Juan Benet Benet, Juan - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Benet's mythical Región plays a central role in the creation of his novelistic reality. Benet's private narrative universe—Región—can be described in many ways. From one point of view it is the aggregate of characters, events and social themes which, in Benet's opinion, compose Spain at the time of the Civil War. However, more important than the social background is the enigmatic reality of Región itself. Benet carefully constructs the spatial and physical existence of the town on different levels of complexity. From one perspective, he portrays Región and the surrounding area with scientific preciseness. (pp. 43-4)

On a second, and more complex level of reality, Benet portrays Región in a full state of decadence, surrounded by hostile landscapes and immersed in a threatening temperate zone. For example, one of the recurring images associated with Región is the labyrinth. If on the one hand Benet describes the [surrounding] mountains with scientific objectivity, on the other he portrays the area as a menacing maze of streams…. (p. 45)

Benet paints a very complex portrait of Región, composed of contrastive descriptions and subtle complexities. For example, the desert—hot, lonely, hostile—is contrasted with luxuriant valleys nearby…. Yet despite their differences in vegetation, the desert and the valleys represent the same impenetrable and hostile environment…. [Throughout] the early part of his novel Benet carefully constructs an ambience in which he underscores the hostile and contrasting elements of the physical environment: desert-luxuriant vegetation; hot-cold; mountains-valley; rivers-dried up streams; life-death.

On a third level of comprehension, the description of Región stresses the mysterious and enigmatic elements which pervade the novel…. In Volverás a Región Benet utilizes his style to break the barriers imposed by the normal perception of reality, and portrays a novelistic climate replete with mystery and ambiguity.

One of the most significant ways in which Benet creates an aura of mystery around Región is by juxtaposing antithetical elements in his description of the countryside. Whereas he meticulously describes the geological formation of a mountain or valley, he contrasts the scientific description with personification…. The mountains are alive, and can therefore witness the tragedy which unfolds both around and within them. Similarly, the rivers which flow through the valleys of Región display lifelike characteristics…. Since the landscape is "alive," it not only serves as the spatial background of the novel, but also becomes an active character. Benet's descriptions of the landscape transcend the literal preciseness of the words because of their suggestive powers. The physical environment actively asserts its will and penetrates the lives of the people who live within it.

Another way in which Benet portrays the enigmatic milieu of Región is through the use of realismo mágico…. In Volverás a Región Benet clearly intends to capture the mysterious elements which lie beneath surface reality. He achieves this goal in two significant ways: 1) by the juxtaposition of "real" and "unreal" elements in his description of Región; 2) through the use of specific symbolic objects which recur in the narrative, and which clearly pertain to the world of magical realism.

One of the most striking elements involved in the use of magical realism is the red flower which grows wild in the mountains of Región…. [Not] only does the flower suggest a legendary past of violence, but it also plays a central role in the lives of the people who live near it…. (pp. 46-8)

Another instance of the use of magical realism in the description of Región involves a mysterious red light, an inexplicable sound, and a painful sting, all which emanate from an unknown source. According to the narrator, for some mysterious reason—which Benet never reveals—the traveler who attempts to penetrate the Mantuan forest begins to hear the nearby explosions of a combustion engine. Although he hunts for the source of the noise, the traveler succeeds only in exhausting himself as he frantically searches about. The same night, the tired traveler is unexpectedly awakened from his restless sleep by a bright red light. Terrified, he stares at the light, and is suddenly struck by a spear-like object which buries itself in his back and causes him great pain…. Benet explains neither the origin nor the ultimate result of such occurrences, because in fact there is no explanation. It is only one aspect of the total enigmatic reality which envelops Región and, when combined with other puzzling events, completes the intricate spatial and temporal labyrinth which Benet carefully constructs in his novel.

The psychological and physical atmosphere of Región consists of a pervasive desolation, ruin and overwhelming fatalism. The hostile and enigmatic nature of the town permeates the inhabitants through a process of antipathetic osmosis. Similar to Juan Rulfo's Comala, there exists in Región a direct relationship between the geographical location, climatic conditions and physical ruin of the town and the ultimate abrogation of human existence. In addition, the destructive fatalism of the inhabitants of Región parallels the tragic acceptance of destiny by the people of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Both Benet and Faulkner submerge their characters in the damnatory atmosphere of moribund towns, and the result is a physical and moral human destructiveness which eventually causes complete ruination. (pp. 48-9)

Another aspect of the theme of decay entails the moral disintegration brought about by increasing materialistic influences in the twentieth century. Benet vacillates on the critical point concerning the source of corruption: is it part of human nature, or does it lie within man's political and economic institutions? Although he offers no definitive answer, Benet nonetheless criticizes the importance of money and investment in modern society. (p. 50)

The presentation of time, and the correlative elements of destiny and fatalism, are inextricably bound to the principal theme of ruin in Volverás a Región. Although the chronological duration of the novel is only one night …, the psychological time spans nearly four decades, from 1925 to the unspecified present sometime during the 1960's. Through the memory of Dr. Sebastián and Gamallo's daughter we examine the past of Región and its inhabitants. However, our view of the past is not structured chronologically, but rather follows certain impulses and emotions of the characters.

