There are three types of novels. Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama, an Argentinian novel from 1956 now republished by New York Review Classics in a new English translation, is the third type. And that is both the good news and the bad.
The first kind of novel is the kind most people think of as defining the very notion of the novel, the kind that reached full flower in the 19th century, the realistic novel. Its most well known practitioners are authors like Austen, Dickens, and Thackeray in England, as well as authors further afield such as Tolstoy in Russia, and Flaubert or Zola in France. Its American oddball relatives include Twain and Melville.
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In these novels of the mainstream sort we are offered a recognizable social world where people interact with each other as parts of a larger whole. Probably there is one person we follow more than others, but the characters are what E.M. Forster called round rather than flat: they’re believable and what they do affects what happens to the hero or heroine.
The second sort of novel is inside the head of one person, with other characters appearing as nothing but puppets or shadowy figures that move to the tune played by the controlling consciousness. This was seen in early form in Goethe’s early Romantic novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (his sorrows are that he’s in love with a married woman, and he shoots himself). The novel was so popular when it appeared in Germany at about the time of the American Revolution that men all over Europe affected Werther’s clothing as described in the novel—blue jacket, yellow vest. We see it in later form in the celebrated stream of consciousness narratives of the Modernists. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway are still much read in colleges, and the occasional class still makes its way through James Joyce’s Ulysses.
And then there is the third kind, which is the scariest. In the first two kinds, we know where we are: in the social world (first type) or inside somebody’s head (the second). But where are we when the world seems on the face of it to be the one we know but actually runs by rules we haven’t been formally introduced to? Where the head it all takes place in isn’t that of a character on the page but instead that of an invisible and apparently mad demiurge? This seems to present a possibility we don’t want to consider: that the world isn’t limited to objective (type one) or subjective (type two) but instead is situated unsettlingly between the two.
This kind of world may be easier to take in the visual arts rather than in literature. Edvard Munch’s work "The Scream" (which exists in several versions, both with color and without) is probably the world’s most well known example, with a fame approaching that of the Mona Lisa and countless versions available for purchase ranging from T-shirts to blowup dolls. The sky is rippled with something between clouds and magnetic force fields, all blood red and orange if the version is in color rather than black and white. The scream (or shriek) of the title deforms the face that emits it so that it isn’t an emotion coming from a person in the world but the nature of the whole world.
If we see this mix of subjective and objective in a painting, we can look, and then look away. In literature it’s harder. The soft-core version of this kind of mix of subjective and objective is probably what we call the "magic realism" of other Latin American writers like Garcia Marquez. We know these things aren’t "really" happening even though they’re narrated as if they are. But they’re kind of fun because we wouldn’t mind if they happened to us. They’re rather pleasant dreams, in fact.
Then there are the nightmares: they don’t work the way our world works, and they’re imbued with more than vague threats. In their most harrowing form, this is the world of Franz Kafka. His nebbishy traveling salesman Gregor who wakes up one morning to find he’s a giant bug in the Metamorphosis is the example most people are familiar with. Gregor isn’t surprised, he’s just puzzled, and like most of Kafka’s main characters (we hesitate to say heroes), he ends up figuring that somehow he deserves what’s happening to him.
And now to Zama—actually Don Diego de Zama. His story, which he narrates in first person form in three sections of diminishing length dated punctiliously 1790, 1794, and 1799, is set in a real place with recognizable characteristics and qualities. Zama starts out almost as type one literature, becomes type two, and ends up type three. So it’s a kind of literary theory class in less than 200 pages.
This is not a world that many North American readers are familiar with—or maybe it is. That is, it’s set in the Spanish Colonial Viceroyalty of La Plata, which included much of what is now Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. So far so exotic. But it’s also a world where colonial distinctions of who is born where play a large role, and may remind us of our current wars over American immigration and "birther" controversies. And it’s a world of obsession with skin color, perhaps like our own. So set in a different time and place for sure, but perhaps more of our time than we’d like to think.
