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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Antonio Di Benedetto

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To purchase Zama

Title: Zama
Author: Antonio Di Benedetto
Genre: Novel
Written: 1956 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 205 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Zama - US
Zama - US (Spanish)
Zama - UK
Zama - Canada
Zama - India
Zama - France
Zama wartet - Deutschland
Zama - Italia
Zama - España
  • Spanish title: Zama
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Esther Allen
  • Zama was made into film, directed by Lucrecia Martel, to be released in 2017

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Our Assessment:

A- : powerful and wonderfully dark portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A 12/3/2009 Hans-Martin Gauger
The Nation . 28/8/2016 Ratik Asokan
The NY Rev. of Books . 19/1/2017 J.M.Coetzee
The New Yorker . 23/1/2017 Benjamin Kunkel
Publishers Weekly A+ 1/8/2016 .
The Spectator A+ 15/7/2017 Andreas Campomar
Wall St. Journal . 16/9/2016 Nathaniel Popkin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Das alles ist raffiniert, aber ohne erkennbare Anstrengung, rasch, knapp, oft auf einzelne Worte reduziert, souverän, leichtfüßig geradezu und immer suggestiv erzählt. Und spannend ist es auch. Immer möchte man schlicht wissen, wie es weitergeht." - Hans-Martin Gauger, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "If the structure is reminiscent of a fable, the drama itself is all too real." - Ratik Asokan, The Nation

  • "Zama takes up directly the matter of Argentine tradition and the Argentine character: what they are, what they should be. It takes as a theme the cleavage between coast and interior, between European and American values. Naively and somewhat pathetically, its hero hankers after an unattainable Europe. (...) Zama remains the most attractive of Di Benedetto’s books, if only because of the crazy energy of Zama himself, which is vividly conveyed in Esther Allen’s excellent translation." - J.M.Coetzee, The New York Review of Books

  • "(A) brief, indelible novel (.....) As with novels by Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and Beckett, the story’s preoccupation is the tension between human freedom and constraining circumstance." - Benjamin Kunkel, The New Yorker

  • "This extraordinary novel, whose English translation has been so long in coming, is a once and future classic." - Publishers Weekly

  • "(M)agnificent and disturbing (.....) After 60 years, one would hope that this minor Latin American masterpiece does not have to wait much longer to become a major one." - Andreas Campomar, The Spectator

  • "Di Benedetto’s prose, at once methodical and otherworldly, captures the grim humor of Don Diego’s plight. (...) Zama’s self-deprecating honesty, even amidst episodes of lechery, cowardice and violence, allows the reader to empathize and hope, against all odds, that he will escape exile." - Nathaniel Popkin, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       When government official Don Diego de Zama begins his account, in 1790, he has been stationed in a provincial outpost, away from his family -- wife Marta, their sons, his mother --, for only fourteen months, but he's desperate to get away. This was supposedly: "only a temporary, stopgap appointment", and he harbors considerable ambitions, and not just hopes but expectations for career advancement -- a posting in Buenos-Ayres, for a start:

