We meet the eponymous character of Antonio Di Benedetto’s Zama in Asunción, Paraguay, working as an administrator for the Spanish empire. It is 1790 and Asunción is considered a remote outpost; not a posting of choice for up-and-coming colonial administrators and servants of the Spanish crown. Don Diego de Zama has left the city to come downriver, “to meet the ship I awaited without knowing when it would come.” He sees the corpse of a monkey bobbing up and down in the water, “caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf and there he was, ready to go and not going”. Thus Zama thinks: “There we were: Ready to go and not going.” It is a desolate beginning, and it sets the tone for Zama’s life as depicted in the rest of the novel; he who is always ready to go and yet not going.
Separated from his wife Marta, his sons, and his mother, Zama has been serving in what he considers this provincial outpost for some 14 months. He would like to be posted elsewhere; he carries within him hope or expectation for a change in his circumstance. Thus, Di Benedetto dedicates his novel “to the victims of expectation”. By the end of the novel we would come to see just how far this faith in expectation has been its own punishment for Zama: he is always aware that his expectations would be thwarted, yet he keeps on having them.
This is a fundamental existential question at the heart of the novel. Written in Spanish by the Argentinian Di Benedetto, and exquisitely translated into English by Esther Allen, Zama tells the story of an essentially loathsome character who is alienated from his contemporaries and his own family, drifting into a routine of nothingness that is both a privilege and punishment of his position. Due to the fact that he wants to maintain this position to advance his career, he’s unable to do anything about it. Published in its original language in 1956, this novel is a remarkably modern tale of alienation. Zama himself is a trying character in many instances, even if he is especially pitiable. As Allen explains in her preface, Zama “is a criollo, or americano — a Creole of unmixed Spanish blood born in the Americas — and is therefore an anomaly in the bureaucracy of the Spanish Empire.”
“Criollo” is a pre-colonial term indicating someone of Spanish descent who resides in one of the Spanish-speaking nations in the Americas. Zama goes to great pains to ensure his Spanish ancestry remains untainted; as such, he desires only white Spanish women, “not an Indian, mulatta, or Negress, which repelled me.” The fact of colonialism allows him to make this distinction; in some ways, this fastidiousness marks Zama out from his male contemporaries who harbour similar racist views about non-white people who are not of Spanish ancestry, but who find it easy enough to consume the sexual services provided by those lesser bodies even as they subjugate and oppress them. This concept of the cleanness of blood, or “Limpieza de sangre” was an important legal concept and played a significant role in the modern history of the Iberian Peninsula. What marks Zama out is not so much that he maintains this line of thought, but that he doesn’t let sex temporarily extinguish one of the fundamental beliefs of the society of his time.
Zama’s liminal position within the Spanish colonial caste system clashes with his readiness to leave because it is reality that keeps him in Asunción due to his dependency on the status that comes from his job. This futile existential predicament is rendered by Di Benedetto in self-aware, tragic, and comic prose, perhaps inspired in a way by that famous American creation, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, which was published in the mid-19th century. Zama has honed his paranoia into an art; he fantasises about and desires various women who fit his requirements for racial purity, but when faced with the reality of the situation (their love for someone else; their unwillingness to have an affair while married), he immediately cuts them down to size in his mind, and proceeds to carry on in a wounded manner, all without having said a word to the other person to clarify their state of mind. Zama literally attacks a friend of his based on unfounded paranoia, and because of his seniority in ranking, merely stands by passively as the friend is transferred out to another position. (Thus fuelling his resentment further; his friend has gotten out of this place while he remains stuck in Asunción.)
Zama differs from Bartleby in that he does not refuse his job or circumstances; but that he keeps on hoping that his position will lead to the greatness he imagines is due to him. The book is divided into three parts, each indicating an advancing year, and in the second part (1794), where his situation is turning increasingly precarious, with his salary unpaid for months, his new lodgings producing in him fantastic flights of imagination — or delirium — Zama thinks to himself after a sort of nervous collapse of sorts: “About the first week I confess myself unable to arrive at any judgment. About those that followed, I can only say that I don’t know if my capacity for understanding abandoned me or if I preferred not to understand.” This formally precise language contains within it a sly self-awareness as precise as the point of a needle. Having no idea of how this reads in the original Spanish, one can only admire the grace with which it’s translated by Allen.
By the time 1799 rolls around in the final section of the novel, although one might find Zama intolerable and absurd, one also feels sympathy for the sense of foreboding that is slowly built up by the historical conditions of the time in which the novel is set. As Allen explains in the preface, the Creoles would turn out to play a significant role in the Spanish American wars of independence, but poor Zama, who only wants to get out his rural outpost to continue to exercise his authority and gain status in the eyes of others, “never has the faintest inkling” of the potential for “revolutionary merging of Creoles, mestizos, former slaves, and natives into a new consciousness of shared nationhood”.
He is the quintessential aspirational outsider, striving so hard to accommodate himself to the status quo that he doesn’t understand his position as a potential agent of change. “I wanted to rebuild the world”, thinks Zama in the final pages, but also realises too late — it is ever thus — that “I hadn’t been born anew”. If only someone had disabused Zama of his hopes and expectations, showed him how futile it was to dream. He might have been saved by having to acquiesce to a refusal, and thus be spared from his fate.