Antonio di Benedetto’s Nest in the Bones (Book acquired, 12 Nov. 2022)

Indie Archipelago had a nice online sale the other week, so I ordered Nest in the Bones, a collection of stories by Antonio di Benedetto (translated by Martina Broner). Archipelago’s jacket copy:

Antonio Di Benedetto wrote with constant poetic innovationHis genre-defying stories, often dark and unexpectedly moving, explore the space between imagination and reality, tragedy and melodrama, civilization and barbarism. Nest in the Bones attests to Di Benedetto’s mastery of the short form as well as his impressive range across genres and stylesDi Benedetto was a writer’s writer, admired by Julio Cortázar, Roberto Bolaño, and Ricardo Piglia, who counted Di Benedetto, next to Borges, as one of the two great models of Latin American literature.

From “The Guide Dog of Hermosilla” (read the full story at Harper’s):

On my regular route, from the office to my room, from my room to the office, I go through the pedestrian tunnel that opens up at Goya, sneaks under Calle Doctor Esquerdo, and emerges in front of the honey shop. Around the corner, on the street lined with what once were gaslights, is where I live.

Where the tunnel flattens under the avenue and the buses, where the sound goes dead, was the dog. In winter I would see him wrapped in a blanket.

His owner most often lay dozing on the ground. He didn’t parade the dog; nor did he play the violin or accordion, as so many do; nor did he display a sign asking for public charity: “I am unemployed, my wife is dead, I have six children, my shack burned down.” His hat, upside down on the ground, did all the work.

I found his understated style interesting, and I admired the patience of the dog, who was probably fed only occasionally with food bought from the daily gathering of pesetas.

But I didn’t care enough to give them anything.

Not toward peace | On Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary

“I don’t live well,” the unnamed narrator of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary tells the young woman he will soon marry. “The excuse isn’t clear to her, though she tries to follow its meaning,” he continues, this time to the reader. While the narrator seems, on the surface, a man with a good job as a clerk who lives in a respectable house with his mother, he doesn’t live well—the adverb modifies the verb live in a literal, visceral sense: our hero is an anxious wreck who cannot tune in to the modern condition. He “can’t sleep or eat or read or speak in the chaos of sound” that is the modern, post-war condition.

And that is the central problem of The Silentiary: the chaos of sound. Set in an unnamed, rapidly-growing Latin American city in the early 1950s, Di Benedetto’s 1964 novel belongs to the same canon of Kafkaesque, existentialist postwar novels like Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Like those novels, The Silentiary follows the nonadventures of a disaffected young man out of tune with his society.

There’s no need to summarize The Silenciary at length. The narrator works in an office, has a crush on his neighbor but ends up marrying her friend, and converses with his flighty philosophical foil, Besarion. He also dreams of completing a novel (to be called The Roof), but alas can never set about even getting started because of the “chaos of sound” that ever encroaches upon him. And that is the real plot of The Silentiary: our poor hero is ever retreating from modernity’s cacophony, only to find new, louder sounds piercing his repose.

His attempts to evade noise are simultaneously mundane and absurd. At one point, he’s schlepping around an old piano that no one can play (symbol of his mother’s middle-class respectability) like a giant anchor, trying to jam it into small quarters. Another sequence finds him moving to a small town, only to end up with a tragic punchline. He’s moved next door to a blacksmith: “Forge and bellows, the anvil and its hammers.”

The narrator’s wife loves him without understanding him, but he finds a confessor in his friend Besarion. This enigmatic character pops in and out of the novel, engaging in puzzling dialogues with the narrator, who is wary and possibly jealous of his friend: “He’s free. He has managed to make his life a long digression, or a kind of multiple metaphor.” Years ago, before the narrator had married and before Besarion had gone on a series of religious travels, he had diagnosed the narrator thusly: “Your quest against noise is metaphysical.” Upon return though, Besarion ironizes that diagnosis, stating that even though his friend believes that his “adventure is metaphysical,” it is actually “physiological, or psychic, or nervous.” This can’t relieve the narrator’s pain though: the chaos of noise “won’t let me exist,” he protests. Besarion solemnly tells him, “Bear up. Make do.”

For all its seriousness, The Silentiary is often a funny, wry novel. Consider the narrator’s description of the automechanics who’ve moved next door: “They seem to have abandoned themselves entirely to their passion for the hygiene of all that has four wheels and an engine.” Or our anxious guy getting dyspepsia: “The food I ingest at lunch does not resign itself to its destiny.”

