Sunday, October 8, 2017

On a Boring Novel





Philosophy can be toxic to writers of imaginative literature. Or so it has been maintained.

When I was in college, professors of German literature still blamed the suicide of Heinrich von Kleist, a Wunderkind of German romanticism, on Immanuel Kant. Kleist read Kant a little too enthusiastically and jumped to the conclusion that philosopher’s writings irredeemably savaged the notion of objective truth. In March 1801, Kleist put aside his volume of Kant and concluded that truth was an illusion and knowledge unattainable and that heaven was an empty void. Kleist confided to his friends that he was disillusioned and that "(his) sole and highest goal has vanished – now I have none." Ten years later, the disillusioned writer shot his mistress Henriette Vogel to death and, then, put the gun in his own mouth. It was supposed that this was a direct consequence of Kleist’s misinterpretation of Kant’s thought, a misfortune that demonstrated that the deep and turbid waters of German metaphysics are hostile to novelists, short story writers, and poets. (Kleist’s murder-suicide likely had much more prosaic causes: Kleist’s literary works were disregarded, he was impoverished, his mistress was another man’s wife and, further, apparently dying from an inoperable tumor.)

I have no warrant to believe that the Argentine novelist, Antonio di Benedetto, has ever read Martin Heidegger. Nor do I have any reason to think that Heidegger’s theories about boredom are intentionally invoked in the writer’s recently rediscovered 1956 novel Zama. Widely praised by critics, I was excited to acquire the novel, but, then, spent six weeks trying to read it even though the book is only about 200 pages long. Zama is so intensely, mind-numbingly dull that it’s tedium seems a perverse achievement. Some books are boring by accident or, as a result of incompetence. Antonio di Benedetto is a fluent, accomplished writer and, certainly, capable of creating memorable characters and devising interesting incidents. Therefore, it seems that the effect of ennui induced by the book must be wholly intentional. Indeed, in some respects, his book is a treatise on futility and boredom that is, itself, majestically tedious. And this is no ordinary tedium, but rather boredom so intense and alarming that it seems to have a metaphysical component. Zama leads you to consider the nature of boredom and, therefore, the nature of time. The profundity of the novel’s dullness directs me to Martin Heidegger’s thought. Heidegger, after all, is the greatest theorist of the dull. Often overlooked in the furor about Heidegger’s questionable political views (for instance, his flirtation with the Nazis) is the philosopher’s phenomenological analysis of moods and emotions of the kind previously overlooked or not considered worthy of explication – he is the philosopher-poet of the quotidian, a thinker who writes, at length, about tedious dinner parties and waiting for trains. For Heidegger, boredom is a key to human existence and I think some of his ideas can be marshaled to account for the mind-numbing and intense dullness that Zama embodies.

In 1929 and 1930, Heidegger lectured at the University of Freiburg on "Fundamental Concepts in Metaphysics." His lecture notes were later assembled as a book. In these lectures, Heidegger characterized our experience as human beings in terms of Da-Sein – that is, as a "being there." Da-Sein is the sense of being cast into the world without any particular reason or warrant for our existence. In the movie Chasing Amy, the main character describes herself as coming into the world "without an operator’s manual." Amy says that she is an "experimental kind of girl." This is a good formulation for Da-Sein – our existence is not tailored to any a priori standard. We aren’t housed in Being, but have to construct that shelter for ourselves, improvising meaning from an existence that is defined, at least, initially, as being cast out and away from any specific order of meaning.

Da-Sein is best interrogated through our moods. For Heidegger, moods are definitive. They define our relationship to others and our world. (For Heidegger, meaning does not lie in any thing-in-itself but rather arises from relationships, whether between different aspects of our cognition and soul, or between ourselves and others, or ourselves and the world that we inhabit.) An important mood is boredom. Boredom is intrinsically bound up with time and its passage – in German, boredom is experiencing that which is lang-weilig (seeming to take up an inordinate amount of time, a "long while"). Boredom is an essential, and revealing, mood because it engages us with the passage of time – when we are bored, time seems to dilate and slow down. Heidegger is fond of recondite distinctions and he divides boredom into three categories: being bored by something, being bored with something, and profound boredom. I don’t understand the distinctions and doubt whether they are particularly useful or have any real meaning. The idea of "profound boredom", however, has application to de Benedetto’s Zama.

