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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3957

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...

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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 discovery: The more developed a writer’s style, the more perceptive will be the discovery. It is important to point out, however, that for Benet discovery was merely a prerequisite of creation. The writer does not merely represent what he or she perceives but rather invents a singular fictional reality through the skillful use of language. Style therefore serves as an enabling device that reifies imagination and affords new ways of knowing the world.

Benet’s style is perhaps best described as labyrinthine. His sentences are frequently the length of a full page or more and include parentheses, parentheses within parentheses, and subordinate clauses that unite to form a syntactical webwork. Benet’s style is, in fact, a persistent maze of obstacles replete with complex obtrusions, delays, ambiguous interpolations, and confusions. When used by the third-person narrator of Return to Región, the baroque sentences increase the enigmatic nature of the particular reality at hand. The narrator eschews words and linguistic structures that portray a world imitative of our own; hence, everything associated with what he says becomes part of a rarefied atmosphere aimed at precluding complete and rational understanding. A similar method defines the nature of the characters. Essentially stylized creations, their dialogue is the antithesis of realistic speech patterns. The conversation of Doctor Sebastián and Marré Gamallo, for example, is indistinguishable from the discourse of the narrator. The reader thus grows confused as one narrative voice blends into another and is lost amid the complicated labyrinth of words. Much of Benet’s style and technique, it seems, is part of a deliberate plan to withhold meaning from the reader. As a result, the world of Región remains ambiguous and mysterious within the language that creates and sustains its very existence.

A Meditation

A Meditation, Benet’s second novel, displays many of the stylistic and philosophical traits evident in Return to Región but represents a more ambitious undertaking than the earlier work. Written in the first person, A Meditation is precisely what the title suggests: a meditation on the past that covers a time span of nearly fifty years, from 1920 to the late 1960’s. Although the novel is composed of an artistically manipulated structure rather than a loosely formed stream of consciousness, the events and characters that are presented do not appear in a specific chronological arrangement. Instead, the unnamed narrator evokes a succession of fragmented memories that frequently remain vague and incomplete. The novel consists of one long paragraph, a feature that Benet stressed by submitting it to the publishers on a long, unbroken roll of paper rather than in the normal fashion of sequentially typed pages. The linear, uncut nature of the manuscript, however, by no means resembles the internal structure and content of the novel. In the manner of Marcel Proust and Faulkner, Benet’s nameless narrator scrutinizes the past in an attempt to recover and understand the nature of his family, friends, and previous existence in the vicinity of Región.

The traditional use of plot, which in Return to Región is reduced to a minimum, regains significance in A Meditation. There is no dramatic development and subsequent denouement, however, and the sequence of events in the novel could easily be rearranged. As the narrator’s mind wanders through the past, certain incidents and characters are summoned into consciousness and placed in view of the reader. No single event or character, however, is presented in its entirety during a specific moment in the novel. Instead, Benet creates a maze of interpenetrating segments that represent the narrator’s voluntary and involuntary memory and the desire for a “remembrance of things past.”

Benet’s treatment of time and memory in A Meditation clearly resembles the temporal concerns evident in Return to Región. In both novels, time plays an integral part in the psychological and physical ruin of Región and its inhabitants and serves as a point of departure for philosophical speculation. In A Meditation, however, the reflections on time by the first-person narrator are actually reflections on the writing of the novel itself. Since the narrative consists of the recollection and subsequent expression of past events, any kind of temporal speculation must necessarily reflect on the construction of the work. Time and recollection, which form the intrinsic essence of the novel, thus play equal roles in both its form and its content.

While memory provides the means for examining or recovering the past, the whole notion of time—past, present, future—embodies a fundamental thematic preoccupation of A Meditation. In addition to its role in the structure of the narrative, which consists of the continual amassing of fragmented memories, time is treated concretely in the form of Cayetano Corral’s clock and in abstraction by means of the narrator’s numerous digressions. The mysterious clock, which has been in Cayetano’s possession for several years, does not run. Although he has worked on the clock since he gained possession of it, he is less concerned with repairing its mechanical parts than with understanding its function: the making of time. He fails in his efforts because, as the entire novel aims to show, time is not measured by the rhythmic pulsating of the clock but by the mechanism of the human psyche. In all of Benet’s fiction, time becomes above all that which destroys: The past is an absence that creates a void for the present as well as the future. Although the first-person narrator of A Meditation indeed evokes past events, and in the process creates a self as a product of that past, the novel affirms the way in which Benet’s characters do not grow and change through time in a positive sense but rather remain stagnant within the ruin that they inevitably embody.

Benet’s style in A Meditation is similar to that of Return to Región but more complex. In some respects, the novel resembles Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931), especially in narrative structure and technique. The influence of Faulkner, however, remains predominant in Benet’s complex use of language. Like the American author, Benet frequently amasses words in a manner that has caused some critics to charge him with prolixity. Many of Benet’s sentences cover several pages, and it becomes a difficult task to remain attentive to the assorted ideas contained in one of the narrator’s thought patterns. On the other hand, Benet’s peripatetic style is crucial to the content and structure of the novel and to the complicated way in which he formulates his meditation. Benet’s sentences are perhaps best defined as saturated solutions: Images and topics are juxtaposed through the transcendent life of the mind, which continually explores obscure and enigmatic elements of reality.