Peru was next in the line of my aspirations; the most longed-for, the culmination, was Spain.
       But he is stuck fast in this backwater, where he can't even count on his measly pay arriving within months of it being due. The novel opens with a beautiful scene of him going to the waterfront, hoping for a ship to come -- with a letter from Marta, perhaps. There's a dead monkey in the water, washing back and forth, and Zama sees himself and his own fate in it:
There we were: Ready to go and not going.
       Yes, he comforts himself that advancement must be coming -- "Assurances had been offered, without mention of a specific date. But the signs were positive". But even as he tries always to remain optimistic, he struggles with his situation.
       Among his problems is that, distant from Marta, he finds himself overwhelmed by lust. He works hard at remaining true to his wife, but: "I needed physical love as badly as I needed to eat". White -- though born in the Americas, not Spain -- he also doesn't want to sully himself with women of mixed or other races, limiting his (main) interest to those that are most inaccessible.
       Europe is in all regards the ideal -- the place he wants to reach -- and so too the women from there are part of his grander dream:
Europe, snow, clean-scrubbed women wh never sweat to excess and dwell in sparkling houses where no floor is made of packed earth. Unclothed bodies in heated chambers adorned with lamps and carpets.
       Impetuous and entitled, Zama does himself no favors with his behavior -- failing to take some opportunities that are practically handed to him on a platter. He recognizes that there is something about him that contributes to his lack of desired (and, so he thinks, deserved) success, but isn't quite willing to take responsibility (much less change):
(I)t was as if I, I myself, might generate failure. Not that I judged myself guilty of this failure; it was as if the guilt were an inheritance and had little to do with me.
       His sexual frustration plays no small role in compounding his situation, leading to rash misjudgments. Predictably, too, he doesn't really get anywhere in his courting efforts with the married Luciana -- unsure also the extent to which he is being toyed with. Ultimately, there's at least the promise of intercession on his behalf back in Spain -- but by this point readers can already guess how much will come of that. It's no surprise that Zama admits:
I had only to move forward, farther and farther. But I feared the end. For, presumably, there was no end.
       Zama is a three-part novel. The first, set in 1790, is the longest, taking up about half the story. It's no surprise, either, when it jumps ahead several years, to 1794, that Zama's situation is, if anything, only worse
       Zama has now taken a mistress -- Emilia, "an impecunious Spanish widow" -- and even has a child with her, but he can't bring himself to set up house with her. His financial situation has also worsened, the back wages he hasn't been paid mounting. He is losing whatever hold he had -- his longing for Marta and the kids, his impatient certainty of career-advancement:
     The past was a small notebook, much scribbled upon, that I had somehow mislaid.
       He is -- and vaguely recognizes that he remains -- his own worst enemy, knowing when he should know better:
A single word of response sufficed: No.
     I wrote: .
       Each point seems a lowpoint, and he can't escape or improve his situation:
     The horror.
     The horror of being trapped in absurdity.
     The horror of fascination.
       The final, shortest section jumps five more years ahead, to 1799, with Zama and his situation even more desperate. Always a man of rash decisions, he now takes his rashest step. His early claim to fame had been in putting down: "a native rebellion without wasting a drop of Spanish blood". As asesor letrado, a sort of legal counsel, "he was second in rank only to the governor" -- but over the years evermore distinctly second-rank (his secretary's desk, for example, humiliatingly being put right next to his). His is a passive position -- a desk-job -- but he decides it is time for action, and insists on joining an expedition to hunt down Vicuña Porto, who has been terrorizing the city.
       If not quite tilting at windmills, Zama chooses to hunt a phantom:
     No one had ever seen Vicuña or had any notion of where his tracks lay. He chose his own name; no one gave it to him.
       Just as Vicuña, in complete freedom, creates his own identity (as he demonstrates soon enough again), Zama is stuck in his, held back by the social and political conventions and expectations that define him (even as he also (futilely) struggles against them).
       The short final section, this expedition to hunt down Vicuña, is almost surreal in its turns and outcome, a beautifully if horribly conceived final passage for Zama (that of course doesn't lead him anywhere near to where he'd hoped to get). As always, Zama fails to take advantage of what opportunities he has -- and then misplays what hand he is left with, with catastrophic results. Redemption, in any form, -- much less fulfilment -- eludes him even at the bitterest end.
       Di Benedetto's detail-work here is marvelous, and the haughty, slightly ridiculous Zama a (horribly) fascinating protagonist with a convincing voice. Di Benedetto shows great range in the shift from longer exposition to more terse expression. The way Zama's limited awareness of his faults -- there's always some awareness, but he's never willing to fully admit to them -- is used also contributes to the story's power. Esther Allen's translation is an achievement too, beautifully capturing Di Benedetto's style, especially at its most succinct.
       A small but major novel, and a consistently captivating read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 August 2016

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Zama: Reviews: Zama - the film: Other books by Antonio Di Benedetto under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentine author Antonio Di Benedetto lived 1922 to 1986.

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