The phrasing in such moments recalls Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel Zama, also ably translated by Esther Allen. Again, Allen captures something crisp and wry, subtle and precise that is surely native to Di Benedetto’s prose. The results are often beautiful, like in a strange little haiku-like moment early in the novel:

Last night the big gray cat of my childhood came to me.

I told him that noise stalks and harries me.

Slowly, intensely, he cast his animal, companionable gaze upon me.

Or the beautiful phrasing of another strange moment:

…I come across a photo of the lion tamer we dined with after the circus performance.

The tamer’s mane is as untamed as ever, in all the dishevelment of bad nights to which no comb can offer a morning remedy. He’s under double guard.

Lovely!

Yet for all its humor and beauty, The Silentiary is ultimately a sad, though never dour, read. The novel does not wax elegaic for a romanticized, quieter past, nor does it call to make peace with cacophony. There’s only Besarion’s stern intonation to “Bear up [and] Make do.” We’ve the portrait of one man who cannot escape or mute the chaos of sound. Ultimately, he cannot bear up and make do. So he resists, becoming a martyr for silence…but it doesn’t end well. The novel concludes darkly: “The night flows on…and not toward peace.” Recommended.

Sunday equinox blog | Atlanta, Di Benedetto, a Paley poem, ghosting William S. Burroughs, etc.

My spring break, which is to say the spring break of the community college which employs me to teach English, rarely coincides with my children’s spring break, but this year it did, and we took full advantage, spending a week in Atlanta. We stayed in Inman Park, enjoying the BeltLine and the city’s vibe in general. Airport aside, I hadn’t been to Atlanta in twenty years, and I took pleasure in our week there. (I dug the High Museum in particular, and shared some favorites from our visit on Twitter.)

I can’t remember the last time I visited a city and didn’t buy a book. A Capella Books was a short walk from our place; it’s a small, well-curated bookshop with a limited selection. A Capella offered a number of signed books by musicians, including Billy Bragg and Chris Frantz. I thought I might regret not picking up a signed copy of Frantz’s memoir Remain in Love (which I read last year), but I feel no regret as I type this sentence. I also visited Posman Books at Ponce Market. It veers close to something like a tasteful gift shop/stationery joint, but the small fiction and poetry selection is pretty good, even if a lot of it is shelf candy. I think if I’d been willing to drive farther out I might’ve found some deeper cuts. (My wife pointed out that our local used bookstore, 1.1 miles away, has utterly spoiled me.)

Anyway: No books acquired in Atlanta. (I did buy some records though: Fat Mattress’s debut and Fleetwood Mac’s Heroes Are Hard to Find.)

I brought Esther Allen’s new translation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary with me to reread on the trip. I read it back in January, dogeared it, and started a review, but found that I wanted to let it settle a bit. I liked it the first time round, but the reread revealed a sadder, deeper novel than I had initially estimated.

Other stuff I’ve been reading:

Grace Paley’s late collection of poems, Fidelity. Grand stuff. Sample:

I’ve also been picking through Helen Moore Barthelme’s biography Donald Barthelme: Genesis of a Cool Sound, although there’s nothing particularly revelatory about it.

I picked up the Paley and Barthelme when I swung by our campus library to get Don’t Hide the Madness, a series of conversations between Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Burroughs is getting pretty close to the end of his life here, and Ginsberg seems to want to get him to further cement a cultural legacy through a late oral autobiography. Burroughs repeatedly derails these attempts though, which is hilarious. Burroughs talks about whatever comes to mind (often his guns). The cover by Robert Crumb is worth sharing:

I initially requested the Burroughs book because I’ve been rereading Cities of the Red Night—and absolutely loving it—and I was trying to figure out who it was who may or may not have played a role in ghostwriting the book with Burroughs. Cities is straighter than much of Burroughs’ work—but it’s still thoroughly Burroughsian. It’s entirely possible that a straighter hand cobbled Burroughs’ images and fragments together, at least to some extent, although I think it’s erroneous to refer to the novel as ghostwritten. As far as I can tell, the claim originates with Dennis Cooper’s obituary in the October 1997 issue of Spin:

My initial guess was that Cooper here insinuates that Victor Bockris helped arrange Cities of the Red Night. Bockris was around Burroughs a lot when Burroughs was working on Cities; however, Bockris suggests that it was Burroughs who corrected his prose:

