NEST IN THE BONES: STORIES
by Antonio Di Benedetto
translated by Martina Broner
Archipelago Books, 275 pages
reviewed by Eric Andrew Newman
It would have been easy for the Argentinian writer Antonio Di Benedetto’s works to have slipped through the cracks of the world literary canon, as he didn’t belong to any of the three major movements of Latin American literature, the pre-boom of Borges, the boom of Cortazar, or the post-boom of Roberto Bolaño. The Spanish newspaper El Pais has said that Di Benedetto might as well have created his own anti-boom. Shunning the bombastic style of the boom generation, Di Benedetto employs a dry minimalism that underlines the regional foundation of the text. All these well-known literary men greatly admired Di Benedetto’s works. Yet he never achieved their level of success.
It took over 60 years for Di Benedetto’s first novel, Zama, which was published in Spanish in 1956, to make its debut in English language translation in 2016. This was Di Benedetto’s first book to be translated into English, even though he had been translated into several other languages, including German, French and Italian, decades before. Di Benedetto’s first book to be published in Spanish was his short story collection Animal World, which came out in 1953 when he was thirty years old. After Animal World, Di Benedetto went on to write and publish five novels, including Zama, and five more short story collections.
Animal World was given a literary prize by a jury headed by Borges and following that Zama was well reviewed by the Buenos Aires literary magazine Sur, run by Victoria Ocampo (a good friend of Borges). Yet neither of the books sold well. This was most likely due to Di Benedetto’s refusal to move to Buenos Aires, Argentina’s literary capital, from Mendoza, the regional province where he was born and raised, to promote his work. Di Benedetto worked as an editor of a Mendozan newspaper, Los Andes, a job he was hesitant to give up.
This new collection, Nest in the Bones, translated from the Spanish by Martina Broner, culls the best from Di Benedetto’s Collected Stories, a volume of over one hundred short stories from all six of his previous short story collections, starting with Animal World. In the earliest stories in this latest collection, more reminiscent of dreams and fables than of real life, Di Benedetto seems to draw purely from the imagination. But in both these early stories and his later ones, the themes of animals and refuge continually recur.
In this regard, Di Benedetto’s first two books, Animal Kingdom and Zama, set the templates for his work to come. Zama famously begins with a passage about a dead monkey that perfectly encapsulates the main character’s plight:
A dead monkey, still whole, still undecomposed, drifted back and forth with a certain precision upon those ripples and eddies without exit… The water that bore him up tried to bear him away, but he was caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf and there he was, ready to go and not going.
Don Diego de Zama serves as a minor official in the Spanish colonies of the Americas. In the opening scene, he is waiting at the wharf for a boat to arrive, either bringing his wife and children, or word from the Governor that he is being transferred to a more prestigious post in Buenos Aires. But like the dead monkey drifting among the wharf’s posts, Zama waits eternally in vain, “ready to go and not going.”
Di Benedetto’s title story of the new collection, “Nest in the Bones,” also begins with a monkey, only this one is still living. “I’m not the monkey. My ideas are different, even if we did end up in the same position.” While the narrator claims not to be like his father’s pet monkey, he goes on to explain that as his father’s monkey takes refuge in an old palm tree, he takes his own kind of refuge in his room, and in friends, walks in nature, and books. Neither the monkey nor the man could ever successfully adapt to the narrator’s harsh father and his family.
The monkey’s hollow head inspires the narrator to fill up his own head with a flock of birds, the “nest in the bones” of the title. This flock of birds in the narrator’s head serves as a wonderful metaphor for the thoughts flying around a writer’s brain while composing a piece, whether the birds are the colorful canaries of a story, or the pecking vultures of self-doubt. Either way, the narrator seems to take great joy in giving refuge to his own odd, wayward thoughts deemed to be unacceptable by society at large. “I reveled in it, in the happiness of that sturdy, secure, and sheltering nest I was able to give them.”
