Zama by Antonio di Benedetto

Tank _summer 16_books _24

Translated by Esther Allen
Paperback, 236 pages
Publisher: New York Review Books Classics (August 2016)
ISBN: 9781590177174
Languages: English, Spanish
Selected by Barbara Epler

“Better late than never! First published in Spanish in 1956, Zama is only now available in English. It is as if the dream of Pedro Páramo had never been translated or as if American readers had never been able to enjoy Bolaño unless they could read Spanish. Esther Allen at last brings Di Benedetto’s dazzlingly rich prose to us.” —Barbara Epler


I left the city and made my way downriver alone, to meet the ship I awaited without knowing when it would come.

I reached the old wharf, that inexplicable structure. The city and its harbour have always been where they are, a quarter-league farther upriver.

I observed, amidst its pilings, the writhing patch of water that ebbs between them.

A dead monkey, still whole, still undecomposed, drifted back and forth with a certain precision upon those ripples and eddies without exit. All his life the water at the forest’s edge had beckoned him to a journey, a journey he did not take until he was no longer a monkey but only a monkey’s corpse. The water that bore him up tried to bear him away, but he was caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf and there he was, ready to go and not going. And there we were.

There we were: ready to go and not going.

Nature, as she exists in this country, is so gentle that for that very reason I’m at pains to keep my distance from her. For she is childlike and might captivate me, and in moments of lassitude when I’m barely half awake she may bring me sudden, treacherous thoughts that persist far too long and bring neither satisfaction nor repose. Nature holds up the mirror of external things; were I to submit to her wiles I might recognise myself there.

Such musings were for myself alone, excluded from conversations with the Gobernador or any of the rest of them by my scant or even non-existent capacity for making friends with whom I might unburden myself. The waiting, the exasperation, were a long soliloquy I communicated to no one, as the occasionally rather insolent Ventura Prieto would remind me. That afternoon he attached himself to me – not having sought me out, of course, merely by chance. He remarked that in this flat country I seemed to have been cast down a well. To me, he said it only the once, but to others many times, heedless of what all knew: that I was a fighting cock, or, at the very least, ringmaster of a cockfighting pit.

He appeared as the monkey was entertaining me and I pointed it out in order to distract him and ward oquestions about what I might be waiting for in that spot. And Ventura Prieto, my inferior, pondered, as if seeking to outdo me with some greater curiosity or stranger discovery of his own. He then proceeded to recount one of his so-called investigations, though whether they were any such thing I can’t say, for I suspected him of insinuating comparisons. These investigations of his disconcerted me and sometimes echoed intolerably in my thoughts.

He said that in this very river there lives a fish that the river spurns, and the fish must spend its life going to and fro like the monkey, though with greater difficulty, for the fish is alive and must wage continual battle against the ebb and flow that seek to cast it upon the dry land. And these long-suffering fish, Ventura Prieto said – so attached, perhaps despite themselves, to the very element that repudiates them – must devote nearly all their energies to the conquest of remaining in place, and though they are always in danger of being cast out of the river’s bosom, so much so that they are never to be found in the middle of the current, but always and only along the banks, the span of their life is long, longer than that of other fish. Only when their effort exhausts them to the point that they can no longer seek food do they succumb, he said.

Antonio di Benedetto, 1922-1986, was an Argentinian journalist and writer. Zama is the best-known of his five novels.