Vileness

Michael Wood

Introducing a 1999 edition of Antonio Di Benedetto’s The Silencer, first published in 1964, his fellow novelist Juan José Saer saw the work as belonging to ‘a sort of trilogy’. The idea caught on, and in 2011 Zama (1956) and The Suicides (1966) joined The Silencer in a single volume advertised as a ‘trilogy of waiting’. Whether this event or any other marks the time Saer himself was waiting for is still a question. Saer said Di Benedetto had readers ‘from the beginning’, but they were very few and even if he had become a little better known before he died, in 1986, ‘the immense debt of Argentinian culture to Antonio Di Benedetto has still not been settled.’

It’s easy to see the attractions of Di Benedetto’s style; not so easy to live with what that style chooses to show us. David Pérez Vega, in a blog of 2011, finds in The Silencer a phrase that ‘appears to be a synthesis of Di Benedetto’s reflections on existence’: ‘How can they ignore the essential fact, that error is incorporated into the very roots of humankind?’ For Saer, Di Benedetto’s characters, with their ‘secret wounds, their isolation and their irony, and above all their lightly masochistic self-irony’, are companions of those of Svevo, Pessoa and Kafka. And in an even more striking formulation, Saer says these characters have ‘a distant kinship with certain heroes of Dostoevsky’ because of ‘a particular sensibility to vileness, their own or that of others’. Vileness: there’s a promotional cue. ‘Lightly masochistic’ is pretty good too. Along with error in our very roots.

Di Benedetto was born in 1922 in Mendoza in western Argentina. He was a journalist who spent much of his life in his provincial home town. In 1976 he was arrested and tortured by the military government for no apparent reason; the persecution went on for 18 months and included four mock executions, presentations to a firing squad that did not fire. He lived in exile in Europe between 1977 and 1984. He published five novels and six collections of short stories. He appears as a character called Sensini in a story of that name by Roberto Bolaño, collected in a volume appropriately titled Last Evenings on Earth (2007).

The books under review give English-speaking readers a good chance to catch up – an ideal chance, we could say, since both works are very well translated and display to perfection Di Benedetto’s intense understanding of nastiness (in Zama, 1956) and something of the range of his experiments with strangeness (in Nest in the Bones, a selection of stories published between 1953 and 1983, along with four others collected only in his 2006 Cuentos completos). More translations are in the works, apparently.

It’s worth pausing over the idea of waiting, given that the word and the phenomenon are everywhere in Di Benedetto’s work. It’s not an easy concept to translate, since the Spanish term, at least in its verb forms, includes the notion of hoping. There is a difference between a waiting room (una sala de espera) and a reason for hope (un motivo de esperanza) but a person would be waiting/hoping in both cases. Pregnant women wait and hope for children, they don’t expect them. Dickens’s novel is called Grandes Expectativas in Spanish, but that word means something like ‘prospects’. There is also a verb aguardar, usually rendered as ‘to await’, which suggests a slightly more confident waiting.

In Zama, a man waits/hopes for a ship to come. He can’t share his vigil with anyone – it is ‘a long soliloquy’. In the stories, a girl is ‘awake … unafraid, waiting’; a boy has a ‘habit of waiting’; ‘he has to wait … To wait … for what?’ One story is called ‘Premature Wait’. The interest of these usages, and of a further reflection on this set of words, is the implication that taken together they suggest we are always waiting for something, that some kind of implied object or person or event is part of the grammar of the terms. We can wait in vain, so to speak, but we can’t wait for nothing. Waiting is not just hanging around. Or rather, when it turns out that this is exactly what we’re doing, as happens all the time in Di Benedetto’s fiction, we realise that the very idea that we were waiting is a mistake, a major element in our self-deceived life.

Don Diego de Zama, the man waiting for the ship, is an American-born civil servant of the Vice-Royalty of Rio de la Plata, stranded as far from his native Buenos Aires as he could be and still inhabit this piece of the empire. His location is Asunción, Paraguay, though he doesn’t tell us this. He says ‘this country’, ‘the city’, and we work out the rest from the local details – or, in my case, I gratefully accept the information from Esther Allen. Don Diego conjures up the distance from home. ‘Half the length of two countries and all the width of the second lay stretched between my wife and me.’ He pictures the ‘slow journey’ of a letter to his wife ‘by water to Buenos Aires, then westward overland for hundreds of leagues’. This may place him in Di Benedetto’s Mendoza. The time isn’t quite right, though. Don Diego is living in the last years of the 18th century. Of course he doesn’t know, as the author and the reader do, that the very empire that is meant to control Don Diego’s actual and dreamed future is about to collapse for ever. The war of independence in Argentina began in 1810.

