This book was originally published in Spanish in 1956 and this English version has been translated by Esther Allen.
Don Diego de Zama is a clerk serving the Spanish monarchy in a remote town in Paraguay at the end of the eighteenth century. His position as an assistant for the Governor is supposed to be one of prestige and the first step as he moves up in his political career. But if only he could find a way to get out of the backwater of Paraguay and be assigned a better position in Buenos Aires, which would also be closer to his home and his wife. Zama is a lazy, selfish, and even at times stupid man who only seems to do things that hurt his career and his family.
There is a scene in the book in which Zama has just finished spending what little money he has at the racetrack betting on horses. He decides to take a siesta in the shade where he encounters another man resting. While this man is sound asleep Zama sees a poisonous spider about to jump on this man’s face and Zama decides to do absolutely nothing about it. He doesn’t lift a finger to dispose of the spider or even warn the man of the impending danger of the venomous arachnid that is about to jump on his face. Zama simply sits there and watches the scene unfold and seems rather detached from the fact that a poisonous spider is crawling on another man’s face. This episode perfectly exemplifies Zama’s selfish attitude not only towards the world around him, but also towards his life, his job and his family.
The book is divided into three parts, the first of which takes place in 1790. When we are first introduced to Zama he is waiting for a ship to come in that might contain a letter from his wife and the salary that is owed to him by the Spanish crown. Zama misses his wife a great deal, but the lack of intimate contact with her for almost two years drives him to find a woman to fulfil his sexual desires. In a scene that is reminiscent of the Actaeon and Artemis story from Greek mythology, he accidentally sees a local upper class woman naked while she is bathing in a river. Once he finds out who this woman is he does everything he can to scheme his way into her home without attracting the notice of her husband or the rest of the town. His attempts to seduce this woman are clumsy and not well planned.
The novel skips forward four years to 1794 and Zama is still stuck in this town in Paraguay. But by this time he has moved into a ramshackle farmhouse with a widow named Emilia and has a son with her. Zama’s salary that he is owed by the Spanish crown is very seldom paid to him, so he lives in poverty and doesn’t have very much to offer his mistress and child. He notices the child is oftentimes dirty and crying but he is never moved to console the child or find a way to provide a better life for his family. When he has extra money in his pocket he doesn’t offer it to Emilia or his son but instead he buys his own meals at the local inn or tavern. His own needs continue to always come first. Zama’s wife, whom he was so eager to be near in the first part of the book, is not mentioned at all during this time. Zama’s emotional detachment from the hardships that his families suffer is astonishing.
In the final part of the book Zama’s selfish nature finally brings about his downfall. The year is now 1799 and Zama is sent on an expedition with the local militia to hunt down a notorious pillager and thief. The sole reason that he volunteers for the mission is that he thinks it will finally get him a promotion. The final part of the book is the most exciting as Zama travels with soldiers into remote parts of South America that are dangerous because of Indian tribes. There is also a bit of intrigue during this part of the book when the bandit’s true identity is revealed and the only one who knows this key piece of information is Zama. His selfish and clumsy reaction to this situation is typical of his character throughout the book but this time his impetuous actions bring about his own demise.
Reading about Zama’s life is like watching a train wreck. We know from the beginning that because of his clumsy behavior Zama is headed for a bad end, but we can’t put the book down because of our morbid curiosity to know how he finally does himself in.
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8 responses to “Review: Zama by Antonio de Benedetto”
I hadn’t heard of book or author before but this sounds like a fun read; for some reason I like reading about characters that are stupid, amoral, immoral or just plain bastards.
But, er, did the man with the spider on his face survive?
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Those types of characters are my favorite too! Makes the story much more interesting. The man with the spider swiped it off his face before it could bite him. And in typical fashion Zama was afraid that the man was going to yell at him for not warning him or helping him!
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Is it actually announced in the beginning, the unfortunate or unhappy outcome, or can you just tell that’s where things are headed? Your description makes me think of a novel by Italian-Canadian Nino Ricci, whose works often appear on literary prizelists here, called Sleep, in which it feels, from the start, that things can’t possibly turn around for him (but it’s unfolding as you read, so we don’t know for certain). Things just go from bad to worse, and it was such an incredibly compelling novel, that I never once thought about setting it aside. This sounds very similar!
Great review. The part where the main character just watches the spider on another man’s face is scary indeed. I have to add this to my TBR. The end does feel like a story with a moral.
This sounds like someone living by the Id, but in a joyless, “clumsy” way, as you say. He could be a Trickster type of character but he doesn’t sound clever or energetic enough for that.
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He’s not clever or smart enough to be a Trickster type.
I was given a copy of this in Spanish a few years ago, but I’ve yet to get around to it despite it calling my name. Your review makes me think this will finally be the year I read it, though, Melissa! By the way, Zama is quite popular in Argentina, where it appears on many best of Argentina lists. Juan José Saer, whom you’ve become a fan of, was quite enamored of this novel from what I understand. I’m curious if you noticed any stylistic similarities between Saer and Di Benedetto. Cheers!
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I hope you do read it, Richard! I am very interested in what you have to say about it, especially the original version. I am not surprised to hear that he influenced Saer. I can definitely see some stylistic similarities between them.