. His strident eschewal of relations with women of Indian or African extraction further isolates him, putting him distinctly at odds with his colleagues and the history of the city he’s marooned in. His hypocritically vociferous rejection of interracial fornication might appear to align him with a fledgling nation far to the north that had gained its independence from the British Empire just 14 years before the novel begins. But the United States of America occupies no place whatsoever in Don Diego de Zama’s mental geography.
Though its three, precisely dated sections—and the long, echoing silences between them—span a decade of thwarted waiting, the novel was written at breakneck speed. Di Benedetto consecrated an 18-day vacation from his job at Los Andes to it and when that didn’t give him enough time, he went on writing at his desk in the newspaper offices every morning for seven or eight days until it was done. The writing went so quickly because Di Benedetto had previously devoted many months to research. Saer, one of its greatest admirers, has rightly described Zama as a deliberate refutation of the very idea of the historical novel. Even so, it is based on extensive investigation.
One primary source was a 1952 biography by Efraín U. Bischoff of Miguel Gregorio de Zamalloa (1753-1819). Like Zama, Zamalloa was an americano. In the waning decades of Spain’s empire in the Southern Cone, Zamalloa, too, became a powerful figure in the imperial bureaucracy. After receiving a doctorate in 1776 from the Universidad de Córdoba in central Argentina, Zamalloa served as Corregidor—magistrate or chief justice—for the region of Chichas in present-day Bolivia. Then, in 1785, he was assigned to a lesser position in Asunción and had to remain there unhappily for a long while until his transfer to Montevideo finally came through in 1799—clearly the period of his life that fired Di Benedetto’s imagination. Zamalloa’s subsequent fate couldn’t have been more different from Zama’s; in 1811, the year after Argentina’s war of independence from Spain was launched, Zamalloa became the rector of the Universidad de Córdoba and remained in that post until his death.
Another source (as Malva Filer demonstrated in a 1982 study) was the Descripción é historia del Paraguay y del Río de la Plata and other works by the Spanish naturalist and military officer Félix de Azara who traveled in the region from 1781 to 1801. To write the novel, Di Benedetto told an interviewer, he needed to know “the country’s topography, hydrography, fauna, winds, trees, and grasses, the indigenous families and colonial society, medicines, beliefs, minerals, architecture, weapons, Guarani, the language of the Indians, domestic habits, fiestas, the map of the principal city, the towns, rural labor and crime.” The textual sources were crucial because Di Benedetto didn’t visit Asunción in the flesh until a decade and a half after the novel was published.
A Buenos Aires publisher, Doble P, brought out the first edition of Zama in 1956. It attracted few readers but received several admiring reviews, including one in the prestigious and highly influential literary magazine Sur. Di Benedetto and his work were not unknown in Buenos Aires literary circles. Borges had been on the jury of the Sociedad Argentina de Escritores (a writers’ organization known by the evocative acronym SADE) that gave a prize to Mundo animal, and Borges would later express support for Di Benedetto’s work in brief notices and blurbs. Di Benedetto visited the capital on occasion, knew many of the writers there, and became the Mendoza correspondent for the Buenos Aires daily La Prensa the year Zama was published. Still, his self-imposed exile in Mendoza cost him, and dearly.
Take, for example, the remarkable 1,664-page tome titled simply Borges, which staggered the Argentine literary world when it came out in 2009. Borges compiles half a century of journal entries by Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges’s closest friend and writing partner, into an extraordinary record of a lifelong conversation between two great writers. The index of this documentary masterpiece of 20th-century literature stretches over 130 pages and lists thousands of people, writers and non-writers, famous and obscure, loved and loathed, admired and reviled, alive and dead, from every place and time. The name Antonio Di Benedetto simply doesn’t appear. He wasn’t part of the conversation.
To escape the binary of province versus capital that dominated Argentine cultural life, Di Benedetto began traveling extensively, especially after 1960, when he spent a year in Paris on a grant from the French government and also visited England and Italy. He covered the Bolivian revolution that brought René Barrientos to power in 1964, and at the invitation of the U.S. State Department, spent several months in the United States the following year. Di Benedetto was seated in the audience during the 1966 Academy Awards when The Sound of Music picked up the Oscar for Best Picture. Himself the author of two screenplays, Di Benedetto attended film festivals in Cannes, Berlin—where he interviewed Alain Robbe-Grillet—and San Sebastián. He visited Israel, Greece, and Morocco, and took his mother on a trip to her native Brazil, visiting Paraguay for the first time on the way home. He also published two more novels, El silenciero (1964) and Los suicidas (1969). Neither shares plot points or characters with Zama, but the three books are connected by strong thematic threads and have been published together in a single volume under the title La trilogía de la espera (The Trilogy of Expectation).