In all categories of boredom, the person experiencing this mood senses that time is being wasted. Time is all that we have and boredom represents an inauthentic expenditure of time. As time seeps away from us, we experience two phenomenon: Leergelassenheit and Hingehaltenheit. The German words can be defined in this way: Leergelassenheit is the sense of being made empty – the German is passive: we are abandoned to a sense of emptiness. Hingehaltenheit means to be restrained, held back, kept from achieving that which we yearn to accomplish. Da-Sein involves our engagement with time, the sense that time is slipping away from us and that we can achieve no traction on time. Boredom makes us aware of time’s indifference to us, our solitude, and the fact that Da-Sein is not experienced as directing us toward any particular end – we are just there and have to decide ourselves what to do with the time allotted to us. When a tedious engagement (Heidegger’s example is a dull dinner party) keeps us from doing something that engages us with more passion we experience Hingehaltenheit – the sense of being restrained. In this condition, we feel entrapped in emptiness. Fernando Pessoa expressed these notions powerfully in his Book of Disquiet. He writes:

Tedium is not the disease of being bored because there is nothing to do, but the more serious disease of being feeling that there’s nothing worth doing. 

And this brings us to di Benedetto’s heroic and maddening engagement with tedium: Zama.

Zama is a historical novel and chronicles the adventures of one Don Diego de Zama, a civil servant of the Spanish crown, who has found himself marooned in Asuncion – that is, Paraguay – at the end of the 18th century. The novel is composed in three sections. The first two are about the same length and are set in 1790 and 1794 respectively; the last section is much shorter, about thirty pages, and takes place in 1799. The narrative is first-person – Zama tells us about his life.

Zama seems to be from Montevideo in what is now Uruguay. He is middle-aged and lives alone because his wife, Marta, has remained behind in Montevideo. At one time, Zama was an accomplished Indian fighter, leading forces that defeated tribes of hostile Indios. He has also served as Corregidor – that is, a kind of territorial judge, a position of considerable power and authority. In Asunscion, he serves as some kind of bureaucrat – his duties are unclear, but they are obviously of no importance to anyone. Although he is apparently one of the leading men in the government in Asuncion, his administrative duties are profoundly dull. (In one section of the book, a government official from Montevideo abruptly dies – the novel takes place in the steaming jungles and Gran Chaco of Paraguay and people who are healthy one day, drop dead the next. Zama has to supervise the burial of the dead man and manage the payment of his debts; he is afraid that after he has buried the corpse, relatives in Montevideo will surface and require that the cadaver be exhumed for burial in the South – this is how Uruguay is described.)

Zama is sexually frustrated. His moral principles prohibit him from consorting with women of mixed blood or mulattas. He corresponds with his wife, Marta, about every six months – letters come and go on the slow boat to Montevideo. He despises the provincial nature of Asuncion and schemes perpetually for reprieve and assignment either in Montevideo or, better yet, in Spain itself.

The book’s first part, labeled 1790, begins with seemingly random events, but coalesces as the account of a thwarted and utterly unsatisfactory love affair. Zama comes upon a stream where local ladies are bathing. One of these women, described to be very beautiful, pursues Zama through woods. Naked, she seizes him, apparently overcome by lust. Zama, who has been yearning for some kind of sexual adventure, slaps her face and kicks her in the rump for a good measure. This perverse rejection of what Zama actually desires sets the tone for what will follow.

The woman, named Luciana, is married. Her husband besets Zama and accuses him of lechery, calling him all sorts of names. What follows is a chronicle of mostly unrequited lust – that is, an account of futility.

Zama encounters a boy who has committed a sex murder. He interviews the boy and remands him to the custody of Venturo Prieto, a shadowy figures who Zama fears and despises – it is never made clear whether this fear is well-founded or simply some form of paranoia. Zama fondles Rita at a dinner party – she is married to somone named Bermudez and the youngest daughter of his host. At the dinner party, the other guests reproach Zama for refusing to sleep with Black or Mulatto women. Zama has proclaimed that he will have sex only with White women and, then, limits his affairs to Spaniards – of course, this declaration makes him the enemy of everyone else: in effect, he confesses that he preys only upon the wives and daughters of other officials of his class.