Zama is a doctor, or at least was one. Now he works as a minor judge and functionary in a provincial city, not Buenos Aires (here written Buenos-Ayres) where he keeps trying to be transferred. To accomplish this, he writes endless appeals to the King, who never deigns to respond. So Zama seems like a combination of Chekhov’s three sisters from the play of that name, always pining for the capital (in their case, Moscow), and the characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, who pass their lives by the side of the road waiting, of course, for Godot. We never get what we want but that’s life, and we accept it.
Zama isn’t waiting for Godot. He’s waiting for his wife to come on a ship. And she never does. He wasn’t born with the best hand of cards, either. It seems some of Zama’s inability to get people in power to listen comes from his being born in the New World, making him a "creole," an "Americano"—whereas those with pull and class were born in Spain. But this outsidership is also related to what drives him for at least the first half of the book, which I would call, if it weren’t too creole and unrefined, the 1790 blueball part.
This section isn’t really weird yet, just somewhat odd. It’s all about how Zama wants to be true to his wife who has been gone since what seems forever, and his self-flagellating attempts to hook up with a handful of women who drive him crazy. It’s not a book without consummation, but the consummations don’t occur with the women he wants. There’s a poke by the side of the road with a mulatto woman, but Zama is clear that his sexual preferences are for white only. In fact he gets into trouble by refusing to go with the bros to the local bordello, staffed by non-whites, when he says he prefers "Spanish" women. Because his wife isn’t Spanish-born either, he’s accused of wanting adultery (it seems adultery is OK with mixed race or black women), and he has to explain that he meant only white, not literally Spanish. One woman in particular, a married woman named Luciana, is particularly skillful at leading him on and then refusing her favors. It’s like a sexed up version of Kafka—he never penetrates the castle he wants to penetrate, if you follow my drift. But he more or less seems to accept that that’s his punishment for even considering being unfaithful to his absent wife.
Well, okay, maybe it’s weird. It’s a world of all the color distinctions, words for the children (there are sets of paintings left over from this time in European museums) when white marries black, or Indian, and children when their offspring marry these offspring. Mulatto marries mestizo? There’s a word for their children: taxonomy gone wild. But don’t feel too superior, dear reader. In the United States it was only in the 20th century that we gave up on similar categories like "quadroon" and "octoroon." And in the Nixon administration we invented a new one, "Hispanic," whose meaning remains unclear to this day. Is the (at times) blonde queen of Spain "Hispanic"? Or do you have to be short and brown? What if, like the author of Zama, you’re a white Italian whose parents moved to South America? Hispanic? And his mother, I read, was born in Brazil, where they don’t even speak Spanish. There has to be a word for that.
Then it goes beyond just weird. An author is introduced in Part II who is writing a book on company time. That part seems to echo Sartre’s Nausea, whose first-person narrator, disgusted by the very nature of existence (the big set piece is when he has an existential crisis looking at a tree) is writing a book too, and like Zama, meditates on the nature of God and the Universe.
By the third part, 1799, we’ve jumped the shark. Zama is part of a group looking for an outlaw who, it turns out, is a member of the band looking for the outlaw, and who used to work with Zama. And a blonde boy who appears occasionally appears again: meaning what? Unclear. We’re firmly in the world of Escher’s intertwining visual puns, or the dungeon pictures of Piranesi.
And then. Yes. You got it. He’s hacked to bits, a little at a time starting with his fingers and working up. Just what you expected, right? Remember, in Kafka’s short story "In the Penal Colony," prisoners are strapped into a torture device that writes things deeper and deeper into their skin with needles until it kills them.
The style of Zama is monotonous, full of short sentences, all in first person. As it spirals out of control the reader wonders, is this a metaphor for life? A walk on the wild side designed to make us grateful we’re relatively normal? If this is what life really is like, we’re all screwed. We know it isn’t, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t screwed all the same. It’s not fun to read. But maybe it’s good for us.