Juan Benet Essay - Critical Essays


Juan Benet falls chronologically into the group of writers commonly known as the Generation of ’50. The realistic orientation and engagé approach to literature espoused by these writers (including Jesús Fernández Santos, Juan Goytisolo, Luis Goytisolo, and Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio) became the predominant literary force in Spain for nearly three decades following the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). For the most part, novelists of this period defined their task as the verbal reproduction of a familiar reality, the shared world of reader and writer. The most important Spanish fiction written during the 1950’s and early 1960’s thus portrays everyday events in conventional novelistic forms.

Despite Benet’s chronological affiliation with the writers of this period, he represents a direct antithesis to their fundamental literarycanons. Indeed, his negative assessment of neorealistic fiction and his emphasis on style and enigma made him one of the most original Spanish writers of the twentieth century. His first collection of short stories, Nunca llegarás a nada, clearly transgresses the canons of social realism and foreshadows the tone, style, and thematic concerns that Benet develops more intensely in his long fiction. Rather than record the observable in his narrative, Benet seeks instead to probe beneath the surface of reality and explore what he terms “the zone of shadows.” The abstruse and often inaccessible fiction that results has set Benet radically apart from the neorealism of the early postwar period as well as from the more experimental writing of the 1970’s.

With the exception of En el estado, Benet set all of his novels in Región, a mythical region created in the fashion of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo. This private narrative world stands as the most explicit symbol of the ruin and despair that form the central motif of Benet’s fiction. First created in 1961 in the short story “Baalbac, una mancha,” Región did not achieve full realization until Return to Región, in which its geographic and enigmatic peculiarities are presented in detail. From one point of view, Región is the aggregate of characters, events, and social themes that, in Benet’s view, constitute twentieth century Spanish society. More important than the social background, however, is the enigmatic reality of Región itself, portrayed by Benet on varying levels of complexity. On one hand, he depicts Región and the surrounding area with scientific precision. In fact, Región is described in such detail that the captivated reader searches to locate it on a map of Spain. Its flora and fauna, its landscape, and even its geological formation are portrayed with equal exactness of description, thus creating a reality that appears both authentic and identifiable in the physical world outside the text.

Benet establishes the real in Región in order to undermine it, however—to place in doubt its correspondence with the everyday world of observable reality. For the most part, he achieves this not explicitly, through use of the supernatural, but more subtly, by means of conflicting descriptions and recurrent suggestions of the unreal. In the first place, he portrays Región in a full state of decadence, surrounded by hostile landscapes and immersed in a threatening temperate zone. The entire area is a massive labyrinth of streams, valleys, forests, and deserts that have a life and meaning of their own. Throughout his fiction, but most forcefully in Return to Región, Benet constructs an ambience in which he underscores the extreme and contrasting elements of the physical environment: desert/luxuriant vegetation; heat/cold; mountain/valley; rivers/dried-up streams; life/death. Nature serves to deter outsiders (known as intruders) from entering Región, and the unwary visitor often falls victim to the hostility of the area, never to be seen or heard from again.

Within the hostile physical world of Región, Benet creates a complementary reality characterized by the enigmatic and the inexplicable. For example, mysterious wildflowers grow only on the soil of tombs; strange sounds and lights terrify travelers at night; a mythical woodsman, Numa, guards the forest of Mantua and kills with a single shot any intruder who crosses its boundaries. On a rational level, Benet explains neither the origins nor the ultimate consequences of these and a host of similar elements that constitute the world of Región. They inhere in the murky area beneath the surface of reality and frequently defy logical explanation.

Return to Región

Nearly all of Benet’s long fiction is cast in a similar stylistic and thematic mold. Both the consistency and the complexity of his fiction can be shown most succinctly through a discussion of the Región trilogy, Return to Región, A Meditation, and Un viaje de invierno. Although the latter two works were published without delay and received immediate attention from critics, Return to Región, first novel of a then unknown writer, was sold to Ediciones Destino only after a long process of submissions and rejections. Symptomatic of the Spanish literary scene of the time, one of Benet’s rejection letters assured him that because his novel lacked dialogue the public would not read it. Return to Región is now considered one of the most important Spanish novels of the postwar era.

What traditionally has been called plot does not exist in Return to Región. Instead, the novel consists of a complex framework of third-person narration and pseudodialogues between the two principal characters, Doctor Sebastián and Marré Gamallo. Daniel Sebastián is an aging doctor who has been living in solitude for nearly a quarter of a century in Región, with little else to do but drink, remember, and care for a child driven insane by the absence of his mother. One evening he is visited by a woman, Marré Gamallo, and throughout the night the two characters carry on a soliloquy-like dialogue in which they evoke their pasts and examine their destinies. During the Spanish Civil War, the woman was the lover of Sebastián’s godson, Luis I. Timoner, and this love represented for her the only happiness in her lifetime. She has returned to Región in search of the fulfillment that she lost when Luis fled into the mountains near the end of the war. For his part, Doctor Sebastián awakens the phantasmagorical events of his past and remembers in particular his unfulfilled passion for María Timoner, Luis’s mother. Through the memories of Sebastián and his visitor, and with the additional comments of the third-person narrator, the reader is able to reconstruct the fragmented history of the ruination of Región and its habitants.

Much of the narrative of Return to Región is devoted to the creation of a milieu that became the cornerstone of Benet’s fiction: the pervasive desolation of Región. Within this atmosphere, the threatening physical reality of the area not only stands as a striking tableau of ruin but also permeates the inhabitants through a process of antipathetic osmosis: A direct relationship exists between the geographic location, climatic conditions, and physical ruin of the town and the spiritual malaise of Región’s inhabitants. The moral dilapidation of Doctor Sebastián, for example, resembles the condition of his decaying house, and María Timoner is compared to the withered leaves of the black poplar trees. Both characters are submerged in the hellish atmosphere of the moribund province, with scant hope for redemption.

Like many twentieth century writers, Benet deliberately fragments his narratives into puzzlelike structures that do not yield their meaning to a passive reader. Although the chronological duration of Return to Región is only one night, the psychological time spans nearly four decades, from 1925 to an unspecified present during the 1960’s. Hence the temporal focus continually shifts, and time periods are fused so that the past is felt not as distinct from the present but as included in it and permeating it. Benet achieves this linkage primarily through the uncertain crucible of memory. During the course of their conversation, Dr. Sebastián and Marré Gamallo recapture a complex past that is patently destructive and capable of overwhelming any sense of hope in the present or future. In essence, the two characters possess a past that “was not.” That is to say, there exists little from their previous lives that can be remembered in a positive sense. They resemble the characters in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), to whom nothing can happen because everything has already happened. As one of the children in Faulkner’s novel declares: “I am not is, I am was.” The elusive present and nonexistent future thus stand helpless before the past, which engenders stagnation and despair rather than growth and fulfillment. Benet’s novel affirms the destructive power of time at every turn of the page, and his characters regress toward a past that exists only to remind them that they are condemned to a life of nothingness.

Throughout his numerous theoretical essays on literature, Benet argues that style is the central component of fiction. Once a writer has developed a highly personal and fluid style, he or she is able to transcend the purely informational aspects of the novel—plot, setting, characters—and produce work of more lasting value. For Benet, the world was an enigma that he sought to penetrate and subsequently portray in his fiction. On one level, therefore, language serves as a means of...

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