Many of the great twentieth-century writers—Proust, Joyce, Dos Passos, Faulkner, Gide, Woolf—have attempted, each in his own way, to mutilate time. Like many of these authors, Benet divides the temporal structure of his novel into several complex segments which must be reconstructed by the reader. To achieve this effect Benet frequently employs the time-shift technique, in which the temporal focus continually shifts. He deliberately fuses time periods so that the past is felt not as distinct from the present, but included in it and permeating it. In effect, past is present in Volverás a Región. For Benet's characters time is a fusion of present and past in which the latter is predominant. The present constantly becomes the past, while the future does not exist. In a sense, the future is decapitated by an overwhelming sense of fatalism. (pp. 51-2)

Memory is a patently destructive concept in Volverás a Región, both for the individual characters and the people of Región as a whole. For the latter, the past causes a radical devastation of their illusions, of which memory is a constant reminder…. Memory is … equally destructive for the individuals of the novel. It creates only solitude and despair….

The concept of isolation or insulation from the world outside of Región, and therefore from time, is also an important element in the temporal construction of the novel. For the inhabitants of Región, and particularly for Dr. Sebastián, days, months and years lose their independent value and fuse into an infinite void in which time ceases to exist. (p. 53)

The concept of time in Volverás a Región, like that of memory, is associated with decadence [and] ruination…. During some moments the people of Región seem to exist in a temporal vacuum, while during others they live oppressed by the omnipresent power of time…. In effect, the people of Región (and particularly Dr. Sebastián and Gamallo's daughter) are so completely overwhelmed by the effects of time that the present ceases to exist and the future is merely a reflection of the past…. The Doctor and his visitor possess a past that "was not." That is, there exists nothing (or very little) from their previous life which can be remembered in a positive sense. Therefore, since their present life consists of an accumulation of past events, then in effect, there can be no hope for the future. Like the characters in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, nothing can happen to these people because everything has already happened. As one of the children declares in Faulkner's novel, "I am not is, I am was." The elusive present and non-existent future are helpless before the character's past. (pp. 54-5)

Benet's attitude toward time is also reflected in the form of his novel. A large portion is written in the first person, either from the point of view of Dr. Sebastián or Gamallo's daughter. In many twentieth-century novels written in the first person, there is no concept of "past" as such, but rather only a growing present…. Benet, however, achieves the opposite effect with his first-person narration. His characters do not grow as a result of the fusion of past and present, but rather become stagnant. They exist to fulfill a future destiny previously determined by a ruined past. (p. 55)

The principal reason for the impossibility of future fulfillment for the inhabitants of Región lies in their fatalistic concept of a ruinous, predetermined destiny. Similar to both Proust and Faulkner, Benet eliminates the dimension of free choice and action for his characters by engulfing them in an atmosphere of naturalistic positivism. Dr. Sebastián and his visitor form only one link in a chain of historical degeneration…. (p. 56)

On one level Benet's treatment of destiny connotes a kind of nineteenth-century positivism in which the characters cannot escape from their race, moment and milieu. On another level, however, Benet's concept of destiny serves to intensify the mysterious world of Región and the author's attitude toward magical realism. Previously we have seen the manner in which Benet creates the complex and enigmatic ambience of Región by using certain magical elements, such as the red flower, the strange light and the bee-like sting. When treating the problem of destiny, Benet once again utilizes magical realism and, by doing so, transcends the limitations imposed by purely positivistic influences. As a result, he is able to stress the mysterious and undefinable forces at work in the decadence of Región. (p. 57)

Concerning the literary style of William Faulkner, Warren Beck has written: "If Faulkner's sentences sometimes soar and circle involved and prolonged, if his scenes become halls of mirrors repeating tableaux in a progressive magnification, if echoes multiply into dissonance of infinite overtones, it is because the meanings his stories unfold are complex, mysterious, obscure and incomplete." The preceding quote by Beck is … equally appropriate in our discussion of Benet's style in Volverás a Región. Form and content are tightly interwoven in Benet's novel and, taken together, form the complex reality of Región and its inhabitants.

In Volverás a Región Benet employs two dissimilar styles of writing. In his portrayal of the Civil War, or in the scientific descriptions of Región, he utilizes a straightforward, direct prose which manifests a concern for detail and accuracy. Each geological explanation or description of the flora and fauna is carefully expressed, and Benet displays an intimate knowledge of scientific terminology. In contrast, when describing the enigmatic elements of Región, and especially in the lengthy soliloquys of Dr. Sebastián or Gamallo's daughter, Benet utilizes a very complex, highly metaphorical language which in many ways resembles the style of Faulkner. Frequently Benet's complicated syntax is as impenetrable as the mysterious mountains of Mantua. (pp. 65-6)

[Benet's] sentences are frequently the length of a full page or more, and include parentheses, parentheses within parentheses and subordinate clauses which unite to form a syntactical web-work. Benet's style is, in fact, a persistent maze of obstacles replete with complex obtrusions, delays, ambiguous interpolations and confusions. Benet's purpose in creating such difficulties is two-fold, depending upon the narrative point of view. When used by the third person narrator, for example, the baroque-like sentences increase the enigmatic nature of the reality he is attempting to create. The mere length of the sentences seems to be part of a deliberate plan to withhold the meaning he hopes to convey: the partial or delayed disclosure of the central idea of a sentence often occurs near the end, thus keeping the reader intrigued (and confused) until the last instant.

Because of his peculiar style of writing Benet's characters are essentially stylized creations. The monologues of Dr. Sebastián and Gamallo's daughter are the antithesis of realistic speech patterns, and serve to dehumanize the characters. The use of esoteric vocabulary and, conversely, the total...

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Kessel Schwartz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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James H. Abbott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 in parody, even the seemingly traditional morals become suspect, and the whole collection, viewed in this light, becomes a travesty of both form and content. (p. 309)

James H. Abbott, in a review of "Trece fábulas y media," in World Literature Today (copyright 1982 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 56, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 308-09.

Kathryn Kilgore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Allen Josephs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Vincente Cabrera

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2467 words.)