At home, the perpetually impoverished Zama surprises a fair-haired boy, about twelve, rummaging through his things. It seems that the boy has stolen some coins from him – this is a hardship for Zama who is paid only rarely and, then, at unpredictable intervals. Zama accuses his arch-enemy Venturo Prieto of sending to boy to steal his money. When he later encounters the boy, he seizes him, but the child escapes by kicking Zama in the testicles.

Zama, then, pays court to Luciana. She flirts with him, but rebuffs his initial advances. Curiously, she seems more interested in the "gentleman from the East" – a visitor to Asuncion from Montevideo. Luciana’s husband has gone on a trip – the husbands of upper caste Colonial officials and merchants seem to be always traveling. Zama finally embraces Luciana and kisses her. This brief embrace so inflames him that he abandons his principles briefly and has sex with a mulatta woman. Zama, then, sets upon his enemy, Ventura Prieto, beats him severely and orders his exile. Several random-seeming incidents ensue: at a picnic in the country, Zama wins some money betting on horse-races and watches a spider crawl up the face of a man who is passed-out drunk. A native woman is found bleeding heavily in a ditch and Zama endeavors to find a curandera to treat her.

Zama’s girlfriend, Rita, returns to her husband Bermudez. Rita is trying to engineer a duel between Zama and Bermudez. Zama plots a tryst with Luciana whose husband is once again absent. As he waits for the sign from Luciana that all is clear, Zama notices that there seems to be another shadowy suitor, also lurking in the darkness near Luciana’s window. Zama imagines this suitor to be Bermudez, Rita’s husband.

Zama is finally paid his salary. He attends a fiesta and learns that Rita has been beaten badly by Bermudez and left half conscious in a ditch. When he sees her, Rita demands that Zama duel with Bermudez. But Bermudez has vanished again. At Luciana’s house for dinner party, Luciana’s husband, who turns out to be her cousin as well, falls asleep and a large spider crawls on his face. Zama hopes the spider, thought to poisonous, will bite Luciana’s husband. But the spider, we learn, has been bitten itself and is torpid, a nursery for the larvae of a predatory wasp.

Luciana departs and the section, about 98 pages long, ends.

The account that I have supplied of the first part of Zama demonstrates some of the difficulties that the reader faces when confronting this novel. First, nothing really ever happens, although, in fact, the narrative is "busy" with inconsequential events. Di Benedetto’s prose style is fantastically clipped and economical to the point of being hard to decipher. He rarely provides descriptions and uses a uniform, clinical style to describe everything – there are no extravagant gestures, little in the way of rhetorical flights of fancy, and nothing to signify what is important and what is inconsequential. (Of course, Zama’s flat style reveals that it is all equally inconsequential.) People are often not named until several pages after we have first learned about them. The significance of events has to be worked out after we have these events have been narrated – we aren’t told what will lead to other events and what circumstances are simply narrative dead ends. Circumstances that would seem to be important – for instance, the basis of Zama’s grudge against Venturo Prieto – are never explained. People simply appear and disappear with seeming randomness – the "gentleman from the East" who is Zama’s competitor for the affection of Luciana simply drops dead, causing complications for the hero who has to administer the dead man’s estate. People behave with maddening inconsistency: Zama claims he will never have sex with a mulatta, and, then, fifteen pages later is embracing one of them; Luciana alternately seduces and, then, repels Zama; Zama sometimes thinks Luciana is beautiful, but other times finds her quite ugly. The only overtly literary technique that di Benedetto deploys is doubling – everything has a twin: a spider crawls on a drunk man and, then, on Luciana’s husband; Rita and an unnamed Indian woman end up naked and bleeding in a ditch. Bermudez seems to be a spectral double of Zama.

At all points, the book is competently written and many of its incidents are moderately interesting, but it seems to add to nothing at all. The effect is one of unremitting tedium because the book is designed to show that each of its incidents are meaningless and, ultimately, inconsequential. The hero keeps hoping for a decisive adventure, a romantic tryst that will change his life, or some kind threshold that he can cross into a more meaningful existence – but this never happens. Critics compare the book to novels by Sartre and Beckett – I think these allusions are remote. The book that Zama most resembles in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. When I first read Sentimental Education, I discovered that I had finished over 100 pages and couldn’t remember anything at all about what I had read. Zama has the same quicksilver aspect – it eludes your understanding and memory. Every page is completely clear and lucid, but nothing has any meaning. There is something fundamentally shadowy and inconclusive about the hero. In effect, the book mimics real life too closely.

