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.