An Existentialist in Mendoza

Untitled-1Charlie O’Malley delves into the life of Mendoza´s most prestigious literary figure – Antonio Di Benedetto.

In Franz Kafka’s seminal work The Trial, the opening pages begin with the protagonist Josef K waking up to find two men standing over him. They arrest him and the ensuing story becomes a nightmarish quest by the prisoner to find out exactly what he has been arrested for, and subsequently executed. Kafka´s dreamlike narrative and absurd but horrific plot became the shocking reality for the Mendoza writer and journalist.

Antonio Di Benedetto whose own brilliant style was compared to the famous Czech novelist. On the 24th of March 1976, the day of the now infamous military coup that ushered in a dark period of terror in Argentina, Di Benedetto was taken by soldiers from his office at the Mendoza newspaper Los Andes where he worked as the assistant editor. Held for 18 months, the prize winning novelist was tortured and beaten and underwent such cruel, inhuman treatment as to suffer four simulated executions. Traumatised by the experience, he wrote from prison to a friend begging him to smuggle in some cyanide so he could end his life.

Di Benedetto’s suffering was made worse by the fact that he had no idea and was never told why he was detained. The 54 year-old writer was no left wing radical, nor had he any links to any guerrilla groups. He said of the experience: “My suffering would have been less if just once they had told me exactly what I had done. But I never knew. This uncertainty is more horrific than torture.”

Such an unbearable existence was compounded by the cold indifference of his employer Los Andes. The newspaper never even reported his abduction and indeed published the following headlines the day after the coup “The Country is Living and Working Normally”. Di Benedetto was further humiliated when sacked from his position at the newspaper whilst still behind bars – a job that he had held for 15 years. He was forced to sign a letter of resignation under the premise that his wife and daughter would receive financial help – something which never happened.

It was a cruel twist of fate for a writer who had made a name for himself writing profoundly and poetically on the loneliness of the human condition. Di Benedetto was the author of four novels and six collections of short stories. His dazzling originality earned him accolades from all around the World, including prestigious awards in Italy, France and the United States. His most famous work, Zama, is regarded as one of the great masterpieces of 20th Century Spanish language literature. It is set in the savage, primal setting of 18th Century Paraguay where slavery still exists. Don Diego de Zama is a civil servant for the Spanish crown who longs to return to the civilization of Buenos Aires where his wife resides and is waiting news of a transfer. The opening scene is a graphic description of a dead monkey floating in a pool of water – a metaphor for the suspended existence and despair of the protagonist. Life is a torturous waiting game. Di Benedetto’s style is precise and exact, yet lyrical and philosophical. His intense prose is difficult to translate as it is oblique and enigmatic, opaque and often illogical. His grand themes are existential anguish and the redeeming power of memory and hope. He wrote the book in one month of feverish creativity, listening to the strains of Beethoven to drown out distractions. Zama has been compared to Camus’ The Outsider and of course Kafka’s The Trial.

Di Beneditto’s own trial never happened. In the end it was his books that saved him. Some brave friends and supporters began an International campaign for his release, supported by Robert Cox, the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald. He was released after 18 months. Without such an outcry he would undoubtedly have been murdered.

Nevertheless he came out a broken man and soon left his beloved Mendoza for exile in Europe, principally in Paris and eventually in Madrid where he survived by teaching. His prolific output ceased and he only published two more books. He eventually returned to Buenos Aires when democracy was reinstated in 1984 and worked for two years at the Casa de Mendoza before passing away in 1986.

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