Zama’s next 57 pages are set in 1794. We are told nothing about the interim. Zama remains in Asuncion. He has a secretary, Fernandez, who is writing a book. Work on the book is slow and it is fairly certain that Fernandez will never finish this project. Zama lives with a woman named Emiliana and has a son with her. Bored with the relationship and disgusted by the small child, Zama moves to a tavern. As usual, he has not been paid for a long time and has almost no money. After being physically assaulted by the innkeeper for failing to pay his bills, Zama moves to a lodging house.

For some reason, Zama forms the conclusion that there may be two nubile white women, possibly daughters of his landlord living in another part of the lodging house. From time to time, he sees women in various colored dresses moving through the shadows and, of course, desires them. Upon moving into the lodging house, Zama is assigned a Black female slave, but she almost immediately dies. The landlord, Soledad, is also sick and reputed to be near death. Zama tallies up the money that the crown owes him – it is a considerable fortune and one that might be enough to purchase his escape from Asuncion were he only to be paid.

While stalking about the shadowy lodging house, apparently, a kind of hacienda or ranch, Zama sees a mournful-looking woman watching him from a window across the street. This woman sends her little mulatta slave to encourage Zama to pay court to her. Zama sends correspondence to the middle-aged and sorrowful woman and, ultimately, goes to her home and rapes her – the woman doesn’t resist and is "lightly clad, as if in preparation." Immediately, thereafter the woman sends a note to Zama with some coins since she recognizes his poverty. The little girl carrying the message is killed in an accident on the street, trampled by some horses, and the coins are flung to the earth. One of the witnesses to the accident is the blonde boy whom Zama accused of stealing his coins in the first episode in 1790. The reappearance of the blonde boy seems "imcomprehensible" to Zama; the child has not aged. That night, Zama goes to bed in a kind of delirium. A woman visits him and, at first, he thinks it may be one of the elusive young white girls living in the household. But it is the middle-aged matron from across the street. She tells Zama that she can be another woman for him – that a man can see a woman both "as she is and as he desires her to be." But she also remarks that if the man clings to a fantasy of a woman "who no longer is", this delusion will lead to "sickness and death." The woman, then, kisses him "as if to inflict wounds on (him)" Zama concludes that the woman is not real, that she is a "projection" of his thoughts. Nonetheless, he succumbs to her embrace. This "hollows" Zama out and leaves "(him) so empty (he) no longer desires her." He feels that "everything has been negated" and falls into a delirium.

Earlier Zama encouraged his secretary Fernandez to marry his mistress Emiliana and serve as a surrogate father to his son. Fernandez has taken this advice. At the end of the second section of the book, Zama watches Fernandez happily walking with his former mistress – they are married and everyone is said to be "very virtuous." The mournful-looking middle-aged matron is never mentioned again – in the Icelandic sagas, there is a formula: "And, now, (this character) is out of the saga." The same thing happens to the middle-aged woman who may or may not have been real – she is gone from the novel. Someone tells Zama that there was, indeed, one young white woman living in Soledo’s lodging house. But, now, Soledo has left town with his wife, slave, and his daughter. The other young woman that Zama thought inhabited the house seems to have been a fantasy.