From 1979 to 1981, I had the privilege of working with William Burroughs (aged sixty-five to sixty-seven) editing two books: my portrait With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker (St. Martins, 1996), and his selected essays, The Adding Machine (Arcade, 1996). At the same time, Burroughs was finishing his long-awaited novel, Cities of the Red Night (Holt, 1981), which would inaugurate a whole new person and period in his career, opening the doors to sixteen highly productive, positive years (1981-97) writing, painting, acting, performing, recording. Consequently, I suppose I am one of the ten to twelve people who ever got close enough to Bill professionally to see into his writing center. When I gave him the manuscript of With William Burroughs (75 percent of which was taped dialogue of conversations between Burroughs and fifteen other celebrities), he not only corrected the sometimes atrocious writing, he added a handful of precious inserts.

More digging seems to suggest that it was the artist Steven Lowe who helped Burroughs arrange Cities. Rick Castro’s appreciation of Lowe goes as far as to assert that, Lowe “was a ghostwriter for Burroughs, assisting on Cities of the Red NightJunkie, and a few other titles.”

Ultimately, I agree with Jamie Russell in Queer Burroughs (2001), that

The rumor that the post-Red Night trilogy texts were partly ghostwritten is perhaps…more of a compliment than the criticism it was intended to be, since it highlights Burroughs’ central theme of the 1980s and 1990s texts: the creation of a post-corporeal real. Who needs a body to write with anyway?

Typing that out, I realize that I’ve inserted an entirely different post into this Sunday equinox post. Oh well.

I love Cities of the Red Night—it’s funny and gross and oddly sweet and even sentimental, an ironic pastiche of the so-called “boys books” genre, as well as a howl against war, conformity, and the military-industrial-entertainment complex. The novel it most reminds me of (apart from other Burroughs’ novels) is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.

I’m also, thanks to the audiobook, into the third section of Marlon James’ Moon Witch, Spider King. The second section focused on the protagonist Sogolon’s domestic life. Frankly, the section sags, although I understand that it likely girds the emotional core of the events to come. The novel pivots dramatically in section three, “Moon Witch.” Sogolon has lost her memory, and is in a strange sunken city centuries in the future. That’s the good shit. More thoughts to come.

 

Antonio di Benedetto’s The Silentiary (Book acquired, 6 Jan. 2022)

This afternoon I finally jumped in to Esther Allen’s new translation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary (the original title, El silenciero means something like “the silencer,” I think). We have an unnamed narrator living in an unnamed Latin America in a not-entirely unspecified time (“as of the late postwar era”). Our narrator is an office worker who lives with his mother. He dreams of being a writer and is in love with a neighbor. He despises noise, which is too bad because an autoshop has just opened up right next to his bedroom wall.

There’s a Kafkaesque vibe to The Silentiary—everything’s a bit uncanny, a wavelength off. The narrator is a wavelength off, I suppose. The prose is sometimes crisp and economic, and then zips out into wonderfully estranging images, like this odd sentence just a few pages in:

At dawn, the daylight a glaze of watery milk on the widowpanes, as my mind, jerked into a state of alertness, discerns a noise attached to the rear wall of my room, something like my heart grows agitated within me.

Or this little moment, longer than a haiku but still in the same spirit:

Last night the big gray cat of my childhood came to me.

I told him that noise stalks and harries me.

Slowly, intensely, he cast his animal, companionable gaze upon me.

It took me a few dozen pages to attune to the humor of The Silentiary. It’s just as odd and dry as the dark humor in Di Benedetto’s 1965 novel Zama,  but again, a wavelength off, a different flavor from the same palate. An episode of drinking that ends with our narrator carried home by his fellows is particularly entertaining. When I type out the description the bit seems hardly subtle. But it is.

More thoughts to come, but for now here’s NYRB’s blurb:

The Silentiary takes place in a nameless Latin American city during the early 1950s. A young man employed in middle management entertains an ambition to write a book of some sort. But first he must establish the necessary precondition, which the crowded and noisily industrialized city always denies him, however often he and his mother and wife move in search of it. He thinks of embarking on his writing career with something simple, a detective novel, and ponders the possibility of choosing a victim among the people he knows and planning a crime as if he himself were the killer. That way, he hopes, his book might finally begin to take shape.

