Juan Benet 1927–
Spanish novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, and poet.
Benet is a major contributor to the Spanish New Wave literary movement, which has developed alternatives to the realistic literature characteristic of post-Civil War Spain. Although his highly esoteric and complex fiction has only recently gained international recognition, Benet is considered by many to be one of Spain's best contemporary authors. Many elements of his fiction are compared to similar aspects in the work of Marcel Proust and William Faulkner. Una meditación (1970; A Meditation), Benet's second novel, has recently been translated into English and has evoked considerable critical debate. Some critics contend that the enigmatic and unconventional nature of his work detracts from its overall impact, yet others cite Benet's mastery of language and literary technique.
Although Benet is chronologically a member of the "Generation of 1950," his literary views differ from the principles of this Spanish movement. The "Generation of 1950"—which includes such important authors as Camilo José Cela and Juan Goytisolo—believes that literature should be simple, direct, and grounded in the specific realities of postwar Spain in order to increase awareness of the country's devastation and its need for reform. Benet's writing expresses a similar concern with the social and cultural effects of the Civil War, yet its similarity to the "Generation of 1950" ends there. Whereas the "Generation of 1950" emphasizes content over style, Benet strongly adheres to the "art for art's sake" approach to literature. He considers style of paramount importance, while discernible plots and conventional structures are of lesser significance in his fiction.
While Benet has written plays, poetry, and short fiction, his novels are generally considered his most significant works. His first novel, Volverás a Región (1968), remained virtually unknown to both critics and readers until the success of A Meditation. The enthusiastic reception to Benet's second novel generated substantial retrospective interest, and Volverás a Región is now largely regarded as being as important as A Meditation, although it has yet to be translated into English.
Like the majority of Benet's novels and many of his short stories, A Meditation is set in a fictional location called Región. As with Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Gabriel García Márquez's Macondo, Región both forms the background for the novels and assumes a significance of its own. Acting as a microcosm for Spain in particular and contemporary civilization in general, Región symbolizes the mythical, multilayered complexity of reality within which Benet's characters struggle to define themselves and their surroundings. Benet achieves his effects largely through the mysterious, suggestive manner in which he reveals the reality of Región. In spite of the large amount of concrete, objective information supplied regarding the topography, geology, and vegetation, an aura of despair, destruction, and decay is also portrayed. The mythical complexity assigned to the atmosphere of Región resembles and symbolizes the enigmatic and perplexing nature of the characters' reality.
The themes of A Meditation include the destructive nature of the past, the surreal, dreamlike nature of the present, and the fatalistic immutability of the future. This preoccupation with time adds to the abstruse nature of the novel: not only does the past haunt the present, and the future offer no relief, but the temporal construction is based on the protagonists' perceptions and remembrances, which are of questionable validity. Through the subjective use of memory, reflection, and speculation, the narrative flows freely through time, often leaving the reader uncertain as to the actual chronology of events. The elusiveness of Benet's fictional world is further enhanced by a juxtaposition of realistic details and surrealistically ambiguous motivations, by the suggestive but undefined significance of recurring symbols, and by Benet's prose style. Devoid of conventional syntax, a typical sentence runs from page to page, overflowing with digressions within digressions. The end result is a novel which some describe as overwhelming, others praise highly, and many agree is "the most imposing, challenging, and radically intransigent" novel to emerge from contemporary Spanish literature.
David K. Herzberger
Volverás a Región clearly represents … a significant departure from the neorealistic novel of the 1950's and early 1960's. It exhibits several characteristics which, when analyzed in depth, exemplify an innovative approach to the novel in Spain. (p. 43)
What has traditionally been called the "plot" of a novel does not exist in Volverás a Región. Instead, the novel consists of a complex framework of third person narration and pseudodialogues between the two principal characters, Dr. Sebastián and Gamallo's daughter. 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—who we know only as Gamallo's daughter—and throughout the night the two characters carry on a soliloquy-like dialogue in which they evoke their past and examine their destinies…. Through the memories of Dr. Sebastián and his visitor, and with the additional comments of the third person narrator, we are able to reconstruct the fragmented history of the ruination of Región and its inhabitants.
One of the most distinctive aspects of Volverás a Región, and an important element in all of Benet's novels, is the physical setting in which the action takes place. Similar to Rulfo's Comala, García Márquez's Macondo or...
(The entire section is 6322 words.)
[Juan Benet, in his novel Saúl ante Samuel,] repeats his standard themes of ruin, disintegration, solitude, guilt, time, life, and death involving the Spanish Civil War and his mythical Región. In the author's examination of the State, revenge, and avarice as exemplified by the various characters, he seems to conclude that no answers exist for their multiple human motivations and concomitant problems.
