Review By Jan Chaiken
The novel Zama by Antonio di Benedetto is a cult classic in Argentina and widely regarded in literary circles as a masterpiece of Spanish-language writing. The 50th anniversary of the publication of Zama was celebrated with a festival in Buenos Aires in 2006. But in the U.S., Canada, and even in Mexico, many of the most enthusiastic readers of Spanish-language novels have not heard of Zama. Americans and Canadians are probably unaware of the novel because its English edition first appeared in 2016. You can now buy a Kindle edition in English. If you prefer the original language and are connected to the internet inside Mexico, you will find you can download free e-book editions in Spanish, in various formats including PDF.
Author di Benedetto lived in Mendoza, Argentina, which even in the time period covered by the novel (the late 18th century) was already famous for its Malbec wine. However, he set the novel in Asunción, now the capital of Paraguay but around 1790 a backwater outpost of the Spanish empire. The author had read Kafka in 1955, the year before writing Zama, and the powerful impact this had on his writing is evident from its existentialist elements. The novel may be described as magical realism, a genre that many associate with the later work of the Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez, who published One Hundred Years of Solitude 50 years ago.
Another feature of Zama must have played a role in its eventual acclaim: it presages events in the life of the author 20 years after publication. As a result of Argentina’s Dirty War, di Benedetto was imprisoned during 1976 and 1977, tortured, and nearly executed. In this dark period of Argentina’s history, many artists, writers, intellectuals and leftist activists were targeted by the government, and an estimated 30,000 disappeared in circumstances still unknown to this day. Zama’s fictional experiences of exile and maltreatment in 1790-1799 were perceived by reviewers as exemplifying and illuminating events that occurred decades after the novel was written. In a similar phenomenon in the U.S., the novel 1984 by George Orwell became a sudden bestseller after the 2016 election of Donald Trump as President.
Di Benedetto’s entire novel is narrated from the point of view of Diego de Zama. Its three chapters, entitled simply “1790,” “1794” and “1799,” are separated from each other by impenetrable gaps, lacking barely a word about what happened in between. Indeed, even at the start of the novel we are immersed in Zama’s life without any of the customary asides to the reader about who the protagonist and other characters are and what events led to the current situation. The reader gradually fills in the details, including the location of the narrator, from hints such as descriptions of the river port and how ships arrive there. The protagonist is posted in a place far from his wife and children, who we have to presume are in Mendoza from the distances and directions described.
Working out these kinds of details becomes uncertain when readers begin to realize that Zama has hallucinations and visions with no relation to reality. Sometimes di Benedetto enmeshes readers in a web of anxiety of their own, partially because Zama is portrayed as anxious and confused, but partially because they cannot quite figure out whether his worries have any factual basis.
Zama is providing income for his family and plotting regularly to return to them, or move with them to a more hospitable location, but alas we never meet his wife or their children. His destiny rests with the King of Spain, but Zama constructs elaborate plots to influence the king through various functionaries who are in the line of command above him or who may have an appointment to see the king for unrelated reasons. Through a combination of incompetence and passivity, Zama makes no progress on his dreams. Infatuated with a view of his past and future self-importance, Zama behaves somewhat imperialistically but, in fact, is dependent on underlings and commoners due to the unpredictable nature of shipments from Spain that may contain his salary in gold coins, or maybe only payments for others.
Zama calls himself an Americano, which for that time period meant a person of pure Spanish blood who was born in the Americas (now we say criollo). This placed him lower in the governmental hierarchy than people born in Spain and posted to the Americas. The novel astonishes with its focus on the details of racial parentage of characters, including different degrees of parentage from the indigenous population (“Indian”) or from Africa.
At first it seems that Zama’s frequent use of Spanish names for all these distinct demographic subgroups (some of which translate poorly or not at all into modern English) must reflect the common parlance of his society. But then it turns out that Zama himself is just obsessed with status; he is criticized by his companions for his insistence on socializing with certain people. In particular he gets in trouble for insisting on having relations only with white women, which readily fits in with his idiosyncratic notion of fidelity to his wife. As his liaisons may be unconsummated or imaginary, or the white women he pursues may not actually exist, the inconsistencies between his principles and his actions are of little importance.
Zama has a remarkable capacity to distinguish between himself at one time and at a later time, or between himself in different roles. He has specific titles or nicknames for himself in the past or in the imagined future. A person who works for him, Fernández, loans Zama some money. Zama rationalizes the situation in this way: “[The loan] had been made to Don Diego de Zama, and not to Asesor Letrado,” who is Zama with his work title. Despite the rigid time structure of the chapters of the book, Zama lives in a fluid temporal frame alongside other versions of himself.
If this summary intrigues you, and you can read Spanish, read the book in Spanish. The translation lacks the richness and unique stylistic aspects of the Spanish, which are probably the main features making the novel a classic in Argentina. But the translation is a serious and scholarly effort. The informative preface by Esther Allen, the translator, shows how deeply she immersed herself in the lives of di Benedetto and Zama. Or, you can skip reading the novel in Spanish or English and wait to see the soon-to-be-released movie Zama, directed by the Argentinian Lucretia Martel.