Perhaps Di Benedetto imagined he could leapfrog Buenos Aires, going directly from Mendoza into an international literary career. Some suggestion of this is present as early as Declinación y ángel / Decline and Angel, a curious bilingual edition published in 1958 by Mendoza’s public library. The intent behind the inclusion of English translations, as the jacket copy explains, was to make the slim paperback a missive out into the world beyond Spanish. It was a good idea, but one ahead of its time; Borges would not see the first volume of his work in English translation until 1962. And the execution was problematic. The translator—her name given simply as “Ana” on the title page—was equipped for her daunting task with a bilingual dictionary and an at best intermediate grasp of English. If Di Benedetto presented the non-Spanish speakers he met in the course of his travels with copies of this slim volume, it can’t have served him well. The ambition for international recognition remained. “I’ve traveled,” he told an interviewer, “but I’d prefer for my books to travel more than me.” He had some fulfillment of his wish when Zama was published in 1967 in a German translation by Maria Brunswig de Bamberg under the title Und Zama wartet. In Germany, the book was a critical success—and sold well, too.
Horacio Verbitsky, a left-wing investigative journalist associated with the Peronist guerrilla group known as the Montoneros, spent a few months working alongside Di Benedetto in Mendoza in the early 1970s. Verbitsky and others who knew Di Benedetto during that period of rising political ferment remember him as quiet, hard-working, socially reserved, and politically conservative. Why, in March 1976, only a few hours after the military coup that brought the generals who launched Argentina’s Dirty War into power, the new government decided to arrest him, and then to imprison him, torture him, and subject him to four mock executions over the course of the next 18 months—that question would remain a mystery to Di Benedetto and to those who’ve subsequently investigated it. It was a historia de faldas, some have whispered, conjecturing that a romantic rival with political clout used this drastic means to get him out of the way. Others maintain that Di Benedetto was being punished for his journalistic ethics, his insistence on reporting the facts of the stories he covered rather than reshaping them to suit the generals’ purposes.
Whatever the real reason, Di Benedetto would not be silenced. He was forbidden to work as a writer while in prison but was allowed to correspond, so he devised a way of including short stories in his correspondence. He would begin, “I had a lovely dream last night; let me tell you about it,” and then write an entire story in letters so microscopic they had to be deciphered through a magnifying glass. In the end, the German translation of Zama served him better than anything else he ever published. Bamberg, the book’s translator, persuaded the Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll to write a letter to the Argentine president Jorge Videla on Di Benedetto’s behalf. That letter, along with the intervention of the Argentine writer Ernesto Sábato, finally secured his release in September 1977. His 1983 story collection, Cuentos del exilio, is dedicated to Böll and Sábato, in gratitude.
Once freed, Di Benedetto, like most who had born the brunt of the generals’ madness and managed to survive, opted to go immediately into exile. He was not unscathed. “I’ll never be sure whether I was jailed for something I published,” he said. “I would have suffered less if they’d told me what it was exactly. But I never knew. That uncertainty is the worst of the tortures.” The short stories he wrote in prison were published in 1978 in Spain under the title Absurdos. With forays to France and the United States—a residency at the MacDowell Colony in 1981—he lived in Madrid until 1984 when he returned to Argentina to reside, at last, in Buenos Aires.
The writer Sergio Chejfec recalls that in 1985, when he was in his late twenties, he noticed an elderly man sitting alone in a dimly lit Buenos Aires pizzeria. Chejfec, who felt an “intense, secular veneration” for Di Benedetto’s work, lurked outside the doorway waiting for the man to come outside so he could be certain it really was Di Benedetto. It was, and the two struck up a conversation. Chejfec spoke of his admiration for Di Benedetto’s work and mentioned that he was a regular contributor to a prominent literary magazine. Di Benedetto expressed regret for his decision to move to Buenos Aires—he’d been better off in Madrid, he said—but had little use for the offer implicit in Chejfec’s declaration. Before moving off down the street, he told the would-be promoter of his work, “You’re young. That’s why you can believe my work is good. But that’s not how it is. Estoy entregado a la nada. I am delivered up to nothingness.” A photo taken around that time shows Di Benedetto bearded, bare-chested, and scrawny, next to a portrait of Dostoyevsky. A year later, just after receiving SADE’s annual Gran Premio de Honor, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Though he won many prizes, in Argentina and abroad, for novels, short stories, journalism, and a screenplay; though he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and was decorated by the French and Italian governments; and though Zama, during his lifetime, appeared in five subsequent editions, and in German, French, Italian, and Polish translations, and had two scholarly books and a doctoral dissertation dedicated to it, and even—a particular source of pleasure and pride to him—a Madrid bookstore named after it, in 1986, the year he died, only a handful of people anywhere would have declared Antonio Di Benedetto to be a major figure in 20th-century Latin American literature.