The author deliberately obfuscates the slowly developing plot. The novel opens in an abandoned house where a solitary figure has been waiting twenty years for the return of a traveler fixed and frozen in time by the memory of events. The scene shifts to that past and to a Republican convoy, one of whose officers is the younger son of the owner of the house, asked by his father to take on a Republican role to protect his family, Nationalist supporters, from the consequences of their political beliefs. The convoy, on its way to Región, is held up by an accident and various war strategies. The older brother's wife has an adulterous affair with her brother-in-law. After a suspenseful delay and disquisitions on the meaning of guilt and responsibility, we learn of the older brother's execution, the death of the younger brother, and the death or disappearance of all the other principal actors, except for the solitary survivor in the ruined and abandoned home. Acting as biographer, a cousin, also in love with the adulteress, plays out...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
James H. Abbott
Using the style and tone of traditional fables, Juan Benet turns the formula into a contemporary art form to serve his own artistic and ideological purposes [in Trece fábulas y media]. While some of the short tales end with morals concerning traditional concepts of destiny and death—i.e., each man's destiny is his alone and man voluntarily or involuntarily seeks his own death—others end with reversals of traditional ideas or with no moral at all…. [One of the fables, for example,] tells of a general who overlooks one decisive detail in his preparations for war. The fable has alternate endings: one in which the general's troops win, and another which shows the enemy triumphant. Readers may choose. (p. 308)
Religious themes are at the core of two of the tales: one deals with Abraham, who refuses to sacrifice Isaac and states that he owes explanations to nobody for sacrificing and eating a lamb with his son; another revolves around God's idea that man creates a god unlike God, and ends with His statement, "I am the error and the life." While death is depicted in a traditional way in at least two of the fables, the twelfth one departs somewhat from the usual presentation when a gentleman invites Lady Death to his tomb and she flees, seeing that she too might die.
The simple, clear language of the "thirteen-and-one-half fables" is not an indication of a simple and clear purpose. Since satire is often implicit...
(The entire section is 301 words.)
Juan Benet has been called the Spanish Proust. He is one of Spain's most important and controversial modernists. His style, strongly influenced by Central and South American writers, has in turn influenced the post-Franco generation. A Meditation is the second novel in a trilogy and the first to be translated into English…. It contains echoes of Faulkner and Hardy, as well as the clear footprints of Mr. Proust. It is crammed with references to Plato, Nietzsche, Kafka, Rilke, Schopenhauer, and the Bible.
It has no paragraphs. It has sentences that sometimes run on for a couple of pages, full of digressions in dashes and parentheses, then digressions inside the digressions, and negatives, then double negatives, qualifying the original (if you can find it) premise. It is written in language which is usually left alone in the dictionary and which sounds, frequently, like this: "Not even in the spacious narthex in the portico of which a reduced semi-ellipse of rachitic turf came to mark the limit of the transgressions of solar rays within the chthonic kingdom."
The book is a reader's nemesis. The effort of staggering through this kind of stuff, the work needed to understand its point, can easily release either the vengeful urge to belittle the book's value, or the urge to brag that you ate the whole thing, and to expound upon its infinite virtues. But there's something numbing about this accomplished novel. It...
(The entire section is 931 words.)
Juan Benet is sometimes called the Proust of Spain, sometimes the Faulkner. Neither label is correct. He is best described as the Juan Benet of Spain, the most imposing, challenging and radically intransigent novelist writing in Spanish (or perhaps in any language) today.
"A Meditation" may be the most demanding novel I've ever read….
What really binds this almost unimaginably dense novel together is not Benet's sense of character or of scene but his brilliant, overarching and fascinatingly difficult style…. His figures of speech are so elaborated and extended that it's easy to forget what they are illustrating. You must struggle with the text, rereading sentence after sentence, many of which could be called, depending on your point of view, acts of literary defiance, slaps in the reader's face or brilliant inquisitions. (p. 13)
Unlike novelists who attempt to interpret the world around them, Benet has created his own autonomous and parallel world that is less an interpretation of reality than an analogue for it. He is not creating order in fiction out of the chaos of reality; he is inventing a fictional chaos with the same consistency of enigma, illusion, paradox and half-truth we face in ordinary reality.
Benet does not write about things we can know; he writes about what we can never fully comprehend, about what he calls repeatedly the "zones of shadow" that lie beyond the...
(The entire section is 417 words.)
Benet's six novelettes are chronologically scattered throughout his entire career: from his first and seminal four-work collection, Nunca llegarás a nada [You Will Never Get Anywhere], dating back to the 1950s, up to his latest legend, "Numa," published in 1978 as part of Del pozo y del Numa (un ensayo y una leyenda) [Of the Well and Numa (an essay and a legend)]. In between, two important pieces were published: Una tumba [A Tomb] in 1971 and "Sub Rosa" in 1973, the latter being included in a book of short stories bearing the same title. The novelettes as a whole clearly reveal Benet's poetic imagination and narrative versatility.
You Will Never Get Anywhere is Benet's first formal step into literary creation, a collection of four novelettes written between 1958 and 1961, when the group was published…. They are well-built, well-written pieces that, had Benet not written anything else, by themselves would have placed him among the most original narrators in Spanish Literature. But most important, You Will Never Get Anywhere is in many respects Benet's seminal work. Many stylistic and thematic characteristics prevalent in his later works are visible in these early novelettes. Of special importance are his typical long, exhausting sentences, the enigmatic nature of characters, the consistent minimization of plot, the emergence of his mythical Región along with its ruins and overwhelming solitude, and...
(The entire section is 2467 words.)