Antonio di Benedetto
Animal World / Mundo animal
translated by H.E. Francis, with an afterword by Jorge García-Gómez
OUT OF PRINT
ISBN 1-879378-17-5 (paper)
138 pages, $15
The animal theme is probably the oldest in literature. Cavemen told stories of hunts, of talking animals and probably of animal-like gods. The first book of the Bible places the serpent in paradise, speaking wisely to the first man and woman. Classical authors like Lucian and Apuleius wrote satires in which pretentious people turned into lowly animals, like a jackass. Shakespeare created his own memorable jackass, and Cervantes had his witty talking dogs. In our century Franz Kafka presented the learned address of a highly refined ape to a scientific academy. Probably no writer worth his salt has not at one time or other picked up the theme.
A little-known, but fascinating contribution to this tradition is Mundo Animal, or Animal World, by the Argentinean author, Antonio Di Benedetto. It is strangely different from its celebrated predecessors. Kafka, for example, impresses the reader with a striking artistic conception, ingenious logic and magnificent language in each story. Di Benedetto's stories do not impress in this way. Written in conversational and even intentionally awkward language, they present a confused and troubled narrator, who, tormented by mysterious gnawings of guilt, becomes involved in some obscure way with an animal or whole group of animals. They invade his soul, drive him to rage or deliver him from his obsession. Often the story hinges on a pun, a distorted folktale, or an illogical association. While not spectacular in itself, each story adds to the preceding to create a growing sense of doom. Thus story by story the reader becomes ensnared in a horrifying, hallucinatory realm of associations; the world he thought was human is transformed into Animal World.
Antonio Di Benedetto (1922-1986) began writing and publishing stories in his teens, inspired by the works of Dostoyevsky and Pirandello. Mundo Animal, appearing in 1952, was his first story collection; it won prestigious awards. A revised version came out in 1971, but this translation uses the first edition to catch the youthful flavor. Di Benedetto wrote five novels, the most famous being the existential masterpiece Zama (1956). Los suicidas (The Suicides, 1969) is noteworthy for expressing his intense abhorrence of noise. Critics have compared his works to Alain Robbe-Grillet, Julio Cortázar and Ernesto Sábato. In 1976, during the military dictatorship of General Videla, Di Benedetto was imprisoned and tortured. Released after a year, he went into exile in Spain, then returned home in 1984. He travelled widely and won numerous awards, but never acquired the worldwide fame of other Latin American writers. Perhaps more translations will correct this injustice.
H. E. Francis, the translator, is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He has travelled three times as a Fulbright professor to Argentina. An author in his own right, he has published five collections of stories, some of which have been anthologized in the O. Henry, Best American, and Pushcart Prize volumes.
Cover art: "Animal Costume" by Peter Zokosky, ©1990 from the collection of Danny Elfman
From ANIMAL WORLD:
Magissi said, "You believe that we sometimes behave like dogs, but I know that all men are dogs and nothing more. That's the difference between you and me."
I couldn't agree with him simply because that would have meant admitting that he knew more than I did. So then I tried to persuade him that he was wrong about what I thought. I reversed my earlier arguments and, without resorting to the use of the word good for man or dog in general, argued that each has his bad moments.
"Or evil ones. The moment of the pack?"
He asked what he already knew I was thinking. He wanted me to state it, to simply say yes, to give him an unqualified yes. I couldn't help intuiting a trap, but I had put my foot into it; consequently, despite myself, I had to say:
I knew it. He had made me return to the starting point. That anxiety for me to say yes... If I believed in the bad moment, then it meant I judged that habitually they are good. And yet it was all to the contrary: habitually they are bad and at moments, only rare moments, good. He was trying to convince me, but thus far hardly working at it, since he could easily see that I resisted out of stubbornness, out of a defensiveness for my old convictions and also, consequently, out of pride. But pride did not matter to him, neither his nor mine.