This collection showcases a number of wonderfully imaginative stories whose fanciful imagery remains in the reader’s mind long after he’s finished reading. Di Benedetto’s concise, intelligent stories are surely still a source of complicit delight. Anyone who reads Zama and is hungry for more of Di Benedetto’s work will enjoy pecking at the writer’s brain in Nest in the Bones.
The image of a bird’s nest in the bones reappears later in the collection. The main character of “The Horse of the Salt Flats,” from Di Benedetto’s 1961 collection Foolish Love, is a horse. In the opening paragraph, the horse’s owner is struck dead by lightning and is incinerated on the spot. His horse is left on its own, still strapped to the man’s cart and pulling it behind him, like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill. When the horse dies, a dove builds a nest under the horse’s skull, seeking refuge from the sun, and when the eggs hatch the nest in the bones soon becomes “a box of birdsong.”
Di Benedetto once said Dostoyevsky had such an outsized influence on him that the Russian “invented” him. Just as Dostoyevsky was once imprisoned in imperial Russia, Di Benedetto was incarcerated by the regime in Argentina from 1976 to 1977. He was finally released thanks to the involvement of fellow Argentinian novelist Ernesto Sabato and German Nobel-laureate Heinrich Boll. After his release, Di Benedetto left the country for Spain where he published his next book of stories, The Absurd Ones, in 1978. Several of the stories in the collection were written while he was in prison, but since he was banned from writing fiction, he smuggled them out in letters to friends.
Now translated into English, “Aballay” is one such story, about a man who refuses to dismount from the back of his horse. Much as St. Simeon of the Stylites takes refuge from the sins of the world on top of a column, Abally takes refuge from his own sins, which include murder, on top of his horse. While sitting in a self-made purgatory, Aballay soon begins to have dreams of sitting atop a column, like the Stylites, and having birds peck out his eyes. “They peck at his ears, his eyes, and his nose,” writes Di Benedetto. This return to the image of vultures pecking out the narrator’s brain in “Nest in the Bones” highlights the motifs running throughout Di Benedetto’s work.
“The Impossibility of Sleep,” from his next and final collection, Stories from Exile, published in 1983, is the only one in this new collection to address his time in prison. The narrator here discusses how the prison guards rob him of any refuge, even the brief escape of sleep. This idea brings the new collection full circle, as one of the first stories, “Reducido,” features a narrator debating whether or not to escape the numerous adversities in his real life by accompanying his dog Reducido in his dreams.
Despite that Roberto Bolaño and Di Benedetto both lived in Spain in the early 1980s, they never met in person. There has even been some doubt as to whether or not they corresponded. What is for sure, however, is that in 1997 Bolaño wrote a story, Sensini,” with a character based on Di Benedetto. In “Sensini,” the protagonist comes across the name of one of his favorite Argentinian writers in a regional story competition and uses the opportunity to talk about a certain intermediate generation of Argentinian writers. He says of Sensini’s (Di Benedetto’s) generation that although “they didn’t have the stature of Borges and Cortazar, their concise, intelligent texts were a constant source of complicit delight.”
Though Zama is a better introduction to Di Benedetto’s writing, Nest in the Bones is still a worthwhile read. Di Benedetto’s plain, straight-forward prose better suits the narrator of an administrator writing reports in the colonies in Zama than it does the narrators of the dreams and fables in Nest in the Bones. However, this collection showcases a number of wonderfully imaginative stories whose fanciful imagery remains in the reader’s mind long after he’s finished reading. Di Benedetto’s concise, intelligent stories are surely still a source of complicit delight. Anyone who reads Zama and is hungry for more of Di Benedetto’s work will enjoy pecking at the writer’s brain in Nest in the Bones.
Eric Andrew Newman lives in Los Angeles and is from the Chicago area. He works as an archivist for a nonprofit foundation by day and as a writer of flash fiction by night. He has previously been named as a finalist for the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest and Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Exposition Review, Gargoyle, Heavy Feather Review, Necessary Fiction, New Madrid, and Quarter After Eight.