by Stephen Sheeran
It’s a fairly safe bet that you have never heard of either the author or title that I put before you today. In a way this is surprising, given that Zama first appeared in Argentina (in the original Spanish, of course) in 1956 and subsequently earned author Antonio Di Benedetto (1922 – 1986) accolades and an almost cult-like following in South America. Not surprising, though, when you consider that it has appeared in English for the first time just this year, and that Di Benedetto’s career was side-tracked to a large extent by his imprisonment and torture during the “Dirty War” in Argentina. This conflict, which was not unlike the current civil war in Syria, extended from around 1969 to 1984, and saw the extreme right-wing military junta brutally repress communists, socialists, and anyone remotely left-leaning. According to one reviewer, Di Benedetto, an avowed socialist, was likely detained because of his work “as the editor of Los Andes, where he had authorized the publication of reports on the activities of right-wing death squads”
So this is an interesting case of the author’s life being almost as fascinating as the story itself…. Di Benedetto was imprisoned for a year and a half (1976 – 1977) and, in the words of his translator, was “tortured, and, on four occasions, taken from his cell and placed before a firing squad.” This experience marked him for life and at least partly hampered a wider reception of his work. He was released due to the efforts of Heinrich BÖll and Jorge Luis Borges among others (Coetzee), went into exile, and returned to Argentina only after the Falklands War and the restoration of democracy.
Zama is being touted as an instant classic in the English-speaking world, and I stand ready to jump aboard the tout-wagon. It is a thoroughly engrossing and nuanced exploration of civilization and colonialism, and it is realized through the thoughts and perceptions of an utter bounder [Jerry: “Boy, he’s a real bounder, isn’t he?” Elaine: “Yes. He’s one of those bounders.”!!!!]
Zama, or, more correctly, Doctor Don Diego de Zama, is a high-level functionary in the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata at the end of the 18th Century. In his earlier days he has distinguished himself, he fancies, as a Corregidor, “the forceful executive, the pacifier of Indians, the warrior who rendered justice without recourse to the sword…who put down the native rebellion without wasting a drop of Spanish blood” (15). Now as an Aseso Letrado (a kind of crown attourney) he feels the impetus of his career weakening. He has been assured that this position is temporary, but news of any change is long in coming, as is news from his distant wife and sons, and, more often than not, his pay! So we encounter Zama effectively just as his star begins to fade.
The following opening passage, widely cited by critics, gives us some insight into the workings of Zama’s mind and also into his stagnating circumstances. As he stands on the wharf on the river (which is the only conduit to the broader world) he looks down: “A dead monkey, still whole, still undecomposed, drifted back and forth with a certain precision upon those ripples and eddies without exit. All his life the water at forest’s edge had beckoned him to a journey, a journey he did not take until he was no longer a monkey but only a monkey’s corpse. The water that bore him up tried to bear him away, but he was caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf and there he was, ready to go and not going. And there we were: Ready to go and not going”.
Di Benedetto, who was also a screen-writer, has an extremely condensed and economical style. Alert to readers! You’ll probably need a chair with a firm back, because a leisurely read this is not. If statistics were kept on the ratio of ideas per square inch of text, Zama would come out on the high side. But the content rewards the effort. Don Diego de Zama emerges as a relentless analyzer, somewhat petty and irascible, whose mind is fairly agile and hyper-perceptive in all matters except self-knowledge. For, ironically, the reader sees Zama erect facade after facade, make all sorts of assertions about his faith, his constancy, his delicacy, his ethics, but these assertions and poses are constantly undercut by his actions. Whether he is spying on naked bathers, or groping his landlord’s daughter, or disgracing and exiling an innocent underling, or attempting to seduce the elegant wife of a local noble, or taking advantage of the unmarried mother of his child, he remains relentlessly focused on his own interests. Throughout the first two parts of the story, which are set in 1790 and 1794, Zama, under the combined effects of boredom and natural “unslaked” desires, finds himself in a more or less constant pursuit of women.
The final section of the novel, set in 1799, sees Zama’s circumstances further reduced. He volunteers to go on assignment to bring to justice a desperado—Vicuña Porto—who comes back to haunt him from his glory days as Corregidor. Interesting here is a Walt-Kelly-Pogo moment: “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Things do not end entirely well….Those who remember Conrad’s Heart of Darkness will sense some echoes, if not in similar story lines, then in a common focus on themes of racism, imperialism and moral choice in extremis.
Di Benedetto was writing around the time Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez was pioneering the now famous magic-realism genre. While Di Benedetto was not a whole-hearted adherent, there are strong elements of the fantastical mixed in with his very particular descriptions of the surroundings. In one instance, when he encounters a band of marauding Indians led by one Nalepelegrá, somewhat disconcertingly the latter stomps a foot on the ground and transforms into a horse. Is this an actual transformation, afforded by the willing suspension of the reader’s disbelief? Or is this a hallucinatory product of the fevered and malnourished sensitivities of dear Zama? Or is it a liberty taken in translation? [Nope : Nalepelegrá pateó el suelo. En un instante se convirtió en un caballo. Piafaba. Mis carnes se sintieron martirizadas por el terror y no podía, no debía moverme.] Sump’ns happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear!
Earlier, Zama, definitely in a fevered state, encounters three women who might be one, makes love to one of them who might actually be another, has a breakdown, then is nursed back to health by another one of the three, or is it two, or is it actually a young lad who has been shadowing him from the beginning of the story??? Inquiring minds want to know.
In any case, a significant appeal of the novel is that it evokes a shared American experience—not as in the U.S.A., but as in American, North and South. We all have some experience with the consequences of colonialism—whether we enjoy its fruits or watch as indigenous peoples try to recover from it. We struggle with our history. Jean de Brébuf—purveyor of smallpox and an intrusive foreign faith? Or ethnologist, linguist, friend to the Hurons, poet, and visionary? Yesterday’s heroic conquests become in the light of history sad tales of oppression and genocide. How tangled, in the end, are the motives behind “C’mon little feller. This residential school will be the making of you!”
In the figure of Zama we see a South American Don Quixote whose ideals twist and pervert under the influence of colonial racial dynamics and self-interest.
The only copy of Zama in the Eastern Townships may be found in the Lennoxville Library.