“Maybe everything depends…on where you’re born,” a character in the Argentinian writer Antonio Di Benedetto’s first book Mundo Animal (1953) reflects, “and the inadequacy of destiny that follows from that.… Maybe I should have been born somewhere else.”
It’s an expression of forlorn longing that many provincials would recognize, and one that was certainly shared by its author. Born in 1922 in Mendoza, an Andean town in west-central Argentina, Di Benedetto grew up far away from his country’s cultural centers. Interestingly, he chose to remain there, embracing regionalism at the time when his major contemporaries—Borges and Bioy Casares in Buenos Aires, Cortázar in Paris—were writing deliberately internationalist fiction. It was a decision that cost him.
By all estimates, Di Benedetto was a talented writer. A jury headed by Borges awarded the Kafkaesque short-story collection Mundo Animal a national prize, and Zama (1956), his debut novel, likewise received much critical praise. Nevertheless, the books never took off among the wider public. Sales were very poor and, though not totally obscure, Di Benedetto remained in the provincial shadows as the so-called “boom” introduced a generation of extraordinary Latin American writers to the world. When he finally received public attention two decades later, it was of the worst sort.
In 1976, a few hours after they overthrew Isabel Perón’s government, Jorge Videla’s thugs arrested and imprisoned Di Benedetto—which made little sense, since he was politically conservative. Eighteen months of torture and four mock executions followed before he was finally released. Di Benedetto then immediately went into exile in Spain, and only returned to Argentina in 1984, a year after the war ended. He continued to publish throughout this time—stories, novels, screenplays, journalism—and received many awards. But he still never came close to achieving conventional literary success. When he died in 1986, as Esther Allen notes in the introduction to her exquisite, new, and much-belated translation of Zama, “only a handful of people anywhere would have declared [him] to be a major figure in twentieth-century Latin American literature.”
But he certainly was, if this book is anything to go by. What’s more, he reads nothing like his celebrated contemporaries. Compulsively internal, un-operatic, claustrophobic yet funny, and lyrically restrained, Zama is a strange historical novel that is closer in spirit to Nausea and Waiting for the Barbarians than to Hopscotch or One Hundred Years of Solitude. Exile, failure, the dread of erasure: Di Benedetto seems to have transmuted all his life experiences into the book. Which makes it all the more remarkable, since he wrote it decades before Videla’s henchman arrived.