Zama by Antonio di Benedetto (1956) translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (2016) NYRB Classics (2016) 201 pp
Perhaps, given the novel’s preoccupation in waiting, it’s fitting that this translation has been so long in coming. First published in 1956, in 2009 Sergio Chejfec (who ran into di Benedetto at a pizzeria in 1985, as told in Esther Allen’s solid scholarly introduction) made a case that the book be translated into English, finally: “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” (see here). It’s finally here, sixty years after its original publication and several years since I first learned the book was coming to NYRB Classics. It’s been at the top of my “most anticipated” pile ever since I first heard of it. The premise — a lonely but proud servant to the Spanish crown stationed in remote colonial Paraguay waits for a transfer out of the back corner of the world, from “being trapped in absurdity,” during the last decade of the eighteenth century — had me hooked. What I found was elusive and perplexing in ways I did not expect, in ways I still cannot articulate, but Zama, especially in Esther Allen’s impeccable translation, was worthy of the anticipation.
While my own wait was sometimes exasperating — each time I saw publication pushed back I wondered if we’d ever get the book — it’s a slight comparison to the waiting our eponymous Don Diego de Zama suffers. A relatively high ranking bureaucrat, Zama has been stationed in Asunción, Paraguay, far away from the Spanish colonial center of Buenos Aires and, consequently, far from his family. The novel begins in 1790, and Zama has already felt like an exile for some time, but not yet long enough for his frustration to deteriorate into despair and beyond. He’s still confident that a promotion and accompanying transfer to Buenos Aires or Santiago is imminent. But the pages open with an ominous and portentous image. Zama is walking down the river to meet a ship, hoping it might have news from his family, when he spies this:
A dead monkey, still whole, still undecomposed, drifted back and forth with a certain precision upon those ripples and eddies without exit.
It’s an obvious metaphor for Zama’s own state, though it contains a startling thought, particularly as I look at it again after reading the book: the monkey, drifting about in this unimpressive section of the river, is already dead.
Zama, of course, is not literally dead — indeed, he has years left as we meet him again in two sections that take place in 1794 and 1799 — but his life is not going to go anywhere. He’s not getting that transfer. He’s not returning to his wife and she’s not coming to be with him. The world is going on around him, to the east and to the west, and he’s stuck in this eddy. He is spiritually dead. We’re witnessing the decay.
In her introduction, Allen says that “Samuel Beckett was the writer whose English I found most useful in making the translation.” Allen renders — I’m assuming in successful attempt to give us an accurate translation of di Benedetto’s style — a man with a mind that is both tightly logical, he is a process man, after all, and progressively scattered, angry, lonely, silly, and crazy. The prose is a succession of fluid phrases assembled together in a slightly off-kilter manner. This is a man who does not admit to vulnerability. Even humiliating episodes with women are told with a protective distance.
But how could she rebuff me on account of her honor even as she allowed me to kiss her, and when she herself kissed me, and furiously? There is no virtue, then, when bodies join, but when lips do, there is? Perhaps so, I told myself. And thereupon found tranquility and freedom from guilt at the remote possibility that I would, in some future moment, have to respond to the accusations of my wife.
The final section is an act of desperation, and it’s one of the best things I’ve read all year. I won’t spoil it here, but read it.