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It’s been over 50 years since one of the best Latin American novels was written. When the Argentine Antonio di Benedetto set out to write Zama (1956), he shut himself away of for a long time with books on the history and geography of Paraguay, a territory which was dependent on Buenos Aires in colonial times. The product of di Benedetto’s seclusion was not simply a novel of historical interpretation and re-creation. On the contrary, in this misty, far-off time and now-disappeared scenery, we discover the tortuous personality of a mid-20th century hero burdened by existential frustration and conformist fatalism. Former magistrate don Diego de Zama is a member of the colonial bureaucracy who arrives in Asuncion to fulfill the vaguely delineated job as a learned adviser to the governor. For this, he had to leave his wife and children. The first lines of the novel describe the corpse of a monkey floating trapped between the pillars of a wharf, the rocking waves subjecting it to a battle between persistent confinement and imminent separation. Obviously, this is also the situation that Diego de Zama himself faces. The story tells of his civil degradation and ethical dissolution. It has the beauty and force of a classic, but also the attributes of an overlooked masterpiece. To say that this work, like others from Latin American, was overshadowed by magical realism when it became the only literary style of the continent is only part of the truth. What’s certain is that Zama is within a certain timeless, solipsistic mode, which speaks of useless memory and the irresolute colonial past of these countries where nature turned into trauma. Its brief and touchingly eloquent sentences put this work far, far from the exuberant declamation of magical realism. One of the most enduring lessons of this novel is that nature has no prefabricated models; it can be mute, cruel and desolate all at the same time, although it seems the opposite. Di Benedetto makes this muteness and desolation speak a new language. 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. (Translation by Beth Wadell and Scott Esposito)
Originally from Argentina, Sergio Chejfec is the author of numerous novels, most recently Mis dos mundos. A Guggenheim fellow, his poems and essays have been published widely.
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