May 25, 2017

Book Review: Nest in the Bones by Antonio Di Benedetto


Cover Nest in the Bones copy.jpgIt's been over 30 years since the death of Argentinian writer Antonio di Benedetto and finally his books are being translated into English. The latest is a collection of short stories, Nest in the Bones released by Penguin/Random House and translated by Martina Broner. The stories assembled here were written over the length of his writing career - dating from the 1950s to the last years of his life in the 1980s.

The stories in this collection range in length from a few pages, "The Impossibility of Sleep", to the almost novella sized, "The Affection of Dimwits". However, no matter story's length you'll soon appreciate the author's use of language to create both atmosphere and character. Di Benedetto had the amazing capacity to pull his reader into a story's circumstances with just a few choice words.

The difficulty with writing a truly great short story lies in ensuring the reader is drawn in with as few details as possible. Baiting the hook with just the right tantalizing morsel is an incredibly difficult task which Di Benedetto manages with an amazing amount of adroitness. In fact you don't even realize how deeply you've been immersed a tale into you're well into it and discover you can't put the book down until you find out how it ends.

Like his more well known fellow countryman Jorge Luis Borges or the Columbian Gabriel Garcia Marquez Di Benedetto infuses his work with a kind of otherworldliness. However, he doesn't go quite as far into the realm of magic realism, or even fantasy, as either of them. There is a grittiness and awareness of the darkness in life permeating the stories in this collection that keeps it firmly rooted in reality.
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A good example of this is the story simply named for its main character "Aballay". After hearing a priest's sermon about mystics who sat high in the air on poles in order to remove themselves from society as a form of penance for sins, Aballay is inspired to strive to do something similar. However, he elects to sit on a horse (actually two, allowing one a break from continually carrying him) as his way of atoning for the sin he committed.

In the hands of another writer this could have turned into a kind of homily on the nature of good and evil or something along those lines. In Di Benedetto's world this becomes more about the mundane practicalities of how Aballay can survive living on a horse. How can he sustain himself if he never climbs down from his horse? What about going to the bathroom? The kinds of questions no one ever thinks to ask when they hear about hermits or secluded mystics.

Of course it also explores more than just that, as we follow the lead character on his journey. However, these practical details are what keep the story firmly rooted in its environment. The absurdity of Aballay's self-imposed situation is made all the more poignant by the fact he doesn't seem to be able to actually achieve the inner peace you'd expect from someone on a mystical journey.

Perhaps Di Benedetto's darker view of the world was a result of having been imprisoned and tortured as a political prisoner in Argentina during the infamous "dirty war" of the 1970s and then exiled to Spain. Or perhaps because he lived outside urban centres he saw some of the harsher realities of life and they affected him and his writing. For even the stories written before his time in jail don't have the dream like quality that characterizes some of both Borges' and Marquez's work.

However, just because his work is a little more depressing than other writers doesn't make it any less magnificent. Di Benedetto's eloquence makes the stories in Nest in the Bones works of exquisite beauty that are hard to resist. If, like me, you had never read any of his work until now this is a perfect introduction to a great author.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Nest in the Bones by Antonio Di Benedetto)



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