The Silentiary, along with Zama and The Suicides, is one of the three thematically linked novels by Di Benedetto that have come to be known as the Trilogy of Expectation, after the dedication “To the victims of expectation” in Zama. Together they constitute, in Juan José Saer’s words, “one of the culminating moments of twentieth-century narrative fiction in Spanish.”

Let me recommend Antonio di Benedetto’s overlooked novel Zama

Let me recommend a novel for you.

The novel is Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama.

Zama was first published in Argentina in 1956.

NYRB published Esther Allen’s English translation in 2016. It is excellent.

What is Zama about?

Zama tells the brutally funny and often sad story of Don Diego de Zama, a bored and horny americano wasting away in the provincial backwaters of Paraguay. It’s the end of the world at the end of the 18th century, and there’s not a lot to do. Zama fills his time with schemes of lust and petty pride, shirking his job as a nominal governmental authority. He longs to be reunited with his wife and family in Buenos Aires, but seems to sabotage every opportunity to get back to them. He also longs for his glory days as a corregidor, putting down “the native rebellion” in the service of Spain’s imperial project. Zama is a confusing and confused character, frequently frustrating but also oddly sympathetic. He is a loser who does not seem to see that he is a loser, although life gives him every opportunity to come to this conclusion. As South African novelist J.M. Coetzee’s  puts it in his excellent in-depth review of the novel:

[Zama] is vain, maladroit, narcissistic, and morbidly suspicious; he is prone to accesses of lust and fits of violence, and endowed with an endless capacity for self-deception.

He is also the author of himself, in a double sense. First, everything we hear about him comes from his own mouth, including such derogatory epithets as “swaggering” and “dogslayer,” which suggest a certain ironic self-awareness. Second, his day-to-day actions are dictated by the promptings of his unconscious, or at least his inner self, over which he makes no effort to assert conscious control. His narcissistic pleasure in himself includes the pleasure of never knowing what he will get up to next, and thus of being free to invent himself as he goes along.

Coetzee captures the joy of reading Zama in those last few lines: It’s the joy in watching a first-person perspective invent itself in shambling picaresque adventures born of sheer boredom. It’s the pleasure of seeing an asshole who refuses to acknowledge that he is an asshole try to pretend that he is not an asshole—all in a kind of language that is simultaneously romantic and flat.

Let me give you a taste of that language, reader. Here are the opening bars of the novel:

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 harbor have always been where they are, a quarter-league farther upriver.

I observed, among 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 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.

The ship that won’t come in, the floating dead monkey, the state of unknowing—these abject and negative motifs are the paradoxical genesis of the novel. The clipped repetitions, culminating in “Ready to go and not going” recall Samuel Beckett, whom translator Esther Allen acknowledges as “a perfect counterpoint to the prose voice of Zama” in her introduction.

In addition to Beckett, easy points of comparison are Dostoevsky, Camus, Borges, and especially Kafka. In his perceptive analysis of Zama, critic Benjamin Kunkel points out the novel’s existential core, absurdist peripheries, and realistic contours:

As with novels by Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and Beckett, the story’s preoccupation is the tension between human freedom and constraining circumstance. Zama, a man as impetuous as he is stuck, resembles other existentialist antiheroes as he swings between spellbound passivity and sudden lunges into action. But Don Diego never seems like a figure in an allegory, like K. in The Castle; or an ambulatory philosophical argument, like Roquentin in Nausea. Zama induces a rare feeling—to put it as naïvely as possible—of the main character’s realness. Don Diego is consistently surprised by his own behavior, but not as much as he would like. His abrupt acts and swerving meditations have an air of unplotted inevitability about them. He is a character more convincing than coherent, and more persuasive than intelligible.

These lifelike moments of “unplotted inevitability” are enthralling. Di Benedetto doesn’t just show us Zama seeing, he shows us Zama seeing what he is seeing. He shows us consciousness at work—or rather, consciousness in distress. In a representative passage which can stand alone as a bizarre parable in search of a moral, Zama, having lost all his money betting on horses, awakes from a drunken stupor to witness a spider crawling on a fellow drunkard: 

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.

The episode continues in this way, building in tension as the large spider crawls over the man’s face while Zama remains inert and fascinated by his own inertia—until the drunken man absently bats the spider from his face. Zama is paradoxically stunned by this anticlimax:

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.

