“Zama” by Antonio Di Benedetto [Why This Book Should Win]
Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!
Monica Carter is a freelance critic whose nonfiction has appeared in publications including Black Clock, World Literature Today, and Foreword Reviews. She curates Salonica World Lit, which is a virtual journal dedicated to international literature and culture.
Zama by Antonio di Benedetto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Argentina, New York Review Books)
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 80%
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 18%
Primal, erudite, hallucinatory, and brutal, Zama is a novel of disillusionment and desire. Divided into three parts by time, it covers a 9-year period between 1790–1799 in the life of former chief administrator Don Diego de Zama. Posted to Asunción in the Paraguayan hinterlands to serve the Spanish crown, he longs to return to Buenos Aires to his wife and family. Zama is a Creole and because he is not Spanish born, he can no longer hold the position of chief administrator. Originally published in the 1956, this is the first English translation of Zama, an Argentinian masterpiece. Esther Allen inhabits the essence Antonio Di Bendetto that makes this translation feel of its time while simultaneously modern.
Zama opens in 1790 with the Zama waiting for a ship to arrive with news from his wife, Marta. Di Bendetto explains right off who Zama is, “. . . was a fighting cock, or, at the very least, ringmaster of a cockfighting pit.” He is a man stuck in time and place desperately wanting to leave. He is second in command of a small port town with no real prospects of escaping. Women are his distraction and play a heavy part in parts one and two contrasting his base desires with his own high self-regard as a faithful and principled man. His action and thoughts betray his own ego when he spots a naked townswoman bathing and she spots him watching her. An Indian girl chases after him and he beats 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. She curled up with her back to me. Delivering a kick to her buttocks, I left.
With me went my anger, already yielding to bitter self-reproach. Character! My character! Ha!
My hand may strike a woman’s cheek but it is I who will endure the blow, for I shall have done violence to my own dignity.
When the violent outburst occur, Zama attempts to revert to the man he thought he was—upstanding, respectable and dignified. These periods send him further into paranoia and isolation. He dreams of a beautiful woman and tries to find her in the limited prospects available to him according to his standards. He argues with an assistant and then blames him knowing that he will be sent away. Zama’s digression into ill-fated trysts, gambling and misguided suspicion creates a vertiginous existence of despair and longing for what he lacks—a woman he dreamed, his family, his dignity.
The second part begins in 1794 when Zama is near the bottom of his descent. Unable to afford the inn where he lives and kicked out by Emilia, a Spanish widow whom bears his child, he takes up residence at a house on the edge of town owned by wizened shadowy figure, Soledo. Zama’s time there is marked by fever dreams and impulsive behavior. Di Bendetto gives this section a phantasmagorical feel, with atmospheric darkness and tone, straddling between reality and the imaginary. There are two women in the house, or maybe one. They might be Soledo’s daughter or his wife. Parts of the house are closed off to Zama and his dreamlike states muddle his perception. He grapples the visions of the two women he sees:
Immediately I was at pains to seize upon their vision, fearing it would flow from my head without leaving any clear or lasting impression. The thing was not palpable or real. It was . . . an absence. Yes. What was missing, behind the glass panes, was a pink dress. The young woman wore pink.
The other woman, who had passed in front of me a moment earlier, was dressed in green.
Therefore it was not the same woman. There had been no time for a change of clothes.”
His position and his private life intersect when his new secretary, Manuel, marries Emilia and becomes the father of Zama’s son as a token of friendship. By the end of this section, Zama is recovering from a sickness under the care of Manuel and Emilia. As he ventures back to Soledo’s, he is presented with the reality that Soledo, the women and servants have all moved to Brazil weeks ago. Without a home, a family or money, he is forced to accept years have passed and his life has only become worse.
The third part opens in 1799 with Zama and Captain Parilla leading men across the flatlands to capture Vicuña Porto, a famed bandit. Zama’s existential crisis is all he has along with his hopes that this capture might award him favor with the king. Zama is the only one who knows what Porto looks like have served with him many years earlier. Eventually Zama ends up the prisoner and is left to meet his fate alone.
Di Bendetto presents a violent, tortured character so flawed and unlikeable yet utterly compelling, it’s difficult to ignore this works brilliance. Di Bendetto, a contemporary of Jorge Luis Borges, is an underserved writer whose own life is novel-worthy as well outlined by Esther Allen in her preface. Under two hundred pages, Zama feels like we have read a colonial epic. In the end a man becomes victim to his own expectations:
As I cursed the havoc within me, I felt its power. My blood’s yearning defied my bridle. I had to contain myself, punish myself.