Antonio di Benedetto
2004, Adriana Hidalgo
264 pages

WIDELY regarded as an existential masterpiece and one of the great novels of the Spanish language, Zama is Antonio di Benedetto’s most famous – and, arguably, his best – work. It is, therefore, hard to explain why this novel, first published in 1956, has never been translated into English and, more broadly, why this author – who occupies an important place in Argentina’s narrative tradition – is not more well known in the English-speaking world. All the more so because the historical and stylistic incisiveness of Di Benedetto’s writing make Zama a timeless achievement, as readable today as when it first came off the presses half a century ago. The author evokes, through the character of Don Diego de Zama, a distance and solitude that recreates a late 18th-century atmosphere pregnant with the philosophical reflection that comes from unrequited expectation. Di Benedetto’s understanding of, indeed love for, silence and his own form of secretiveness was later recreated in Los suicidas (The Suicides, 1969). Small wonder, then, that Julio Cortazar suggested of him that he did not seek the ideological reconstruction of the past, but existed in it.

One can speculate that Di Benedetto’s exile after being jailed and tortured in 1976 under the military dictatorship of Videla stalled a career that might otherwise have gained him global recognition. Indeed, there is irony in the fact that Zama is, alongside being a novel about Latin America, a novel about exile – a condition that curtailed this great writer’s potential. Di Benedetto’s persecution scarred him and, years later, he would tell of how he was never told, exactly, why he had been detained: this uncertainty was the most terrifying of all tortures. Released in 1977, Di Benedetto lived in the US, France and Spain, before returning to Argentina not long before his death in 1986. – GO’T