There’s often an element of the surreal and the macabre in South American literature. In the case of Antonio Di Benedetto, it’s more than an element. It’s the lens through which he examined modern society as it intersects with the older, more traditional ways of life in provincial Argentina. Unlike some of his more famous Argentine contemporaries, whose sensibilities were molded in the sophisticated city of Buenos Aires, he spent the first decades of his adult life as a journalist in Mendoza, a small city in the foothills of the Andes and on the edge of the pampas.
This collection of 20 stories and one novella spans a period from the 1950s to a few years before Di Benedetto’s death in 1986. They reflect the gradual changes in his themes from his early years, through his arrest and torture by the military dictatorship in 1978, and his subsequent self-chosen exile in Spain.
The early works are the most experimental, often using images of animals to create metaphors for mental anguish. The most striking, and possibly the best, of these early stories, “Abandonment and Passivity,” tells of loss entirely from the viewpoint of the objects in a room, as if there were no humans in the story at all. After a stone breaks a window, “the window resists nothing. It hurries the breeze along.” When someone returns to the abandoned room, “The light ... returns one night, emanating from the filaments in the lamp.”
The title story, “Nest in the Bones,” also from this period, takes off from a narrative of a reclusive monkey to imagine that happiness could depend on which kinds of birds we let nest in our heads: “I did it with mine, and it held blissful sparrows, canaries, and partridges. Now the vultures have nested in it, too.” In a later piece, “The Horse in the Salt Flats,” a runaway horse dies on the pampas; its skull provides a safe place for a dove to hatch her eggs: “when the eggs break open, it will be a box of birdsong.”
Di Benedetto’s longer stories in the 1950s and early 1960s reveal a clear interest in how obsession and trauma keep people stuck in social roles that do not nurture them. In “Huddled,” a father is unable to express his grief about his wife’s death to his young son, even as his son tragically withdraws from any contact with the world.
Similarly in the novella, “The Affection of Dimwits,” a poor housewife copes with having a developmentally disabled sister and an unresponsive husband by having affairs and obsessing about an ex-boyfriend who committed suicide. Tragedy strikes, causing her to “give up” her affairs in penance, but her guilt is toward her dead boyfriend, not her husband: “You have to forgive me for Romano and Gaspar. You are the one I was looking for.”
Di Benedetto was arrested soon after the Argentine military coup in 1976; he wrote that he would have liked to know what he was arrested for, but his jailers would never tell him. Likely, it was more for his journalism than his fictions, which up to that time had not been particularly political. In prison for a year, he managed to smuggle stories to a friend, disguised as letters recounting dreams. The most striking of these smuggled stories is “Aballay.” A gaucho, consumed with guilt about killing a man, decides as penance to never get down from his horse (except to use the bathroom).
An even funnier story from this period is “Italo in Italy,” about a wealthy Argentine of Italian ancestry who embarks on a Sicilian adventure involving a thief who steals some money from his pants while he is swimming. The thief’s friend persuades him to go on a wild goose chase up into a poor village wearing only his bathing suit. The story ultimately is about the protection that wealth gives certain people, even when they’re being robbed.
The stories from Di Benedetto’s exile in Spain sometimes trade humor for a growing social consciousness. In “Lazarillo of Hermosilla,” an office worker forms a relationship with a panhandler’s dog. When the panhandler vanishes or dies, he takes care of the dog. Then when he loses his own job he takes the panhandler’s — and then the dog’s — place.
Di Benedetto also mixes humor into repression and tragedy in “Orthopterans,” which perhaps sums up his philosophy about his homeland. It involves a falsely arrested journalist being forced to listen to a narrative of how the pampas became the way they are, involving a plague of locusts so severe that trains derail on the crushed bodies of the insects. The locusts were introduced by a professor who had promised honeybees. To make amends, the professor brings in a comedian who makes people laugh so much that they cry. “Their tears flowed together like a rivulet. ... And in that way, through the magic virtue of joyous tears, lakes, lagoons, and other deposits ... spread across the vastness of Spanish America.”
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