Antonio di Benedetto’s first novel, Zama, first came to my attention in 2009, when I asked Sergio Chejfec to recommend a title for Translate This Book! Chejfec’s recommendation ended with these unequivocal words:
I think that Zama should be translated into English simply because so many English-speaking readers and authors haven’t read one of the best novels of the 20th century. Good books are unique and need no justification.
For years, it seemed, Esther Allen was working on the English-language translation of Zama. It will at last be released next month.
Ever since I first heard of this book in 2009, it has been in the back of my mind as an important thing to read. I received an advance copy from the publisher last week. I do my best to retain my fidelity and monogamy as a reader, so when I got my copy of Zama, my first instinct was to do what I would do with any promising title: put it in the proper stack and make it wait its turn. But then I tweeted a photo of the book.
And before I knew it I was besieged with enthusiastic responses by some of the best Latin American writers:
So, I couldn’t help myself. Fidelity be damned. I just went ahead and read it.
At some point near the end, it seemed to me that Zama might be described as something like an Argentine Stoner. I know, comparisons like this are tough, but stay with me. The book was written in the 1950s by di Benedetto, and it looks back to the late 18th century, when Buenos Aires was a colonial seat of power, and the land that would become Paraguay was a distant province. Zama is a bureaucrat there, always hoping that he will soon be promoted, be given his back pay (he is kept penurious by the distant king that only deigns to pay his bureaucrats infrequently), and be allowed to move back into proximity of his beloved wife and mother. With some comedy and much tragedy, di Benedetto shows how all of Zama’s hopes come to naught. His life is very much like that of a fish that he describes on the book’s second page:
Along the way, Zama has strange encounters with the powers that be and the women of the colonies. Everything occurs through a screen of 18th-century manners and propriety. At length, he meets his end as tragically and ineffectually as he has lived his wife.
I think the elements, from the tragic life of a bureaucrat hoping to survive to the historical era and the feel of the book, makes Stoner at least a decent point of reference. Of course, this book was written by an Argentine, not an American, and it takes place in colonial Paraguay, not the Midwest, so there are some considerable differences.
And of course, there is the fact that Zama is a powerful novel. It stands entirely on its own. As Chejfec says, it is unique. It doesn’t need to be compared to anything.
Beyond that, what I might also tell you is that the book is quite strange and elusive. It is a “realist” novel that mostly concerns itself with the day-to-day life of its protagonist, but di Benedetto hides profound existential concerns in the texture of his prose, and at times it swings into very bizarre territory. The writing here is amazingly well controlled and measured; so much can turn on a phrase or a sentence of this book. This is writing that is 100% muscle, or, at least, 0% fat, 100% economy and purpose. Much praise is due to Esther Allen for making this book feel so sharp and elusive, for giving di Benedetto’s sentences such a penetrating power, and also for implementing archaic words and terms of the era with consummate skill—it is a translation that feels new and old all at once, and in the appropriate ways. She even manages to make an important pun toward the end accessible to a reader with no Spanish-language knowledge without belaboring the matter.
This is a book that I could see myself reading many times, and always profiting from, seeing it each time as if was reading a whole other book. If my words don’t sway you, look at all the words above of the authors who swayed me. Read it. Zama has been worth waiting 7 years for.