In form and theme, "1794" recapitulates Zama’s 1790 story – the hero is again chronically poor and isolated. He is assaulted by an innkeeper and sees the mysterious blonde boy associated once more with coins – this time, the coins sent to him by the mournful widow. People abruptly vanish or die. Zama spends his time lusting after a white woman who doesn’t exist – one of the two daughters of the house who are, in any event, forbidden to him. He has an affair with a woman to whom he is not really attracted. This affair results in Zama feeling that he has been "hollowed out" – that is, made empty, a dramatic demonstration of the phenomenon of Leergelassenheit – that is experiencing one self as abandoned to emptiness and one of the traits Heidegger attributes to boredom. Again, he is restrained: longing for his wife, Marta, and some means to escape from Asuncion, Zama remains trapped there. On several occasions, the love affair in the first chapter four years earlier involving Luciana is mentioned. Zama’s efforts at seducing and romancing Luciana were, ultimately, unsuccessful – but, at least, Luciana was a real woman. By 1794, Zama’s love affairs have become creepy – that is, spectral. He is frustrated because he is pursuing a white woman whom he knows inhabits the lodging house but who continuously evades him – this is because she may not exist at all. Thus, Zama’s erotic adventures, all of which are exercises in sexual frustration, reach a new level of futility – he is now pursuing women who exist only in his feverish imagination. This pursuit of phantoms debars him from any relationships in the real world; Zama cedes his wife and son to his secretary, Fernandez.

"1794" is even more elliptical and compressed that the preceding chapter. It is much tougher slog than the first chapter because by this time, we know that nothing can happen. Those events narrated to us seems ghostly, unreal, perhaps, hallucinatory.

At first blush, Zama’s last section "1799" seems something entirely new. This is the shortest part of the book, 37 pages long. Zama’s lust is transmuted into martial fury – in this last section, the quest is not for a woman, but a hunt for a deadly brigand. The novel is now all action – there is torture, mutilation, and outlandish violence. But, of course, it is illusory and futile. At the end of the book, di Benedetto makes his most dispiriting demonstration – even violent action is meaningless and inconsequential. In the first two parts of the book, Zama longs for something to happen and, in the default of anything consequential occurring, pursues hopeless love affairs. At the end of the book, something has occurred, but action turns out to be just variations on the novel’s earlier themes. The effect is like a theme repeated in several different keys – the violent action at the novel’s ending is merely a reiteration of Zama’s familiar paralysis and fecklessness now performed for us in the major-key of a Hemingway novel.

A brutal outlaw, Vicuna Porto, has burned down a town. (Notice that the name of this brigand mirrors the name of Zama’s earlier nemesis, Ventura Prieto.) Zama joins a command of cavalry consisting of 25 lancers dispatched to hunt down Porto. Zama is not the leader of the mission – the sortie is commanded by an autocratic and incompetent soldier named Hipolite Parilla. Significantly, the lancers ride north – throughout the book, Zama’s salvation has been to the South and East; he longs to travel either to Spain (East) or Buenos Aires (South). Now, the novel takes him in exactly the wrong direction, providing as Zama tells us "a new dimension for action."

The search-and-destroy mission doesn’t begin auspiciously. Some of the men get drunk and have to be flogged. The notoriously prickly Zama clashes with Parilla who lashes the hero’s horse so that it throws him. Although the action is imagined as spread across hundreds of miles of the Gran Chaco, in fact, the expedition is an interior one: Zama recognizes that freedom is never to be sought "out there but within each one."

Everything that happens in this section can be correlated with events earlier in the novel. Both earlier sections involved nighttime vigils in which Zama waiting for a sign from a woman encounters, it seems, rivals for her affections. In "1799", Zama goes into a dark forest and comes face-to-face with Vicuna Porto – these much despised enemies, Porto and the rivals, always seem curiously like Doppelgaengers to the hero. Porto is masquerading as one of the enlisted men, a certain Gaspar Toledo and this leads the reader to the curious surmise – maybe, the man’s primary identity is Gaspar Toledo and he is only Vicuna Porto, the vicious outlaw, intermittently. In any event, the outlaw that the cavalry seeks is among their number. Zama can’t bring himself to tell this to Parilla, possibly because he despises the commander or, perhaps, because he wonders whether he has merely dreamed the episode in which he met the disguised villain. The cavalry encounter a large group of Indians who are, apparently, friendly. However, a bloody battle accidently ensues – the lancers have forgotten that they are advancing in combat array and this causes the Indians to encircle and attack them. Some men are killed, but there is a truce which is followed by feasting with the Indians. In previous sections of the book, poisonous spiders afflicted characters – in the Gran Chaco, the cavalrymen are attacked by vipers. In one sequence, Zama spends the night motionless because a large snake is sharing his sleeping bag with him. The troops come upon a big nomadic tribe of Indians, all of them blinded by another enemy tribe. Children born to tribal members lead them across the plains. Zama watches with amazement as men and women in the tribe have sexual intercourse in public, noting that this impunity derives from the fact that everyone is blind.

