by Antonio di Benedetto, translated from the Spanish and with an introduction by Esther Allen
An NYRB Classics Original
First published in 1956, Zama is now universally recognized as one of the masterpieces of modern Argentinean and Spanish-language literature.
Written in a style that is both precise and sumptuous, Zama takes place in the last decade of the eighteenth century and describes the solitary, suspended existence of Don Diego de Zama, a highly placed servant of the Spanish crown who has been posted to Asunción, the capital of remote Paraguay. Eaten up by pride, lust, petty grudges, and paranoid fantasies, Don Diego does as little as he possibly can while plotting an eventual transfer to Buenos Aires, where everything about his hopeless existence will, he is confident, be miraculously transformed and made good.
Don Diego’s slow, nightmarish slide into the abyss is not just a tale of one man’s perdition but an exploration of existential, and very American, loneliness. Zama’s stark, dreamlike prose and spare imagery make every word appear to emerge from an ocean of things left unsaid.
[Di Benedetto] has written essential pages that have moved me and that continue to move me.
—Jorge Luis Borges
Di Benedetto is the rare novelist who doesn't seek to reconstruct the past to prove a point. He lives the past, and exposes us to experiences and forms of behavior that retain all their weirdness.
Scattered in various corners of Latin America and Spain, [Zama] had a few, fervent readers, almost all of them friends or unwarranted enemies.... [It is written with] the steady pulse of a neurosurgeon.
—Roberto Bolano, from his story "Sensini"
[Zama] has the beauty and force of a classic, but also the attributes of an overlooked masterpiece.... I think that Zama should be translated into English simply because so many English-speaking readers and authors haven't read one of the best novels of the 20th century. Good books are unique and need no justification.
—Sergio Chejfec, The Quarterly Conversation
Widely regarded as an existential masterpiece and one of the great novels of the Spanish language, Zama is Antonio di Benedetto's most famous—and, arguably, his best—work. It is, therefore, hard to explain why this novel, first published in 1956, has never been translated into English and, more broadly, why this author—who occupies an important place in Argentina's narrative tradition—is not more well known in the English-speaking world. All the more so because the historical and stylistic incisiveness of Di Benedetto's writing make Zama a timeless achievement, as readable today as when it first came off the presses half a century ago.
—The Latin American Review of Books
[Zama] is comparable to the great existentialist novels such as La Nausee and L'Etranger, but I believe that, given the circumstances in which it was written and the peculiar situation of the person who wrote it, Zama is in many ways superior to those books.
—Juan Jose Saer
The structure of Zama is as precise as it is disturbing. Its three chapters, with ellipses of several years between them, contain episodes like entries in an intimate diary that alternate with assaults on consciousness that can neither remain silent nor lie. Thus are readers led ever further into the depths, in an irreparable descent into hell.... The book's shatteringly audacious conclusion forces us to revise our view of all that has gone before. Zama teaches us to read in a new way, astonishes us with the discovery that we know nothing.
—Raul Cazorla, El Varapalo