Something, something that you can't put your finger on but that helps us, whispered in my ear that the truth was in me. Nevertheless, it was useless to argue. It was annoying that he and I went on saying the same things, only with new examples and in different words. Finally...
When I was quite young, until eighteen, I had illusions. I had illusions because my parents were alive and I didn't have to work. My ambition was to be Honorary Director of the Provincial Library. When I absolutely had to go to work, I had to give up this ambition, but I was lucky, relatively speaking. Raft Company in Buenos Aires sells metal filing cabinets for libraries. With the purchase of each cabinet they send along an employee who organizes the library and indexes the books. I was the employee. I could spend as much as two weeks organizing and indexing a library of five hundred books. Raft Company wants things done right. Raft Company wants the client to be satisfied. A satisfied client is our best advertisement, etc. I was mistaken a moment ago: even at work I had illusions, perhaps even greater ones.
But they gave me notice, damn it! They put a few dollars in an envelope. Yet the envelope remained empty of explanations. An employer has the right to drop his employee, provided he compensates him properly. The law ought to say something like that. And since the law cut me off so brusquely, never again could I — poor me! — go down the street Raft Company is on... I felt censured by the law, as if it were a criminal case.
Other companies sell metal filing cabinets, but the only one that sends a file clerk with the cabinet is Raft Company. I thought again about the Provincial Library, no longer of course with any hope of directing it. I intended — and even tried — to get a job with a bookstore, a newspaper, a museum...
In February the pay envelope Raft Company gave me was almost empty. It was the grape-buying season. A bodega — a three-party co-op — authorized me to pay up to five pesos more than the official price. I covered, on foot and in all that dust and malignant sun, vineyard after vineyard of twenty-five, fifteen, five acres. Another broker from a larger bodega had already come through by car, paying eight pesos above the official price.
She and her mother worked. Perhaps they could have afforded a better little apartment, at least one out of that neighborhood, which resembled a tenement district. But Barbarita preferred to save the difference, intending to buy a piano. It was an unfortunate illusion, because for every hundred pesos saved the price of pianos went up two hundred. Anyway, twelve years without playing, since the age of fourteen...
When Conchita Piquer came to the Municipal Theater, the Perea woman in Apartment 6 learned the little number:
Between lemon and lime
you'll be an old maid...
She sang it without compassion. The kids learned it too.
Barbarita told me that--not to hurry me, I'm sure. She told me with a sad smile; at times she wanted to make me understand that I wasn't the only one to be pitied.
On Saturday — oh, how ill-intentioned I was! — I was warming up to her, and just at the right moment, softly, very softly, I sang to her:
Between lemon and lime
you'll be an old maid...
And let her go, pull back, hurt, her mouth half-open, but speechless.
The pack, devil take it! My pack!
Without knowing how long I'd be able to pay my boarding house, without Barbarita, certainly... Surely one needs something to happen; one's tense, expectant. And yet it's unavoidable that very probably what happens will be bad.
That little man, my age, but much weaker, was my friend. We talked and talked, and I was envious because he had time to read so much. I never asked him what he lived on, though on his father someone told me, and I wanted this explanation in no way to be inexact because it gave me a motive to despise him. I learned besides, although I paid little heed to the news, that his father had demanded he look for some way to meet his needs. For that reason he always spoke of publishing a magazine, of which I've never seen a single issue.
I lost sight of him for some weeks and now... Ah, how I've waited for him! If something happened, it would have to have been something bad. That bastard — he's there, in my place, hired the very day of my dismissal
I had been waiting patiently for him, but when I saw him all my fury overcame me. My jaws swelled, I fell to the ground and my four paws shot me toward him. Quickly alerted and now on all fours too, with a quick howl of fear he showed his teeth in instinctive defense. I pounced on his head, gnawing at it with implacable rage, foaming at the mouth, trying to sink my teeth into his neck, which he desperately defended with his front paws.
A sweeper, urged by a horrified woman who was shouting, separated us with blows from his broom.
None of this, however, makes Magissi right.
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