The passage is 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. Zama refuses to name his intense desire to see the spider bite the man. Additionally, his emotional identification is bound to righteous anger, the righteous anger appropriate to the would-be-bitten drunkard. Instead of genuine pathos, Zama would usurp this man’s self-righteous anger, the anger that he feels all the time at his (literal and figurative) position in life. But the spider bite that would license self-righteousness never comes. Basically, Zama just wants something to happen.

And that’s the plot of Zama, more or less. Our (anti-)hero’s picaresque jabs at adventure and romance are sent awry or thwarted, usually by his own loutish passions. Zama’s would-be escapades unravel, that is, until the book’s final section, 1799

–Okay, let me digress momentarily: Zama, a slim 200 pages, is structured into three sections: 17901794, and 1799. The connective tissue between these sections hangs transparent, nearly invisible, but nevertheless accessible via small clues, motifs, scant threads. Di Benedetto gives us modernism in the last decade of the 18th century, boredom that tiptoes around the abyss of insanity. Rereading the three sections is a joy. But let me return to the central thread—

Zama’s would-be adventures unravel or collapse until the book’s final section, 1799, when Di Benedetto puts our hero in genuine harm’s way (and cunningly exfiltrates any opportunity for overt heroism on Zama’s part). The novel earns its drive toward what I take to be its central question: “Do you want to live?”

Di Benedetto hides his answer to this question not so much in the central figure Zama, but rather in Zama’s put-upon secretary, his mozo Manuel Fernández. Fernández is, at least for me, the secret star of the novel. When we first meet Fernández, Zama joins in gently mocking him at the lead of their boss, the governor. They tease Fernández when he tells them that he is writing a novel. “Make sons, Manuel, not books,” admonishes the governor, but the clerk replies: “I want to realize myself in myself…Children realize themselves, but whether for good or ill we don’t know. Books are made only for truth and beauty.” Later, Zama, in more of a ruse than in good faith, asks Fernández to read some of his book. He finds the “entangled” prose “incomprehensible,” to which Fernández replies: “the first man and the first lizard were each incomprehensible, as well, to all those who surrounded them.” Fernández declares that he writes for “no master.” If he has no audience today, his pages will be understood by his “grandchildren’s grandchildren…Things will be different then.” Later, Fernández reveals that he’s given away his manuscript to an old man, a stranger suffering boredom while waiting for a delayed ship to take him somewhere other than the end of the world.

Fernández sees himself as an author doomed to obscurity in the present, an author who awaits a future that will catch up to his originary vision. Perhaps it’s a bit much to suggest he’s a stand-in for Di Benedetto, but there are traces here. Above, I cited Benjamin Kunkel’s essay on Zama“A Neglected South American Masterpiece,” and J.M. Coetzee’s review, “A Great Writer We Should Know.” Those titles point to the novel’s obscurity, an obscurity which I sense is now being (if in increments) reversed. Esther Allen’s English translation obviously opens Zama to an even wider audience, and Argentine director Lucrecia Martel is apparently adapting the novel to film. But it’s perhaps Roberto Bolaño, a writer who time caught up to, however too late, who helped guide new readers—however obscurely—to Zama. In Bolaño’s 1997 short story “Sensini,” the titular character is a clear transposition of Di Benedetto, a cult author, a writer’s writer:

The novel was the kind of book that circulates by word of mouth. Entitled Ugarte, it was about a series of moments in the life of Juan de Ugarte, a bureaucrat in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata at the end of the eighteenth century. Some (mainly Spanish) critics had dismissed it as Kafka in the colonies, but gradually the novel had made its way, and by the time I came across Sensini’s name in the Alcoy anthology, Ugarte had recruited a small group of devoted readers, scattered around Latin America and Spain, most of whom knew each other, either as friends or as gratuitously bitter enemies.

Thank goodness, or thank evil, or thank boredom: thanks for word of mouth, for friends and enemies alike (as long as they have good taste); thanks for writer’s writers (and writer’s writer’s writers) and the cult books they transmit to us—like Zama.

Zama is a cult novel that deserves a larger cult. After two false starts (I admit I misread the voice, missing the humor), I read Di Benedetto’s novel in a kind of hunger. Then I read it again. Then I wrote this thing, to tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran this review in April, 2017.]

A trailer for the film adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel Zama

This is the first trailer for Lucrecia Martel’s film adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel Zama.

Let me recommend Antonio di Benedetto’s overlooked novel Zama

Let me recommend a novel for you.

