History, Obstinacy, and the Historical Novel: Antonio Di Benedetto's Zama

  • Matt Johnson Indiana University Bloomington
Keywords Latin American Literary Studies, Modernism, The Historical Novel, Western Marxism
Keywords Latin American Literary Studies, Modernism, The Historical Novel, Western Marxism


Zama, Argentine author Antonio Di Benedetto’s second novel, was published in 1956, but its action is set during the final decade of the 18th century in an isolated colonial outpost of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. In an influential 1972 essay, Juan José Saer proclaims that Zama carries out a remarkable refutation of the historical novel, parodically deconstructing the historicist ideology underlying the genre. This paper instead reads Zama as a modernist historical novel, showing how it relies on the formal conventions of aesthetic modernism to narrate the subjective, embodied experience of its protagonist, an American-born colonial functionary named Diego de Zama. Thus, rather than conceiving Zama as a refutation of the historical novel, this paper argues that it enacts an important double exposure of aesthetic modernism to the historical novel, and vice versa. On the one hand, Di Benedetto’s novel lays bare the rhetorical foundations of the classical historical novel and its aspiration to objectively reconstruct history; on the other, it relies on modernist techniques in its effort to adequately represent Zama’s subjective, embodied experience of history. This double exposure paves the way for a distinct vision of history which is here brought to light by analyzing a series of affinities between Zama’s approach to history and some of the core ideas expressed by German theorists Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt in their recently-translated book History and Obstinacy. Their pursuit of forms of “obstinate” resistance embedded in the sub-individual characteristics of the human body and their tendencies toward autonomy and self-regulation relates compellingly to certain methods employed in Zama to narrate Diego de Zama’s experiences, and allows for a new understanding of the theoretical implications of Di Benedetto’s decision to set his modernist novel in the distant historical past.

Author Biography

Matt Johnson, Indiana University Bloomington

Matt Johnson is a doctoral candidate and associate instructor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University Bloomington. His research focuses on 20th-and-21st-century Argentine literature and its relation to critical theory, post-Kantian aesthetic theory, and theoretical paradigms of modernism and the avant-garde. His dissertation project studies the emergence and retrospective canonization of modernist literature in Argentina, focusing primarily on works written by Roberto Arlt and Macedonio Fernández in the 1920s and 30s, as well as Ricardo Piglia’s influential re-reading of the modern Argentine tradition in the later decades of the 20th century.

Articles / Artículos