What I needed was to get away from myself.
I took my small hoard of coins to the horse races with a mind to enlarge it or be left destitute.
I went very early, in midafternoon. The sun was brutal. Only the riders and the judges ventured out under its rays, and even they withdrew every two or three races to be replaced by others.
Those of us with money at stake lay sprawled under the trees at the forest’s edge. None but men were in attendance so there was no limit to the consumption of aguardiente and many stripped down until only their lower parts were covered.
I lost twice, won once, and then, in a subsequent race, lost everything I had won.
Out of prudence, I called a temporary halt to the gambling. I had reason to fear that my wagers might be ill-advised; I was unable to get a good view of the horses from so far away. It behooved me to wait till the sun was lower in the sky. As the afternoon waned, I could go to the edge of the track, which would make it easier to assess the possibilities.
With nothing at stake in the contests to come, I strolled about among the groups and whiled away the time in idle talk. Finally, at some remove from all the others, I stretched out under a palm tree.
Only one man lay on the ground nearby, drunk and fast asleep, his breath whistling. He was an acquaintance of mine: a wealthy man.
I observed the start and first leg of another race. Then I grew drowsy and my eyelids closed.
By my calculation, I slept no more than moment. When I opened my eyes, the same horses were just trotting back from the finish line. But there followed an instant of bewilderment. Disoriented, I needed to take stock of everything that had surrounded me before I fell asleep.
I sought to focus on what was there: in front of me, the test races: I myself, seated here with my back against a tree trunk; the rest of them over to the side; nearby, the drunk. …Something indefinable was alive in the grass next to him, moving toward him. A spider, I intuited, and one of considerable dimensions. My thought was not for the sleeping man but for myself, though I judged the distance between us too great for any such vermin, however quick, to cross—particularly since I was forewarned.
Then I saw it more clearly. I made out its legs, long and very slender, which barely bent the thin blades of grass. Whether spiders with long thin legs were poisonous I did not know. I told myself that they were not.
The spider approached the drunk. From a quarter vara away, these spiders can leap and bite so that if taken by surprise, even a man who’s awake has no time to defend himself. I had no wish to move. I could crush it with my boot but would postpone until the last.
The spider moved toward the sleeping head and I watched to see whether anything out of the ordinary would transpire. Would the man—obedient to some mysterious warning instinct—suddenly awaken and kill it? He did not. Now the insect was crawling in his hair. I didn’t see it climb up; I saw it there on him and then I was quite certain I should do nothing.
It stepped down the forehead, edged along the nose and mouth, extending its legs along the right cheek, then proceeded onto the neck. This is when it bites, I said to myself. It did not bite. It stretched up a leg and perched on the beard. The man’s snoring rustled the hair of his beard. This man’s snoring rustled the hair of his beard, which moved up and down, and I was certain that now the spider, feeling under attack, would bite. There it was, rising and falling on the tips of the beard.
The situation could not go on. It ended in the way I’d least imagined: The drunk gave a swift swipe of his great paw and sent the spider flying at least a vara through the air.
He might be awake now, I thought, and feared some rebuke for not having defended him. But his arm fell back in its former position, his whole body slack with pleasure in its repose. The snoring went on as loudly as before.
I got up to find the spider’s corpse. It had fallen on a patch of smooth red sand, not dead but crippled; the adventure had cost it four or five legs. I contemplated it for a moment then destroyed it with my heel.
I reviewed the episode. At no point had I felt any emotion, except when I imagined the man had wakened and was about to deliver himself of an entirely justified diatribe against me.
From Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel Zama; English translation by Esther Allen (NYRB 2016).
Zama is the brutally funny story of Don Diego de Zama, a bored and horny americano wasting away in the provincial backwaters of Paraguay—the end of the world at the end of the 18th century. Zama fills his time with schemes of lust and petty pride, shirking his job as a nominal authority as much as possible. The passage above is, I think, representative of Di Benedetto’s rhetorical skill—he gives us a deceptively lucid first-person narrator who articulately elides key information—both from the reader and himself. We see here Zama’s continual slip into a Kafkaesque abyss. Lovely stuff.