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One of them was a young Chilean writer who lived in Spain. While Roberto Bolaño never met Di Benedetto and may never even have corresponded with him, in 1997, he won a regional literary award—the Premio de Narración Ciudad de San Sebastián—for a short story titled “Sensini.” The title character is a writer’s writer, a cult figure, an Argentine novelist exiled in Spain whose name—Luis Antonio Sensini—the story’s anonymous protagonist is startled to see listed as the third-place winner in a provincial writing competition in which he himself has placed fourth. He describes Sensini’s entry—in Chris Andrews’s elegant translation, first published in Last Evenings on Earth (2007)—as “claustrophobic, very much in Sensini’s manner, set in a world where vast geographical spaces could suddenly shrink to the dimensions of a coffin.” The narrator decides that Sensini’s is “better than the winning story and the one that came second, as well as those that came fourth, fifth and sixth.” The two writers begin to correspond. Any question as to whether this fictional writer is a stand-in for Di Benedetto is banished by the evocation of Sensini’s masterpiece:
Entitled Ugarte, it was about a series of moments in the life of Juan de Ugarte, a bureaucrat in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata at the end of the 18th century. Some (mainly Spanish) critics had dismissed it as Kafka in the colonies, but gradually the novel had made its way, and by [then] Ugarte had recruited a small group of devoted readers, scattered around Latin America and Spain, most of whom knew each other, either as friends or as gratuitously bitter enemies.
The story ends some years after Sensini’s death when his daughter, Miranda, makes an unexpected visit to the narrator who until then has seen the writer and his family only in the photographs Sensini sometimes attached to his letters. The ending is inconclusive, a quality the story ascribes to Sensini’s work and one that many critics, including Andrews, have noted as characteristic of Bolaño’s, as well. Miranda and the narrator are standing on a terrace late at night, drinks in hand, looking down at the lights of Girona, when “Suddenly I realized that we were at peace, that for some mysterious reason the two of us had reached a state of peace, and that from now on, imperceptibly, things would begin to change. As if the world really was shifting.”
The world really was shifting. Bolaño’s own work made its way—and not gradually—to vast international acclaim in the years before and after his death in 2003. “Sensini,” for example, has since 2012 been included in The Norton Anthology of World Literature. But the shift was not only toward Bolaño. Readers of his celebrated 1998 Savage Detectives know that Los Suicidas is a rare brand of mezcal, no longer in production, which the novel’s protagonists drink over the course of a very long night of conversation. More and more of them are also aware that Los suicidas is the title of Di Benedetto’s third novel. As the generation of Di Benedetto enthusiasts such as Chejfec and Bolaño grew in prominence, a regional publishing house, Adriana Hidalgo Editora, based in Córdoba, Argentina, began reissuing his work. The first of the new editions appeared in 1999 with a prologue by Saer. When the novelists Ricardo Piglia and Osvaldo Tcherkaski were asked in 2001 to select the 24 greatest works of Argentine literature for a series titled Biblioteca Argentina, they included Zama. In 2004, Ejercicios de pudor, a highly influential study of Di Benedetto by Jimena Néspolo, was published by Adriana Hidalgo. The 50th anniversary of Zama’s publication was celebrated in 2006 with a weeklong festival in Buenos Aires.
Since then, a feature film titled Aballay, based on a story Di Benedetto wrote while in prison, was selected as the 2011 Argentine entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Currently, Lucrecia Martel, widely regarded as one of the foremost contemporary Argentine moviemakers, and particularly known for her Salta trilogy—three films about the provincial Argentine town where she was born—is working on an eagerly awaited version of Zama. Long after he and his creator gave up waiting for it, Don Diego de Zama’s ship would appear, finally, to have come in.
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Zama—the novel and its eponymous protagonist—is out of place in time, premature or belated, prescient or outmoded. The delay of more than half a century between the novel’s first publication and this, its first appearance in English, only exacerbates that condition. Zama willfully disorients. Its highly precise, linear chronology throws into question all relations between past, present, and future. It anchors itself emphatically in the final decade of the 18th century while simultaneously refuting that pretense with a language that only occasionally toys with archaism and a narrative style, perspective, and antihero very much of the 20th century. Now the novel is reborn into the 21st century.
