In 1956, when Argentinian writer Antonio de Benedetto published what is widely regarded as his most important work, Zama, he was still living in Mendoza, over six hundred miles from Buenos Aires. He therefore well understood the position of his title character, Diego de Zama, stationed in Asuncion, now the capital of Paraguay, but in the late eighteenth century when the novel is set, a relative backwater. Benedetto’s own self-imposed literary exile perhaps explains why the novel was not translated into English (by Esther Allen) until 2016.

Zama, it has to be said, is an unpleasant and impulsive man, one whose entitlement exceeds his rank, and whose passions exceed his common sense. In the novel’s first part, as he waits for news of his wife and children’s arrival from Spain, and a promised promotion which will see him sent to more prosperous parts, his impulses mainly direct him towards women. In the first few pages he spies upon a group of women bathing in the river even though he recognises “acknowledging my impassioned disposition, I must shun all stimuli that are contrived or deliberately pursued.” When he is caught and chased by one of the maids, he grabs her round the neck and slaps her, then pushes her onto the ground before leaving:

“With me went my anger, already yielding to bitter self-reproach. Character! My character! Ha!”

First Zama sets his eye on Rita, the youngest daughter of his host, but he is provoked to aim for a new target, Luciana, by the rumoured comment that she has “the most beautiful body Zama has ever imagined.” He enlists a visiting merchant to allow him an excuse to meet with Luciana while her husband is away, continuing even when the merchant falls ill:

“Such was my hunger for adventure and risk that I wanted the Easterner to remain prostrate, thought I did go to the trouble of passing by once more to inquire after his condition.”

The phrase ‘go to the trouble’ tells us exactly how little Zama cares for others (the man later dies). In general he is suspicious, in particular regarding his colleague, Ventura Prieto, as an enemy on very little evidence, and blaming him for discovering a blonde boy in his room one night:

“Without further words, without warning or delay, I deliver him two hard blows. He staggered, astonished.”

The fight ends with Zama slashing Prieto on the cheek, and Prieto in jail. Zama later has him exiled.

The first part of the novel largely focuses on Zama’s pursuit of Luciana, then we move forward four years. Zama has a son with a woman of a lower class, Emilia, but has little to do with either until he asks to move in with them when he is thrown out of his lodgings at an inn, unable to pay the rent. No money has been arriving from Spain and therefore he has not been getting paid:

“Perennially malnourished when not tightly sealed, my purse was held in ill repute, which forestalled all possibility that a household aware of anything beyond my name and position would afford me lodging.”

For much of this section Zama and his secretary Fernandez wrestle which obtaining enough food. The pattern of the novel is now clear: Zama, whose early promise is hinted at in the first part, now seems in irreversible decline. Even at the beginning he complained that, “my career was stagnating in a post that was, it had been implied from the start, only a temporary stopgap appointment.” Now, four years later, all that has changed is that is that his existence is even more precarious; the seduction of rich women has been replaced by a bastard son and his mother living in squalor, and the glimpse of a mysterious pale figure across the courtyard of his new lodgings. By the third and final part – the briefest – a further five years later, he has finally left Asuncion, but only for the desert, on the hunt for an outlaw with a group of soldiers. It almost seems a last desperate attempt to be someone else.

Zama is one of the great creations of literature: arrogant and offensive, he owns his faults, though not without some sense they may disadvantage him. He longs to get ahead but lacks any of the cunning needed to succeed, unable to flatter or kowtow. As his situation deteriorates, he earns the reader’s sympathy, but always with the recognition that he is his own worst enemy. Zama is a historical novel where the history lies largely in the character: prickly and pathetic, adrift at the end of the eighteenth century, Zama always feels like a dying breed.

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16 Responses to “Zama”

  1. MarinaSofia Says:

    To be honest, I don’t think he’s a dying species at all: I’ve met a few like him in my lifetime (or had them govern the country I was living in).

  2. Reese Warner Says:

    I was curious about this novel but then I saw the Argentinian movie made from it (2017) which was beautiful but so unrelievedly grim I’ve been a little afraid of it since…it sounds like that impression may have been accurate.

    • 1streading Says:

      The last section is particualry grim, but if you have a dark sense of humour you may find some parts of it amusing. I’ve not seen the film, but in the novel Zama is so arrogant that it’s difficult to feel sympathetic towards him and the way he regards himself can be quite funny.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I’ve been wanting to watch Lucretia Martel’s film of this for ages, but it doesn’t appear to be available on Mubi (which is my streaming platform of choice). I think I may have to rent it on the BFI Player instead!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great choice for 1956 Grant! I have this myself and considered it, but have run out of time. He sounds like a wonderfully monstrous creation!

  5. Reese Warner Says:

    Hmm. I wouldn’t say I thought the movie was funny at all. I can see how with a slight change of tone it could be, and maybe I missed it since I don’t have any Spanish, but I sure didn’t see it… 😉

  6. Richard Says:

    One of the things I remember most enjoying about Zama is that he’s perpetually waiting and Di Benedetto is merciless about the suffering (Zama;s and other people’s). A strange thing to enjoy perhaps (!) but Di Benedetto writes like Camus in some ways. Masterfully that is.

  7. #1956Club – ready, set, go! – Stuck in a Book Says:

    […] 1streading’s Blog […]

  8. Best Books of 2020 Part 1 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] unexpected surprise was Antonio de Benedetto’s Zama, translated by Esther Allen; unexpected not because it isn’t widely regarded as a classic of […]

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Happy Christmas!

    I read this myself recently. You capture it well. Without spoilers, I’d also say the final couple of sentences are among the best I’ve read.

    Whether I’d reread it though I’m not sure.

    The irony of course is the waiting is really his choice. He starts with a good job and position, albeit provincial. He gets a child in the second section. There’s elements he could build a good life from. It’s his insistence, as Prieto flags, on identifying as Spanish rather than the American he actually is which in part dooms him to the better life all around him.

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