Posts Tagged ‘Antonio di Benedetto’

Best Books of 2020 Part 1

December 21, 2020

Rather than focusing only on what’s new, I thought I would begin my books of 2020 with those older volumes which had stood out for me this year. (As I haven’t yet decided the winner of the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996, I have excluded the long-listed books from this category).

My one year sprint through all of Muriel Spark’s novels has turned into a three year marathon, but, in further vindication of continuing, I found it difficult to select which of her later novels I had most enjoyed. In the end I decided on Symposium, her dinner party novel, where an exquisite layer of social satire lies above robbery and murder, which, in turn, rests on madness and hints of satanic influence – Jane Austen via Dennis Wheatley. Its best line is perhaps the suggestion that the vows of marriage, made under the influence of love, are “like confessions obtained under torture.”

Of contrasting tone, Agota Kristof’s Yesterday (translated by David Watson) is a bleak vision of grinding poverty, both in childhood and adulthood. “The full horror of my present life stares me in the face,” is a fair summary of much of it. The narrator works in a factory, the kind of occupation which so rarely features in literature. Focusing particularly on the immigrant community, it briefly suggests the possibility of redemption before dashing the narrator’s, and the reader’s, hopes. Not for the faint-heated, but unforgettable.

My great discovery, in terms of older writers, this year has been Marguerite Yourcenar. A Coin in Nine Hands uses the composition classic (‘imagine a day in the life of a penny’) to paint a portrait of fascist Italy. The plot revolves around a failed assassination attempt but the real joy is in the extensive cast of characters who flit in and out of each other’s stories. Each one is like a disparate note which together play an increasingly melancholy tune.

Another unexpected surprise was Antonio de Benedetto’s Zama, translated by Esther Allen; unexpected not because it isn’t widely regarded as a classic of Latin American literature, but because I hadn’t expected it to be so entertaining. The catalyst for its energy and verve is the unlikeable narrator – arrogant, short-tempered, unfeeling – who somehow wins the reader’s sympathy by the final pages of what turns out to be his tragic life. As with many tragic figures, he owns his faults regardless of his circumstances, winning our reluctant admiration.

Finally (and not yet reviewed) Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes proved to be all that others had claimed, superficially charming but with a dark interior. Full of wonderfully quotable lines (“Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves about her like the fingers of a hand”), the novel is both the flower and the serpent under it. Its author may well become the Muriel Spark of 2021.

Zama

October 7, 2020

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.