‘Zama’ by Antonio Di Benedetto (1956) – 198 pages Translated by Esther Allen
Don Diego de Zama is an administrator working for the ruling Spanish government in Asuncion, Paraguay in the 1790s. His job title is “Asesor Latrado” which I take to be “assessor of trade”. He is far away from his wife Marta and their children and his mother who are at his home in Mendoza which is in western Argentina.
Being on his own with lots of time to kill, Zama gets into all sorts of mischief. He is caught spying on some women who are swimming naked in the river, and one of the women’s husbands calls him “a predator upon honest women” and “a filthy gutless snoop”. Zama considers his job in Paraguay beneath him and he is angling for a transfer perhaps to Buenos Aires or perhaps to Santiago, Chile where he would be closer to home.
The subjects of the novel are Zama’s love life and his battles with those around him. Much of ‘Zama’ is taken up with his machinations to get other women including Luciana who is the wife of another administrator. Despite its potential for his romantic intrigues being played for laughs, this novel is not a comedy
“This same Diego de Zama, not having kissed a body other than his wife’s for years, knew himself to be alien to the purity that fidelity imposed, and urgently required that someone else participate in the bewilderment of his desires, the sharp bite of his reproaches.
So beneath the blur of that evening sky, I knew I was not going toward a luminous or happy love. With what certainty I knew that.”
The above lines are a good example of Zama’s way of thinking. Zama is no ordinary hero; if anything, he is an anti-hero. He is constantly getting into one kind of trouble or another, usually his own damn fault. In other words, he is your average guy.
In ‘Zama’, Antonio Di Benedetto wrote a modernist or even post-modernist novel. Di Benedetto’s two literary heroes were Dostoyevsky and Kafka, so don’t go into ‘Zama’ expecting it to be a traditional read. Expect the rug to be pulled out from under you at any time.
Zama, the man, is aware of his own self-deceptions.
“No man, I told myself, disdains the prospect of illicit love. It is a game, a game of dangers and satisfactions.”
In one sense, ‘Zama’ is a historical novel with the three sections taking place in 1790, 1794, and 1799 respectively. However, don’t expect much historical perspective as the entire novel takes place in this one guy Zama’s mind.
The last section is a departure from the first two sections as Zama quits his administrator job and goes off with a legion in search of the criminal Vicuna Porto.
“A head, Vicuna Porto’s, would be my ticket to the better destiny that neither civil merit, intermediaries, nor supplication had gained me.”
‘Zama’ is not an easy read; in fact I would call it a quite difficult read, not because the scenes and attitudes are hard to understand, but instead because the approach is so original and unexpected, especially in an historical novel. I do definitely believe that reading ‘Zama’ was worth the effort of reading. Several reviewers called ‘Zama’ a masterpiece and left it at that. However the difficulty makes ‘Zama’ next to impossible for me to grade, but, fool that I am, I will grade it anyhow.