The Author with Birds in His Head

Antonio Di Benedetto’s dreamlike, uncategorizable novel Zama was published in English translation for the first time last year, its arrival long awaited by readers ...

Antonio Di Benedetto’s dreamlike, uncategorizable novel Zama was published in English translation for the first time last year, its arrival long awaited by readers of Latin American literature. Now Archipelago Books has brought out a sampling of the Argentine’s short fiction, a genre in which Di Benedetto was equally accomplished, demonstrating an extraordinary experimental and emotional range that Zama—largely confined as it is to the perspective of a single self-centered narrator—could only hint at. Spanning the length of his career, Nest in the Bones refracts the biography of its author in ways that his early masterpiece does not. The translator of Nest, Martina Broner, has presented the stories in a sequence that traces the development of a handful of images—above all those that enlist animals as a foil for human experience—through the transformations of a writing life established at the margins of a provincial day job, extended by travel, and upended by persecution and exile.

When Zama was first published, in 1956, Di Benedetto was a journalist living in Mendoza, a region rich in wine but poor in connections to the country’s literary center in Buenos Aires. His book attracted little attention. In the decades since, it has slowly emerged from obscurity to become something of a cult legend, thanks largely to such passionate admirers as Argentine novelists Juan José Saer and Sergio Chejfec, as well as the Chilean Roberto Bolaño. Di Benedetto died in 1986, too soon to sense the impact he had made on a generation of writers. When Chejfec met the author shortly before his death, his admiration was rebuffed: “You’re young. That’s why you can believe my work is good,” Di Benedetto told him. “I am delivered up to nothingness.”

These may have been the bitter words of a man long rebuffed, frustrated, and literally tortured by his country—a decade earlier, he had been imprisoned by Jorge Videla’s military dictatorship, and after his release he spent most of the remainder of his life in exile. But they also reveal a long-held posture of indifference, or even hostility, to being understood in his own time. “I write because I feel the need to write, to take what is in my head and place it outside,” says Manuel Fernández, a key supporting character in Zama. “I will store the papers in a tin box. My grandchildren’s grandchildren will dig them up. Things will be different then.”

Birds, flies, thoughts—they’re all just stuff one might find rattling around in one’s head.

This authorial surrogate also shares with Di Benedetto a relish for animal metaphors: “The inclination to write is not a seed that germinates within a fixed period of time,” he explains. “It is a small animal, deep in its cave, that procreates when it is of a mind to, for its season is variable and sometimes it is a dog and other times a ferret, sometimes it is a panther and other times a rabbit.” These unruly mascots of the imagination pop up in many of the stories collected in Nest in the Bones, serving as catalysts for Di Benedetto’s meditations on fantasy, fear, and kindness. From his earliest collection of short fiction, Animal World, to the tales he wrote during and after his imprisonment, animal life is a constant presence in his work, embodying both the triumphs and terrors of human experience. Di Benedetto often focuses on human-animal interaction as a way of putting humans back into the context of nature, pruning back their ambitions and pretensions to more clearly reveal their existence as a contingent moment in reality’s flux.

Animals make meaningful appearances in Zama too, but their significance comes filtered through the narrow perspective of that novel’s narrator, Don Diego de Zama. A stubbornly prideful servant of the Spanish crown in late 18th-century South America, Don Diego spends a decade anxiously awaiting a transfer away from his post in Asunción that will reunite him with his family and bring him closer to the centers of imperial power. Zama’s mirthlessly lofty voice dominates the novel, vacillating between self-regard and self-pity. Manuel Fernández is one of the few supporting characters to make an impression, cutting through the fog of the narrator’s ambitions and perceptions with an offbeat generosity more commonly found in Di Benedetto’s short stories. Mainly we’re stuck with Zama, mired alongside him in a state of “espera,” which translator Esther Allen renders as “expectation,” rather than the more mundane “waiting” or too-optimistic “hope.” The book opens with Don Diego awaiting a ship’s arrival at river’s edge, watching the carcass of a monkey twisting in the water, trapped between the pilings of a wharf. The creature’s function is neatly, if evocatively, metaphoric—the plight of the dead animal illustrating that of the man watching it—because that’s how Zama sees it. “There we were,” he thinks, “Ready to go and not going.”

The title story of Nest in the Bones begins with an even stranger, more lively comparison between man and monkey: “I am not the monkey. I have different ideas, even though, at least in the beginning, we were put in the same position.” This monkey, we learn, made some tepid attempts to assimilate into the narrator’s human family, but ultimately failed. If the monkey’s “idea” is to incorporate himself into human society, the narrator’s is to join an animal ecosystem: he decides to make his head a home for a flock of birds. At first he enjoys “the happiness of being able to give them a firm, secure and warm nest” and exults in the idea of himself as a “a musical, tangible, perishable god.” Before long, however, his nest is invaded by vultures who “eat even the last tiny scrap of my brain.” The narrator leaves us with a plea: “But, please, may no one, upon learning my story, let horror win over them; may they overcome it and not desist, if they harbor any good wish of populating their head with birds.” Di Benedetto takes the ethical consequences of his loopy scenario quite seriously. This bird-brained hero is set apart from Don Diego by his zeal for sacrifice, his altruism in surrendering his body to nature’s use.

