A Curious Bilingual Edition.

Esther Allen writes about the Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto and his 1956 novel Zama, which she translated; both he and it sound fascinating and well worth investigating, and I recommend the whole essay, but I’ll feature a couple of bits of particular LH interest. First, an odd edition:

Perhaps Di Benedetto imagined he could leapfrog Buenos Aires, going directly from Mendoza into an international literary career. Some suggestion of this is present as early as Declinación y ángel / Decline and Angel, a curious bilingual edition published in 1958 by Mendoza’s public library. The intent behind the inclusion of English translations, as the jacket copy explains, was to make the slim paperback a missive out into the world beyond Spanish. It was a good idea, but one ahead of its time; Borges would not see the first volume of his work in English translation until 1962. And the execution was problematic. The translator—her name given simply as “Ana” on the title page—was equipped for her daunting task with a bilingual dictionary and an at best intermediate grasp of English. If Di Benedetto presented the non-Spanish speakers he met in the course of his travels with copies of this slim volume, it can’t have served him well.

After his mysterious 1976 arrest by the new military government of Argentina:

Whatever the real reason, Di Benedetto would not be silenced. He was forbidden to work as a writer while in prison but was allowed to correspond, so he devised a way of including short stories in his correspondence. He would begin, “I had a lovely dream last night; let me tell you about it,” and then write an entire story in letters so microscopic they had to be deciphered through a magnifying glass.

And the opening of the essay resonates with this very early LH post (I am amused by my passionate defense of my position in a long-forgotten blogwar, but I stand by that position):

On December 23rd, 1849, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, arrested and imprisoned seven months earlier, stood in the heart of St. Petersburg with other members of the Petrashevsky Circle while an officer read out a sentence condemning them all to death by firing squad. For five minutes, the 28-year-old Dostoyevsky knew his life was about to end. The first three men were tied to stakes, guns lowered in their faces; the future author of Crime and Punishment was in the next group. Just as the shots were about to be fired, an aide-de-camp arrived at a gallop, bearing a stay of execution from the tsar that commuted the group’s sentence to exile and hard labor in Siberia. Many a biographer has linked that moment to themes and passages in the subsequent works. “The memory of this false execution,” observes Henri Troyat, “remained alive in Dostoyevsky’s writing.”

Antonio Di Benedetto, a writer so influenced he would say he was “invented” by Dostoyevsky, also heard his own execution read out and knew he was about to die. For 18 months during Argentina’s Dirty War, from March 24th, 1976 to September 3rd, 1977, he was imprisoned, tortured, and, on four occasions, taken from his cell and placed before a firing squad. For the Di Benedetto biographer, however, the impact of the mock executions on the literary work requires a more complex calculation. Di Benedetto faced the firing squads two decades after writing Zama, his first novel and third book, which in its growing and inexorable dread, its sense that the present results not only from the past but also from the future, seems uncannily imbued with what its author would live through 20 years later.

Thanks, Trevor!

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