During the military dictatorships of the 1970s, exile for many Latin American writers was not so much a state of being as a vocation. Some were given early warning of what might befall them if they stayed. The polemicist Eduardo Galeano remembered receiving an evening telephone call from the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance:
‘We’re going to kill you, you bastards.’
‘The schedule for calling in threats, sir, is from six to eight,’ I answer.
I hang up and congratulate myself… But I want to stand up and I can’t: my legs are limp rags.
Other writers were not so lucky. Antonio di Benedetto was rounded up in the first wave of arrests in 1976 and sent to prison, where he was tortured over a period of 18 months. On four occasions he was made to face mock firing squads; yet his real torment resulted from not being told what his true crime was — this was reality as written by Kafka. Exile in Europe, which was furthered by a series of PEN International appeals, was followed by Di Benedetto’s return to a democratic Argentina in 1984. He died in his homeland two years later; though for those who knew him well he had started to die a decade before. He left behind a body of work, much praised by fellow writers but, as is often the case, overlooked by the reading public.
First published in 1956, Zama is the work on which Di Benedetto’s reputation is likely to rest. The novel’s mercurial yet reflective protagonist, Doctor Don Diego de Zama, is an administrator in late 18th-century Asunción, Paraguay, ‘second in rank only to the governor’. His ‘aspirations’ are to make his mark in Buenos Aires; his ambition is to be transferred to Peru and, ultimately, to Imperial Spain. But, from the opening page of this magnificent and disturbing novel, the reader knows that this will never happen. Awaiting the ship that he hopes will bring news of his promotion, Zama sees a dead monkey in the harbour:
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 waiting for a change in his own circumstances exhausts all possibility, consigning Zama to a labyrinthine world as suffocating as the dirty, arid colonial backwater in which he lives. For Zama, exile — ‘the home that weighed on me all the more because I did not have one’ — and its isolation come from within and without. More importantly, his existential predicament mirrors that of the continent of his birth:
Here was I, in the midst of a vast continent that was invisible to me though I felt it all around, a desolate paradise, far too immense for my legs. America existed for no one if not for me, but it existed in my needs, my desires, and my fears.
Di Benedetto dedicated Zama ‘to the victims of expectation’. After 60 years, one would hope that this minor Latin American masterpiece does not have to wait much longer to become a major one.