We see pieces of three years of his life – 1790, 1794 and 1799. The first two are packed with non-adventures. The ship he is waiting for does come, but it doesn’t carry the letter he is hoping for, and the transfer he seeks doesn’t come at all. ‘I hungered,’ he says, ‘for a stable position in Buenos Aires or Santiago de Chile.’ His career is ‘stagnating’ in bureaucracy after a heroic early spell, at least as Don Diego describes it. He was once ‘Doctor Don Diego de Zama! … The forceful executive, the pacifier of Indians, the warrior who rendered justice without recourse to the sword. Zama, who put down the native rebellion without shedding a drop of Spanish blood.’ He is very concerned about blood, and would love to have an affair with a local woman as long as she is white. He almost manages this with the wife of a colleague; but he is too vain and rigid to read any of her signals correctly. ‘Her game was subtler and more polished than mine,’ he says finally. This is a fantasy. He didn’t have any game at all.

What he has is an infinite and muddled self-regard. When he slaps and kicks a female servant (white, unfortunately), he says, with a fake grandeur that would be comic if it weren’t so effective in his own mind, ‘My hand may strike a woman’s cheek, but it is I who will endure the blow, for I shall have done violence to my own dignity.’ He promises help to persons in need and neglects them; he lies to his colleagues as he schemes for his own advancement. He speaks of ‘my disillusionments, my betrayals’. But his self-absorption and self-importance never diminish – nothing will ever interest him as much as his constantly squandered dignity – and the following argument he has with himself shows us why Di Benedetto lingers with this character, and gives his vileness so much room:

I was dissatisfied with my own conduct, and laid the blame for my excesses on irresistible inner forces, as well as a combination of inscrutable external factors, invisibly staged to provoke and upset me. It was these besieging incitements, I thought, that precipitated me into those undesired acts, sometimes of a seductive nature, that in hindsight could appear so abominable and repellent.

He wonders whether taking a firmer position on such matters ‘at an earlier stage’ might save him from the later disgrace. It might, but he is not going to waste any time on a sensible thought like that. Where would he be without those irresistible inner forces and those invisibly staged factors? He is ‘convinced that even in the final moment, one can choose’. Choose wrong, he means, and disclaim all responsibility. A neat, explicit case occurs later in the book. ‘A single word of response sufficed: No. I wrote: .’ It’s hard to think of a more perfect portrait of a mind that loves itself and its errors.

In the last part of the book, in 1799, Don Diego is a little more active – though not less despicable. He is part of a military expedition to capture the much feared outlaw Vicuña Porto, because our hero believes ‘that a daring feat of arms in the service of public order’ will allow the King of Spain to place him ‘in a position more to [his] liking’. He has a special advantage in this mission. He knows Vicuña, who worked for him when he was pacifying the Indians – or rather, worked for the Indians though he was nominally in the service of Don Diego. There is another tricky element in the story: Vicuña has somehow managed to become a member of the party seeking Vicuña, and Don Diego is ‘the only one who knew that Vicuña Porto galloped behind his pursuer’. There is a moment when it seems as if an alliance between Don Diego and the outlaw might work to the advantage of both, but Don Diego has no intention of honouring such a deal – at one point he says grandly and absurdly that he has ‘higher motives for living than mere honour’. He messes up even his reneging, and is executed by the outlaw gang. Or almost executed. His fingers are cut off and he is left to die. This is Vicuña’s ‘mercy’; the outlaw tells him to ‘bury the stumps in the ashes from the fire. If you don’t bleed to death … you’ll survive.’ Don Diego knows that one can live without fingers, ‘even without arms, even without eyes’. The person who finds him asks him if he wants to live, and Don Diego thinks: ‘So I might not die. Not yet.’ Juan José Saer says the ‘not yet’ is ‘sublime’ but ‘expresses less the hope of prolonging life … than the certainty of continuing to suffer the endless procession of losses and humiliations’. Even vileness can serve as a model for the marriage of survival and distress.