If Zama’s protagonist seems to look down his nose at animals, Di Benedetto’s other creations shuttle up and down the spectrum of human and animal experience much more freely, erasing the hierarchies that govern species. In one story, the narrator contemplates the dog that appears in his dreams, whom he would like to invite into his waking hours, so that he might have “in this miserable life of mine, sunless, although under the sun, a dream.” He proposes this to the dream dog, who considers the offer and responds with an alternative: that the narrator come join him in the dream world. In so casually flipping the script on domestication and dreaming, Di Benedetto places humans and animals—alive or dead, real or imaginary—all on one plane of being.


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The collection’s titular image recurs in “The Horse in the Salt Marsh,” which suddenly abandons its human protagonist when he is struck by lighting and instead follows his terrified horse, doomed by the heavy cart it continues to drag. The horse dies, but its body is transformed by nature into a nest: “Like a bent hand, extended to receive water or seeds, the bottom of the little blind horse’s inverted head shelters the sweet bird. Later, when the eggs break open, it will become a box of bird songs.” And in “Foolish Love,” a character imagines herself as a mother to the flies that swarm around her, “because one got inside her nose and lodged in her head, and she breeds them there, and all the town’s flies are bred there.” The motif suggests both mental incapacity—a head empty enough to nest in—and the ways in which matter is absorbed and repurposed by the miraculous cycles of life. It also indicates a kind of ontological monism on Di Benedetto’s part: birds, flies, thoughts—they’re all just stuff one might find rattling around in one’s head.

These early stories—in their reticence, their meandering quality, and their tendency toward sketchiness around the edges—bear the traces of their composition between the work hours of a journalist. “When I write my book I have no master,” insists Manuel Fernandez in Zama. That novel was written over the course of a couple weeks’ vacation from the author’s job at the Mendoza newspaper Los Andes; one can image him dashing off a brief, enigmatic text like “Abandonment and Passivity” on a weekend, as a way of stretching out the writerly limbs that were bundled into professional garb for most of the week. The best of the earlier stories collected here are brief flights of the imagination, catnap visits to the dream dog’s territory.

Di Benedetto places humans and animals—alive or dead, real or imaginary—all on one plane of being.

Di Benedetto’s journalistic career, and much else in his life, was brought to an end when he was imprisoned and tortured by the Argentine military dictatorship in 1976. This ordeal did not keep him from writing, however. Forbidden from composing fiction in prison, Di Benedetto managed to nest his stories into letters written to friends. These were published in 1978 with the title Absurdos (Absurd), followed by a final collection in 1983, Cuentos del exilio (Stories from Exile). A desolation descends on these late stories, without dulling the richness of their imagination. The thematic preoccupations of Di Benedetto’s earlier short fiction all remain, now accompanied by higher set of moral stakes.

“Fish” has a great deal in common with many of the pre-imprisonment stories: a disabled character, the presence of animals, and a penchant for the grotesque. It goes farther than any of them, though, in combining these elements into a sustained scenario of bleakly comic suffering. The story narrates the final days of Lumila, a paraplegic left unable to care for herself after her husband dies in bed next to her. Abandoned beside a rotting corpse, with nobody but her farm’s hungry animals within earshot, Lumila waits in vain for someone to come save her. The story’s structure is almost identical to that of “The Horse in the Salt Marsh”: in both cases, a sudden death causes another agonizingly slow one. In this case, though, Di Benedetto subjects a human to this ordeal, and sees only horror in the eyes of the dogs who will repurpose her body as food. Where once he might have written this scene with an impish shrug, he tightens the screws, playing up the nightmarish violence implicit in a story like “Nest in the Bones.”

Another theme sketched in that story is taken up and stretched to near-mythic dimensions by the gaucho saga “Aballay”: the idea that sharing in animal life can be a route to redemption for humans. Seeking penance for the murder he has committed, the title character resolves to live out the rest of his days on horseback, inspired by the column-perching asceticism of Saint Simeon and the stylites. He learns to sleep, cook, and catch food for himself without leaving his saddle, descending only when absolutely necessary. The conflation of human and animal life takes on a moral grandeur in the figure of Aballay. Living atop a horse means living with it, and a band of Indians even come to refer to him as “man-horse.” Yet at night he is tormented by a familiar image: He dreams that he is living atop the pillars of the stylites, as birds “peck at his ears, eyes, and nose, or try to feed him through his mouth. They build nests, lay eggs … and he, throughout, is terrified by the void, where he will fall if he moves.” Animals remain a hazard as well as a promise, their fine feathers concealing deadly claws. To live among them in spite of their threats demands a kind of heroism.

The younger Di Benedetto, the one who wrote Zama, was not concerned with the possibility of heroism, except insofar as it provided an occasion for quixotic ironies. Don Diego de Zama is an antihero defined by his powerlessness, bungling nearly every task he sets himself, stranded in the state of espera. Most of the characters that populate Nest in the Bones are equally hopeless—like their author, they are delivered up to nothingness: pecked to death, eaten alive, consumed by the very dreams that keep them going. Even Aballay is eventually killed by the son of the man he murdered, making his life a long period of espera punctuated with violence. Yet the man-horse is afforded a kind of dignity that Don Diego never achieves: instead of seeking earthly recognition, he has followed his own laws, renouncing everything but his mount. Only a bird-brain could imagine a life so divine. icon

Featured image: San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, 2008. Photograph by Alex Dodd / Flickr