The denouement is swift and merciless. Vicuna Porto rises up from within the ranks and captures both Zama and Parilla. During the books last six or seven pages, Zama is tied, sometimes hand and foot – thus, the notion of restraint that is integral to boredom, the idea of Hingehaltenheit ("being held back") is actualized. Parilla is drowned. Zama tries to talk his way out of his plight by suggesting that the brigands raid a convoy of Portuguese miners who are carrying diamonds. But he is bluffing and knows that there are no diamonds. An ostrich has been killed; Zama writes a note to his wife, Marta, with ostrich blood, but, then, destroys it. When the outlaws discover that he has disappointed them, and that there are no diamonds for them to steal, they cut off all his fingers. The book’s metaphors are now embodied or made material fact – Zama’s previous inability to act is now factual: he has no hands. As he is dying, Zama sees the blonde 12-year old boy. The child reveals that he is Zama when he was a youth. "You haven’t grown," Zama says. "Neither have you," the boy replies. (This last revelation feels superficial to me and a bit beside the point – although di Benedetto laboriously prepares for this "rosebud", I’m not convinced that the issue in the book was ever that Zama was trapped in a pre-adolescent state of mind; to the contrary, Zama’s world-weariness seems exhausted and ancient.)

In some ways, Zama is a perfected work of art. By this I mean that the theme of existential tedium, tedium vitae, is embodied in the fact that the short book is startlingly dull. It is all a tease for pleasures that the hero never achieves. The women in the first two sections of the novel seem to tease Zama with the hope of consummating some meaningful passion with them – this notion needs to be amended because the affair proposed in the "1794" section of the book is entirely imaginary: Zama, in effect, is teasing himself. In the last part of the book, the erotic quest becomes military, but the results are no less futile: the real evil lies within and can’t be rooted out without destroying the protagonist. Di Benedetto dedicates the book to Al las victimes de la espera – that is, "to the victims of expectation." As long as we live in expectation, we are not living in the present moment, and, indeed, run the risk of denigrating that moment (after all the only thing we have) as something worthless, to be passed-over.

The exemplary boredom expressed in Zama puts the reader in the shoes of the disappointed brigands. The novelist creates expectations in the readers that he doesn’t satisfy. Zama was punished for creating false expectations by having his fingers cut off. The reader, appalled by Zama’s perfect, dull, and impenetrable surface, wishes to revenge himself on di Benedetto, to punish him for imposing this confrontation with boredom on us – perhaps, the writer’s fingers should be cut off. There’s a certain poetic justice in learning what happened to di Benedetto: he found himself on the wrong side of the military junta ruling Argentina. He was apprehended, tortured repeatedly, and, then, dragged out for execution not once but four separate times – on each occasion, di Benedetto apparently thought that he was going to be dispatched by a bullet through the head. In prison, Benedetto wrote a number of stories. Zama was published in German to much acclaim during the "Dirty War" and the great German novelist Heinrich Boll intervened, sending letters to Buenos Aires petitioning for di Benedetto’s release. These efforts were successful in September 1977. Di Benedetto lived for a time in Madrid, traveled to the United States, and, finally, returned to Buenos Aires in 1985. He received many honors and awards for his writing – ultimately, he had composed two other novels and many short stories – before dying in 1986. Borges, who made no effort to help di Benedetto during the "Dirty War", mentioned his name with some grudging respect a little later, although the two men seem to have been adversaries. Writers like Roberto Bolano revered di Benedetto and proclaimed his influence.

During his imprisonment, di Benedetto said that the greatest torture was not knowing why he was under arrest. He hoped that it was something that he had written and published, but was never told the reason for his torture and incarceration.

The Argentine director, Lucrecia Martel, has directed a film version of Zama. The movie premiered in Toronto in September 2017. Critics expressed confusion. A preliminary report from someone who was in the audience on opening night said that the film was comprised of two parts – one had something to do with a romance and the other involved fighting Indians in the outback. The writer posted a note saying that it was one of the most boring and pointless films that he had ever seen.