There are hazards attendant upon its introduction into English at this late date. Written only half a decade after the 1949 preface to The Kingdom of This World in which Alejo Carpentier first put forth his notion of lo real maravilloso (an expression translated into English as “magical realism”), Zama appears in English a couple of years after the death of Gabriel García Márquez, the writer most associated with that trend—though, like Di Benedetto, García Márquez devoted much of his life to journalism.
Di Benedetto knew well how difficult it was to elude this blanket category that came to dominate the international reception of Latin American literature. At the time of his death, he was organizing a collection of one hundred of his short stories for the publishing house Alianza. He proposed a table of contents that sorted them by subject matter or technique. Among the subheads were “On Metamorphoses,” “Psychological,” “Tortured,” “Oneiric,” “Realist,” “Magical Realism” (he used “Realismo mágico,” a Spanish back formation from the English translation of lo real maravilloso), “Lyrical Realism,” “Fanta-Historical Realism,” “On the Unreal,” “Trans-Realist,” “Objectivist,” “Naturalist,” “Fables,” “With Animals But Not Fables,” “Zoo-Botanical,” “Fantastical,” and “Ominous.” After his death the project foundered and was never published; the caustic attempt to drown out the cliché of magical realism in a volley of parodic counterparts was in vain.
García Márquez often cited Kafka’s Metamorphosis as a primary influence on his work. The first translation of it published in Latin America came out in 1938 and was signed by Borges. (García Márquez’s memoir calls it a “false translation”; the Spanish researcher Christina Pestaña has demonstrated that Borges’s “translation” is identical in every respect to an unsigned Spanish rendering, probably by Margarita Nelken, published in Madrid in 1925.) In Di Benedetto’s first book, Mundo animal, which concerns all sorts of transactions and transmutations between human and animal, the profound influence of Kafka and particularly of The Metamorphosis seems much in evidence, though Di Benedetto would claim that he didn’t read Kafka until 1954, the year after Mundo animal came out, the year before he wrote Zama.
Underscoring the connection to Kafka, Bolaño’s Sensini has a son—unlike Di Benedetto, whose only child was a daughter—whose name was Gregorio and who disappeared into the maw of the Dirty War; Gregorio’s sister confirms the narrator’s suspicion that he was named after Gregor Samsa. That prompts a closer look at the name Zama. In Rioplatense Spanish the z is sibilant, like the English s, which suggests that the name might be read less as a truncated version of the historical Zamalloa than as an almost exact repetition of Samsa. Zama, though, is a Samsa in reverse, a negative image of Samsa, not trapped in home and family but trapped in exile away from home and family. While the circumstances of which he is a victim do not seem to be of Samsa’s own creation, Zama is aware, dimly or fully, and more or less from the start, that he himself is the primary engenderer of his own difficulties and delusions. He might be described as a would-be magical realist who can’t quite extricate himself from reality. In Samsa’s own mind, he truly, palpably is an insect, while Zama’s hallucinations are largely self-induced, which, despite his best efforts to the contrary, he knows. Even his urgent need to abandon himself to love is thwarted by his despairing drive for lucidity and the blind contempt it engenders. The unreal, trans-realist, or fanta-historical aspects of the novel mainly amount to nightmares that are nightmares, fever dreams induced by fever, and a glum form of the pathetic fallacy that leads Zama to see himself in the flora and fauna that surround him. In the last of the novel’s three sections, Zama defines himself in a suicidal act of demystification: “But I had done for them what no one had ever tried to do for me. To say, to their hopes: No.”
What defines Zama for the reader, however, is his own first-person singular—yet another of the elements, like space and time, in which he is lost. His haughty, often peremptory voice ranges between ranting and stillness, dejection and delirium, meandering circumlocution and curtly abrupt finality. The voice even occasionally evinces an ironic detachment from its own predicament, momentarily tempered by what Edwin Frank—to whose neurosurgical edit this translation owes a greater debt than can be told—calls “a certain abject nobility.” As I worked on the translation, I looked for English counterparts to that voice. Certain lines from James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson seem to strike a similar plainspoken yet strident note, at once archaic and timeless: “Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him.” And, even more so: “The great business of his life, he said, was to escape from himself.”
Finally, Samuel Beckett was the writer whose English I found most useful in making the translation. And no, Di Benedetto cannot have been aware of Beckett when he wrote this book. One line from Molloy, the first novel in Beckett’s trilogy, published in French in 1951 and in Beckett’s English translation in 1955, the year Di Benedetto wrote this novel, seems both a perfect counterpart to the prose voice of Zama and a perfect summation of the story it tells.
I include it here as an epigraph to the translation: “The fact is, it seems, that the most you can hope is to be a little less, in the end, the creature you were in the beginning, and the middle.”