The novel is Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama.

Zama was first published in Argentina in 1956.

NYRB published Esther Allen’s English translation in 2016. It is excellent.

What is Zama about?

Zama tells the brutally funny and often sad story of Don Diego de Zama, a bored and horny americano wasting away in the provincial backwaters of Paraguay. It’s the end of the world at the end of the 18th century, and there’s not a lot to do. Zama fills his time with schemes of lust and petty pride, shirking his job as a nominal governmental authority. He longs to be reunited with his wife and family in Buenos Aires, but seems to sabotage every opportunity to get back to them. He also longs for his glory days as a corregidor, putting down “the native rebellion” in the service of Spain’s imperial project. Zama is a confusing and confused character, frequently frustrating but also oddly sympathetic. He is a loser who does not seem to see that he is a loser, although life gives him every opportunity to come to this conclusion. As South African novelist J.M. Coetzee’s  puts it in his excellent in-depth review of the novel:

[Zama] is vain, maladroit, narcissistic, and morbidly suspicious; he is prone to accesses of lust and fits of violence, and endowed with an endless capacity for self-deception.

He is also the author of himself, in a double sense. First, everything we hear about him comes from his own mouth, including such derogatory epithets as “swaggering” and “dogslayer,” which suggest a certain ironic self-awareness. Second, his day-to-day actions are dictated by the promptings of his unconscious, or at least his inner self, over which he makes no effort to assert conscious control. His narcissistic pleasure in himself includes the pleasure of never knowing what he will get up to next, and thus of being free to invent himself as he goes along.

Coetzee captures the joy of reading Zama in those last few lines: It’s the joy in watching a first-person perspective invent itself in shambling picaresque adventures born of sheer boredom. It’s the pleasure of seeing an asshole who refuses to acknowledge that he is an asshole try to pretend that he is not an asshole—all in a kind of language that is simultaneously romantic and flat.

Let me give you a taste of that language, reader. Here are the opening bars of the novel:

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 harbor have always been where they are, a quarter-league farther upriver.

I observed, among 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 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.

The ship that won’t come in, the floating dead monkey, the state of unknowing—these abject and negative motifs are the paradoxical genesis of the novel. The clipped repetitions, culminating in “Ready to go and not going” recall Samuel Beckett, whom translator Esther Allen acknowledges as “a perfect counterpoint to the prose voice of Zama” in her introduction.

In addition to Beckett, easy points of comparison are Dostoevsky, Camus, Borges, and especially Kafka. In his perceptive analysis of Zama, critic Benjamin Kunkel points out the novel’s existential core, absurdist peripheries, and realistic contours:

As with novels by Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and Beckett, the story’s preoccupation is the tension between human freedom and constraining circumstance. Zama, a man as impetuous as he is stuck, resembles other existentialist antiheroes as he swings between spellbound passivity and sudden lunges into action. But Don Diego never seems like a figure in an allegory, like K. in The Castle; or an ambulatory philosophical argument, like Roquentin in Nausea. Zama induces a rare feeling—to put it as naïvely as possible—of the main character’s realness. Don Diego is consistently surprised by his own behavior, but not as much as he would like. His abrupt acts and swerving meditations have an air of unplotted inevitability about them. He is a character more convincing than coherent, and more persuasive than intelligible.

These lifelike moments of “unplotted inevitability” are enthralling. Di Benedetto doesn’t just show us Zama seeing, he shows us Zama seeing what he is seeing. He shows us consciousness at work—or rather, consciousness in distress. In a representative passage which can stand alone as a bizarre parable in search of a moral, Zama, having lost all his money betting on horses, awakes from a drunken stupor to witness a spider crawling on a fellow drunkard: 

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.

The episode continues in this way, building in tension as the large spider crawls over the man’s face while Zama remains inert and fascinated by his own inertia—until the drunken man absently bats the spider from his face. Zama is paradoxically stunned by this anticlimax:

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.

The passage is 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. Zama refuses to name his intense desire to see the spider bite the man. Additionally, his emotional identification is bound to righteous anger, the righteous anger appropriate to the would-be-bitten drunkard. Instead of genuine pathos, Zama would usurp this man’s self-righteous anger, the anger that he feels all the time at his (literal and figurative) position in life. But the spider bite that would license self-righteousness never comes. Basically, Zama just wants something to happen.