One of the recurrent stylistic features of Benet’s fiction, and one particularly important in A Meditation, is the presentation of contradictory suggestions within a single context. Just as William Faulkner employs oxymoronic or near-oxymoronic terms in many of his novels, so Benet utilizes contradictory statements to keep his narratives in a state of flux or suspension, thus inspiring uncertainty and confusion in the reader. The oxymoronic descriptions that Benet employs in A Meditation are constructed by the simultaneous suggestions of disparate or contrasting elements and therefore create a sharp polarity or tension. Both objects and characters are portrayed in this fashion and form part of the essential paradox of the novel. On one hand, Benet achieves a kind of order and coherence by virtue of the clear and sharp antitheses that the contrasts involve. On the other hand, however, such descriptions create disorder and incoherence by virtue of their qualities of irresolution and contradiction. Hence, the reality of A Meditation, evoked through the uncertain authority of memory and conveyed by the uninhibited flow of language, is the enigmatic domain of the human psyche.

Un viaje de invierno

Many critics consider Un viaje de invierno (a winter journey), the final novel of the Región trilogy, to be Benet’s most abstruse piece of fiction. Once again, the reader must penetrate a world created by marathon sentences, a complex framework of recurring images, an ambiguous temporal structure, and an interrelated series of events that remain essentially unexplained in terms of motivation and ultimate resolution. Although Un viaje de invierno represents Benet’s maximum effort to eliminate plot as an integral part of the novel, most of the narrative revolves around the uncertain configuration of a fiesta. Demetria holds the affair each year, ostensibly to honor the return of her daughter Coré, who annually spends six months away from Región; the novel begins with the writing and mailing of the invitations and ends with a vague description of the party. Any attempt, however, to comprehend the complex reasons for holding the celebration or to untangle the temporal confusion that surrounds the event encounters intransigent opposition. Demetria is unable to determine the number of guests she has invited, and she does not know how many attend, as she has never been to the party herself. Coré does not appear in the narrative, and the party is painted in such mysterious, rarefied tones that one is only able to guess at its implied meaning: for Demetria, an opportunity to exercise her will; for the guests, an ephemeral mitigation of their loneliness and a flight from the pain of daily life.

Arturo, the other principal figure of the novel, works as Demetria’s servant. He has apparently (although we do not know for certain) worked as a handyman at other homes in the area, and each change of job brings him closer to the source of the Torce River. Arturo himself knows little about his past, except that for nearly all of his life he has labored on the farms along the Torce valley and has slowly journeyed up the river. It is a “winter’s journey,” as the title of the novel indicates, one that seems to lead him inescapably toward death, yet the impetus for the journey is shrouded in mystery and borders on the magical. Arturo’s future was determined early in his youth when one evening he listened to a waltz (el vals K) in the music conservatory where his mother worked as a cleaning woman. In the same way that Doctor Sebastián in Return to Región is condemned to suffer in Región after reading his future on the telegraph wheel, Arturo is destined to seek meaning in life at the head of the Torce River. The meaning that he seeks, of course, is correlated with death, toward which he inevitably and mysteriously journeys. This fatalistic destiny represents the future of nearly all of Benet’s characters and inheres in the atmosphere of ruin and anguish that pervades his fiction.

As in his first two novels, Benet’s style in Un viaje de invierno creates an uneasy and portentous mood. His style in the latter work, however, seems based on a more studied attempt to avoid translating sensation into perception. A cognitive knowledge of something, be it of a character, an object, or a particular ambience, is of secondary importance to the pure consciousness of it. In this sense, Benet can be viewed as an idealist: Because one’s consciousness seizes nothing but manifestations, reality is illusory. Indeed, when reading Un viaje de invierno, the reader senses that he or she is before the dream of reality instead of reality itself. For example, neither Coré nor Amat (Demetria’s absent husband) ever appears as a concrete being in the novel; rather, both exist only as manifestations of Demetria’s nostalgic memory. Demetria herself, whose existence is never seriously doubted, embodies Benet’s predilection for the intangible and the ethereal. She is known to the inhabitants of Región by more than one name (Demetria, Nemesia, Obscura), and Benet never ascribes concrete physical characteristics to her. Her hand, for example, is impalpable, and she speaks words that sound without resonance. Her voice has no pitch or tone, and when she touches Arturo, he senses, yet does not feel, her hands. In short, Benet’s method of portraying Demetria and the other figures of the novel points to the notion that we can discern only the image of something and not the thing itself.

The ethereal essence of his characters, however, in no way alleviates their existential despair. As in his previous novels, this despair in large part stems from the oppressive power of time. One is never aware in Un viaje de invierno of a pure present, and a specific past is not very often exclusively defined. In fact, Benet seems purposely to create a timeless vision of reality in which past and present are interfused to form a vague series of occurrences that defy order and reason. This notion of temporal uncertainty bears directly on the title of the novel as well as one of its central motifs: the journey. Nearly all of the characters set out on journeys—to Central Europe, to the Torce River, to town, and so on. In one fashion or another, however, all of the trips revolve around the fiesta. Because the party cannot be located in time by any of the characters, it becomes clear that they undertake their journeys in order to exist in a temporal vacuum where past, present, and future do not possess any reality.

Like the characters in the earlier novels of the trilogy, however, the characters of Un viaje de invierno are trapped by the past, even as time moves forward and passes them by. If life consists of a continuation of the past into an ever-growing and expanding present, then the characters of Un viaje de invierno can have no hope for the future. Their lives are defined by a temporal vortex in which being is divorced from the linear progression of time. Although the fiesta represents for the characters an opportunity to grasp Martin Heidegger’s “silent strength of the possible,” they are ensnared by stagnation, where meaning remains elusive. This is the ultimate message of Benet’s fiction, one that is affirmed even as he conceals it in the contradictory and enigmatic world of Región.

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Benet, Juan