One story in Nest in the Bones, ‘Obstinate Observer’, from the collection The Absurd Ones (1978), reverses Zama’s condition in a striking way, showing that one can wait for something without knowing what it is. That is, one can be right, not about what happens, but in knowing that something will. We see a character called Rubén at different stages of his life. At seven, he stares at an empty building day after day. ‘He knows he has to wait.’ He even misses school one day for just this purpose. This is when a crack appears in the building’s façade, the roof caves in and the whole structure collapses. At nine, he watches his teacher closely as she goes to ‘a certain corner’ of the classroom. ‘What is there in that place?’ He doesn’t know. One day the teacher’s smock catches fire from the stove, and she runs in flames into the yard. At 17, he feels he has to keep watching a pregnant girl, and begins to wonder whether ‘what he senses, indistinctly, is the presentiment of disaster’. Happily he is wrong. He follows her onto a bus and when she starts to give birth he is in a position to call for help and her husband. Fully grown up, he feels one day that he has to leave the office early. He goes home, has dinner with his daughter and son-in-law. He goes to bed, doesn’t sleep, and finally understands, ‘without impatience, without bother’, that he has to wait until 5 a.m. ‘To wait … for what?’ At five he watches himself dying.

This story is a welcome corrective to Zama because it suggests not that we can reliably predict the future but that we can’t count on not predicting it; that even being wrong or unlucky isn’t an infallible option. It’s true that many of the stories in Nest in the Bones are dark and even cruel, but there is no dogma of darkness here.

A gaucho becomes a sort of moveable Argentinian hermit, living on his horse the way stylites lived on their pillars. He is doing penance for having killed a man, and becomes quite famous for his abstemious prowess. At the end of the story the dead man’s son catches up with the hermit, and they kill each other, undoing the hermit’s years of practical contrition. In another story a horse itself is the tragic hero. Separated from its owner, unable to unharness itself from the cart it has been pulling, it gets stuck in a bog and dies. Time passes, the bones separate and fall: only a ‘slender, half-flayed cranium’ remains hanging on a tilted cart shaft. A bird nests in it.

A boy tries to explain, with some difficulty, that he is not the monkey his father has brought home as a pet. Characters keep insisting they are not amazed when everything about their experience suggests they should be. One of them says that ‘Nothing extraordinary has ever happened to me, nor have I ever encountered anything I might even consider strange.’ By the end of the story he has not only taken over from the beggar who works an underpass in Madrid, he is allowing the beggar’s dog to collect the coins while he himself lies on the ground and does the barking.

Parents are inept in their care. ‘Grief. The word grabs hold of the father’s heart. Grief. He remembers that he has forgotten grief. He has.’ A woman in love with a dead man she may not even have known says: ‘My affection, José Luis, is like the affection of dimwits [el cariño de los tontos]: my affection endures.’ This affection gives its title to the story and the collection it was first published in (1961), and is literally epitomised by the long and untroubled friendship between two ‘dimwitted’ adults. ‘That’s what their harmony is based on: never pointing out their shortcomings, never throwing their clumsiness in each other’s faces, never hurting each other.’

And in the wonderful late story ‘Orthopterans’, in the collection Stories from Exile (1983), waiting becomes a form of patience about meaning, a matter of not rushing to choose the version of the past that you wish to have as a prelude to your present. ‘Not even Borges,’ we’re told, ‘can be expected to cleave to a strict chronological order.’ Or to a single tale when various good ones are on offer. A plague of locusts in the pampas causes serious lateness in the ordinarily very punctual, English-run rail service from Buenos Aires to Mendoza. How did the locusts get there? A person called ‘the professor’ brought them to pollinate the flowers, but they just multiplied instead. When was this? ‘Who can say?’ the local informant replies. ‘Could be … when the Indians camped out in these parts, or even before.’ In that case the professor was perhaps a witch doctor. Myths have a flexible sense of time. In any event the man wanted to make amends for his mistake, and promised to bring water to the largely non-arable land. His method was unusual. He reappeared with a figure whom ‘the population couldn’t help but see … as a magician who would make it rain more than before’. They were wrong, but on the right track. The man was an English actor. Learning this the locals hoped he was a comic actor – if he couldn’t produce water at least he could make them laugh. The man – his name was Garrick, so he was either the famous thespian himself or a helpful alternative avatar – said his acting was ‘comic and otherwise’ and proceeded to entertain his audience ‘with stories, gags, wit, impersonation, much brilliance, and occasional grimaces, but tactful ones, without any sort of exaggeration’. The people laughed until they cried, their tears formed a river, ‘and in that way, through the magic of joyous tears, lakes, lagoons and other deposits which, if they are large enough, are given the name of mar chiquita, spread across the vastness of Spanish America.’ Mar chiquita means ‘tiny sea’. Orthoptera is the order of insects to which locusts belong. What do they have to do with Garrick’s act? The narrator’s opening line is an answer of a kind: ‘I’ll tell it the way they told it to me.’