Reviewed by Andrea Shah
Originally published in 1956, Zama took over 60 years to appear in English (as translated by Esther Allen), despite having been deemed a masterwork by literary luminaries such as Juan José Saer. Zama is the first and best-known novel written by Antonio di Benedetto, then a young Argentine journalist who had previously published a collection of short stories. For years, it languished on lists of underappreciated Latin American novels and books that should be translated.
Zama is told in a singular voice, that of Don Diego de Zama, a member of the late 18th Century Spanish colonial bureaucracy languishing on the fringes of the empire in Asunción (now Paraguay). He has left his wife and children behind in Santiago. In the meantime, he waits: for a letter from his wife Marta; for a subsequent transfer to Buenos Aires; for those around him to recognize his brilliance and reward him accordingly. (The book’s epigraph reads, fittingly: “To the victims of expectation.”)
Zama echoes other novels of isolation and frustration. At times, the tale of a man far from home, upriver in the jungle and entangled with the locals, suggests Heart of Darkness. The influence of Kafka’s work is evident, too, in the depiction of a slow-moving bureaucracy. In the first pages of the novel, Zama’s subordinate, a man named Ventura Prieto, tells the story of a fish that inhabits the Paraguay River and which spends the entirety of its life “[waging] continual battle against the ebb and flow that seek to cast it upon dry land”. These fish, he says, “must devote nearly all their energies to the conquest of remaining in place.” Zama’s discomfort upon hearing the story indicates how neatly it serves as a metaphor for the narrative to come: “The longer I considered the matter, the more reluctant I was to think of this fish and myself at the same time” (8-9).
The novel is divided into three episodes. The first details Zama’s hapless courtship of Luciana, the Spanish-born wife of a local landowner. He first becomes aware of her when he sees her bathing in the river with her servants. Bored with her older husband, who is often away managing his estates, and titillated by male attention, Luciana perpetually teases Zama with the promise of something more without delivering. In the end, their relationship is left unconsummated and she returns to Spain at the behest of her husband, with Zama hoping that she will use her considerable charm in his favor so that he can obtain the transfer he wants.
Zama’s foibles have more than one purpose: while they serve to flesh out his character and propel the plot (such as it is), each episode also limns the complex caste system that reigned at the time. In her introduction, Allen explains Zama’s societal position in detail: “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.” As was the case with many imperial bureaucracies at the time (for example, the British in India), the Spanish preferred civil servants who were born in Spain to those who were born in the colonies, even if – as in Zama’s case – they did not have mixed ancestry. Otherwise, Allen explains, they ran “the risk that those born in the colonies might identify more with the conquered than the conquerors” (x).
Therefore, in the early scene where Zama is spying on the bathing women, he notices “the nape of the neck, hair piled high above,” and then continues on: “whether it was a white woman’s or a mulatta’s I did not know. I had no wish to go on looking, for the sight held me spellbound and it might be a mulatta and I must not even lay eyes on them so as not to dream of them and render myself susceptible and bring about my downfall” (10). For Zama to desire a woman of mixed blood could lead him to be identified more closely with the locals than the Spaniards, and could spell the end of his ambitions.
The second episode focuses on Zama’s relationship with “an impecunious Spanish widow” by the name of Emilia, whom he gets pregnant (101). Despite Emilia’s Spanish heritage, she doesn’t compare to Zama’s beloved, distant Marta; she is an indifferent mother and a poor housekeeper. Zama’s domestic squabbles with Emilia are rooted in his penury, for the Spanish crown has failed to pay him and his fellow civil servants for months. He goes to live elsewhere, and is soon haunted by hallucinatory images of a beautiful young woman, while Manuel Fernández, a colleague, steps nobly in to take over Zama’s role as husband and father in Emilia’s house. Lost in his obsession with the woman, Zama thinks that “the horrors within were stripping away the daily reality of the office” (148).
In the third episode, Zama joins the legion and leaves “for the north, precisely opposite the direction in which [he] had always yearned to go” (161). Along with a military officer, he leads a group of men chasing Vicuña Porto, a criminal whose head “would be [Zama’s] ticket to the better destiny that neither civil merit, intermediaries, nor supplication had gained me” (163). In a bitterly humorous example of Zama’s propensity to end up on the wrong side of any situation, Vicuña Porto finds him while he is relieving himself in the wilderness, and it turns out that he himself is part of the squadron Zama has been commanding.
The relentless pursuit of his ambition leads him astray by the final episode, wandering in remote and wild territory, battling nature and having encounters with the indigenous tribes who inhabit the area. Allen’s choices as a translator are perhaps most apparent in this third section. In her introduction, she writes about how Di Benedetto “told an interviewer [that] 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’” (xi-xii).
The depth of his research is clear throughout the book, and Allen highlights it by neither translating nor footnoting many of these terms. While in the forest searching for Vicuña Porto, for example, Zama observes that “We lacked fresh meat. One day we ate charquí.” This led me to discover that charquí is dried, salted meat, and that the Spanish word comes from the same Quechua root as the English word jerky. Zama’s vocabulary is specific to the novel’s geographic and temporal settings; on the same page, he describes catching a manguruyú which “weighed five arrobas” (179). The manguruyú is a fish local to South America, and the arroba is a unit of measurement that – while still used by produce sellers – has long been overtaken in common use by the kilo. By leaving these unmodified, rather than having Zama note that they caught a gilded catfish weighing over a hundred pounds, the translated text retains some of the specificity of the original, locating its characters both geographically and temporally. This artful use of detail to evoke a specific time and place is part of what makes Zama such an exceptional novel. While many a historical novel contains lavish detail, the better to highlight the painstaking research an author devotes to his or her subject, Di Benedetto chose to shine a spotlight on a less-explored region of South America.
In a review in The Nation, Ratik Asolan quotes a character from di Benedetto’s short story collection Mundo animal who observes that “Maybe everything depends…on where you’re born, and the inadequacy of destiny that follows from that.… Maybe I should have been born somewhere else.” Were Zama slightly more self-aware, he might well have made the same observation. This seems to have been a theme for Di Benedetto, who himself resided for much of his life in Mendoza, a modestly-sized city in western Argentina known principally for its wine, and who found himself on the periphery of the Argentine literary scene, then as now centered in Buenos Aires. As J.M. Coetzee explains in a review of the novel in the New York Review of Books, that “friction between Buenos Aires and the provinces has been a constant of Argentine history, dating back to colonial times.”
Throughout the novel, di Benedetto uses Zama’s location to underline the discrepancy between his reality, the colonial backwater of Asunción, and Buenos Aires, the bustling capital city of his fantasies. Over the course of the novel, as Zama’s ambitions recede from his grasp, so too does Buenos Aires: the book begins on the banks of the Paraguay River, which in turn leads to the Paraná River, and to Buenos Aires; by the end, he finds himself lost within territory that is largely the province of Indians and outlaws, days and days of marching from a river that might once have carried him toward something greater.
Zama is both a gorgeous travelogue through the remotest reaches of the Spanish Empire, and at the same time, a screed about the social isolation of a single cog in the great machine and the gradual process of resigning oneself to one’s destiny in a smaller (and then smaller, and smaller …) corner of the world than one would have hoped.
Di Benedetto, Antonio. Zama. Tr. Esther Allen. New York: New York Review Books, 2016.