And that’s the plot of Zama, more or less. Our (anti-)hero’s picaresque jabs at adventure and romance are sent awry or thwarted, usually by his own loutish passions. Zama’s would-be escapades unravel, that is, until the book’s final section, 1799

–Okay, let me digress momentarily: Zama, a slim 200 pages, is structured into three sections: 17901794, and 1799. The connective tissue between these sections hangs transparent, nearly invisible, but nevertheless accessible via small clues, motifs, scant threads. Di Benedetto gives us modernism in the last decade of the 18th century, boredom that tiptoes around the abyss of insanity. Rereading the three sections is a joy. But let me return to the central thread—

Zama’s would-be adventures unravel or collapse until the book’s final section, 1799, when Di Benedetto puts our hero in genuine harm’s way (and cunningly exfiltrates any opportunity for overt heroism on Zama’s part). The novel earns its drive toward what I take to be its central question: “Do you want to live?”

Di Benedetto hides his answer to this question not so much in the central figure Zama, but rather in Zama’s put-upon secretary, his mozo Manuel Fernández. Fernández is, at least for me, the secret star of the novel. When we first meet Fernández, Zama joins in gently mocking him at the lead of their boss, the governor. They tease Fernández when he tells them that he is writing a novel. “Make sons, Manuel, not books,” admonishes the governor, but the clerk replies: “I want to realize myself in myself…Children realize themselves, but whether for good or ill we don’t know. Books are made only for truth and beauty.” Later, Zama, in more of a ruse than in good faith, asks Fernández to read some of his book. He finds the “entangled” prose “incomprehensible,” to which Fernández replies: “the first man and the first lizard were each incomprehensible, as well, to all those who surrounded them.” Fernández declares that he writes for “no master.” If he has no audience today, his pages will be understood by his “grandchildren’s grandchildren…Things will be different then.” Later, Fernández reveals that he’s given away his manuscript to an old man, a stranger suffering boredom while waiting for a delayed ship to take him somewhere other than the end of the world.

Fernández sees himself as an author doomed to obscurity in the present, an author who awaits a future that will catch up to his originary vision. Perhaps it’s a bit much to suggest he’s a stand-in for Di Benedetto, but there are traces here. Above, I cited Benjamin Kunkel’s essay on Zama“A Neglected South American Masterpiece,” and J.M. Coetzee’s review, “A Great Writer We Should Know.” Those titles point to the novel’s obscurity, an obscurity which I sense is now being (if in increments) reversed. Esther Allen’s English translation obviously opens Zama to an even wider audience, and Argentine director Lucrecia Martel is apparently adapting the novel to film. But it’s perhaps Roberto Bolaño, a writer who time caught up to, however too late, who helped guide new readers—however obscurely—to Zama. In Bolaño’s 1997 short story “Sensini,” the titular character is a clear transposition of Di Benedetto, a cult author, a writer’s writer:

The novel was the kind of book that circulates by word of mouth. Entitled Ugarte, it was about a series of moments in the life of Juan de Ugarte, a bureaucrat in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata at the end of the eighteenth century. Some (mainly Spanish) critics had dismissed it as Kafka in the colonies, but gradually the novel had made its way, and by the time I came across Sensini’s name in the Alcoy anthology, Ugarte had recruited a small group of devoted readers, scattered around Latin America and Spain, most of whom knew each other, either as friends or as gratuitously bitter enemies.

Thank goodness, or thank evil, or thank boredom: thanks for word of mouth, for friends and enemies alike (as long as they have good taste); thanks for writer’s writers (and writer’s writer’s writers) and the cult books they transmit to us—like Zama.

Zama is a cult novel that deserves a larger cult. After two false starts (I admit I misread the voice, missing the humor), I read Di Benedetto’s novel in a kind of hunger. Then I read it again. Then I wrote this thing, to tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too. Very highly recommended.

Ready to go and not going.

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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 harbor have always been where they are, a quarter-league farther upriver.

I observed, among 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 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.

These are the opening sentences of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel Zama; English translation by Esther Allen (NYRB 2016). I finished it last night and then started it again.

What I needed was to get away from myself.

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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.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About (Paul Bowles, Robert Coover, Pierre Senges, Antonio di Benedetto)

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I’ve had a hard time reading much (let alone writing anything) since November 8th.

A Klimt puzzle has been soothing though.

And I’ve found audiobooks, which I’ve always loved, particularly wonderful lately. They have provided a kind of anti-noise, antidote, anti-?—against the NPR news and punditry I might normally adhere to in the car (and especially potent against my own thoughts at night before I fall asleep).

My pattern with audiobooks has long been to reread at night the chapters or passages I audited that day, or to audit after I had read—or to mix it all up, going back and forth. I like this method because it allows me, essentially, to reread.

I’ve been listening to The Stories of Paul Bowles, read by like a dozen different performers (not a full-cast group read, but rather different voices for different tales). Then (mostly at night but occasionally very early in the morning), I’ve been rereading some of the stories that are collected in Collected Stories. (My local bookshop had copies of the more-complete The Stories of, but hell, who can pass up a Black Sparrow Press edition? Plus—parenthetically—the BSP edition collects the more essential stories).

Anyway, I’m coming to the end of The Stories of Paul Bowles and I’m almost a bit sad about it. The sadness come partially from the fact that the stories are presented chronologically, and, simply put, the later tales are sadder than the earlier ones. Not in content, but in tone—Bowles’s later stuff grows more bitter, more resentful. The earlier tales are strange, sharp, and driven by weird nightmare alienation and sinister surrealism. But they also open into possibility, exploration, and radical newness. The later tales, composed in the 1980s, seem to me a closing off, not just in themes and tone, but also stylistically. They retreat into formalist modernism. There’s a palpable resistance to postmodernism in the later stories, an elegiac tone that romanticizes (even through multiple ironies) the post-War colonial past.

But my sadness is also the feeling of Oh I want more. (Plus like, the aforereferenced general post-election malaise). This is all easily remedied by my plan to listen to the first two-thirds of these stories again—but probably after I take a crack at his novels.

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I was too young the first time I took a crack at The Sheltering Sky—16 I think. I was reading a lot of Hemingway, Vonnegut, William Burroughs, et al. But I couldn’t click with Bowles, which makes sense to me two decades later. His stories are spare but sharp, wild but obscure. His fables refuse to square with our expectations. They are menacing, awful, loaded with strangers and travelers and outcasts. The characters do not know what is happening to them; they do not even know that they do not know what is happening to them. Often, the story’s narrator does not seem to know what is happening, and if the narrator does know what is happening, he’s not going to throw anything but the barest bones to the reader to piece together. Anyway, I’ll trek through again, for sure.

A late Bowles story, the epistolary “Unwelcome Words” (many of the later stories are epistolary affairs), offers me a neat transition to the audiobook I’ve been drifting off into unconsciousness the past few evenings with. Here’s Bowles’s narrator (a version of Bowles his-goddamn-self):

I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn, delivering it from the farcical closing scenes which Twain, probably embarrassed by the lyrical sweep of the nearly completed book, decided were necessary if the work were to be appreciated by American readers. It’s the great American novel, damaged beyond repair by its author’s senseless sabotage. I’d be interested to have your opinion, or do you feel that the book isn’t worth having an opinion about, since a botched masterpiece isn’t a masterpiece at all? Yet to counterfeit the style successfully, so that the break would be seamless and the prose following it a convincing continuation of what came before—that seems an impossible task. So I shan’t try it, myself.

Bowles here licenses my transition to Robert Coover’s latest, Huck Out West, a sorta-sequel to Twain’s problematic American masterpiece. Sure, Coover’s not rewriting the end of Huck Finn so much as he’s carrying out the mission of the novel’s final lines: “…I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” So Coover sets Huck out in the Territory, away from the maternal bodies that would otherwise sivilize him. I’ve gotten maybe two hours into the audiobook (it’s short, fewer than ten hours), but I keep launching in to different points, and only auditing late at night. I need a physical copy.

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Physical copies report:

I’m crawling through Pierre Senges’s The Major Refutation (Eng. trans. by Jacob Siefring), mostly because I have to look up names, look for images, get lost in early depictions of “The New World” (and, uh, the refutation of the New World). . So far, it reminds me of the kind of fantasy-based literary criticism that I love: Eco, Borges, Calvino. Excerpt here.

A friend loaned me his copy of Antonio di Benedetto’s first novel Zama (Eng. translation by Esther Allen) last week, insisting I read it, and informing me that Bolaño based the titular figure of his story “Sensini” on di Benedetto. I read the first four chapters this afternoon; they were very short and I want to keep reading. Short chapters are working for me right now.