Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665

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,...

(The entire section contains 11636 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Juan Benet study guide. You'll get access to all of the Juan Benet content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6322

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 lack of common word choice, further diminishes the realistic nature of the characters. Nevertheless, Benet overcomes the shortcomings of stylized characters by stressing the tragic human problems which consume them. Benet's ability at psychological analysis is in no way undermined by his style. On the contrary, the depth of his characters is enhanced by the complexity of their monologues and the details of their descriptions…. [The] ideas or emotions which the characters express are so complex that a single noun or short descriptive phrase is rejected in favor of a more peripatetic pattern of speech. The result is a highly artificial soliloquy in which Benet nonetheless achieves psychological depth. (p. 66)

Although [Benet's second novel, Una meditación,] displays certain stylistic and philosophical characteristics evident in Volverás a Región, it represents a more ambitious undertaking than Benet's first novel. Written in the first person, Una meditación is precisely what the title suggests: a meditation on the past which covers a time span of nearly fifty years from 1920 to the present. Although the novel is composed of an artistically manipulated structure (i.e., not a loosely formed stream of consciousness), the events and characters which are presented do not appear in a specific, chronological arrangement. Instead, the narrator evokes a succession of fragmented memories which frequently remain vague and incomplete…. Utilizing a Proustian memory and a Faulknerian style, the 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 Volverás a Región is reduced to a minimum, regains significance in Una meditación. However, there is no dramatic development and subsequent denouement, and the novel could easily be rearranged without detracting from the intrinsic interest of the events themselves. 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 complex labyrinth of interpenetrating segments which represent the narrator's voluntary and involuntary memory and the desire for a "remembrance of things past."

Since Benet presented the geographic formation of Región in great detail in his first novel, there was no need to repeat the process in Una meditación. However, the reader who is familiar with Volverás a Región cannot help but be influenced by his previous knowledge of Región upon reading Una meditación. In the same way that our familiarity with Yoknapatawpha County influences our reaction to the novels of William Faulkner, our knowledge of the mythical Región affects our reading of subsequent novels which take place in the same location. (pp. 71-2)

Although Benet does not discuss the Civil War in great detail in Una meditación, the conflict nonetheless plays an important role in the prevailing atmosphere of ruin and decay. When the narrator returns to Región in 1939, the destructive effects of the war are everywhere manifest…. Several of the narrator's memories concern events which take place after the war, and the country is described in terms of a diseased body which has unsuccessfully attempted to cure itself…. Thus from a social perspective, which most critics incorrectly find completely absent from Benet's novels, Franco's government has magnified certain economic and social problems but more importantly, has infused Spanish society with a paralytic state of mind in which the inability to think or to act has resulted in the continual deterioration of the nation's spiritual and physical condition. (pp. 72-4)

Benet's use of a first person narrator in Una meditación creates several structural and temporal problems in the development of the narrative. (p. 74)

The "I" of Una meditación infrequently discusses his own personality and rarely indulges in self-analysis. Nonetheless, the personality of the "I" is implicit in everything that he relates. First of all, the "I" plays an important role in the theme of "the return," which is explicit in the title of Benet's first novel, and is underscored in Una meditación by the return to Región of several of the characters: Mary, Carlos, Leo and the narrator himself. All the characters have returned to Región in search of something, and the narrator is no exception…. The whole narrative method of the "I" takes root in his desire to recapture the past (i.e., to return psychologically to Región) as a means of explaining the present. Each major event which he relates is followed (or interrupted) by a lengthy digression on the subject at hand. (p. 75)

The "I" of Una meditación is what Wayne C. Booth would categorize as a "narrator-observer," and therefore is conscious of his role as the conveyor of information within a preconceived narrative structure. Frequently, the "I" intrudes in the narrative in order to express his control over the telling of the story and the order of events…. [The] "I" is conscious of his fallibility as a narrator. Since he experiences a strong desire to tell the truth … he readily admits that he cannot remember certain events…. The narrator, therefore, expresses his concern for accuracy of description and confesses his shortcomings as a recorder of past events.

Despite the efforts of the "I" to define his limitations … the descriptions and analyses of characters in Una meditación frequently reflect the view of a third person omniscient narrator who relates the thoughts and motives of his characters…. [In] contrast to the usual limitations of the first person narrator, the "I" of Una meditación becomes the center of consciousness not only for external, observable occurrences, but also for the psychological development of the other characters. The frequency with which the "I" presents glimpses into the consciousness and private lives of the characters introduces an artificial note into the narrative, and detracts from the verisimilitude of the entire "meditation." (pp. 77-8)

Occasionally Benet demonstrates a preoccupation with expanding his narrative point of view. Instead of depending upon the "I" for a paraphrase or opinion, Benet inserts the viewpoint of the original source. For example, when discussing the reactions of the people of Región to the early days of the Civil War, the narration switches to the direct discourse of Tío Ricardo…. By means of this lengthy monologue Benet achieves a new perspective in the novel without resorting to first person omniscience. (p. 80)

Benet's treatment of time and memory in Una meditación clearly resembles the temporal concerns evident in Volverás a 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 Una meditación, however, the reflections on time by the first person narrator are actually reflections on the writing of the novel itself. Since the novel consists of the recollection and subsequent expression of past events, any kind of temporal speculation must necessarily reflect on the construction of the work. Thus time and recollection, which form the intrinsic essence of Una meditación, play an equal role in both the form and content of the novel. (pp. 80-1)

Eros and sexual desire constitute a recurrent topic of concern in Una meditación, and are treated both in the abstract during the philosophical digressions of the "I," and concretely through the portrayal of several of the characters. Love and sex furnish the motivating forces behind many of the occurrences in the novel, and Freudian influence can be noted throughout…. In Una meditación Benet … intensifies the sexual desires of his characters to such a degree that eros and frustrated emptiness become synonymous with sex and life itself. (p. 86)

If sexual gratification eludes the characters of Una meditación as a means of obtaining permanent satisfaction, the sexual act itself provides a temporary liberation from the obstacles which prevent fulfillment. The most important of these is the constant oppression of time…. [The] chronological time of the sexual act (i.e., the discharge of instinctual psychic energy) creates a psychological period of escape during which time exercises no influence. In effect, sex conquers time, but only temporarily. (pp. 87-8)

Benet's style of writing in Una meditación, although similar to that of Volverás a Región, is much more complex. Written in a single paragraph which extends for 329 pages, the novel demands the reader's active participation in penetrating the baroque syntax and untangling the complicated system of images. Although Una meditación resembles Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu in terms of narrative structure and technique, the influence of Faulkner remains predominant in Benet's complex style of writing. Like the American writer, Benet frequently amasses words in a manner which has caused some critics to charge him with prolixity. Indeed, 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 can be justified because of its intimate association with the content and structure of the novel…. Like Faulkner's, Benet's sentences are perhaps best described as "saturated solutions" in which diverse images and topics are juxtaposed in order to create complex and enigmatic realities.

One of the recurring characteristics of Benet's style in Una meditación is his presentation of opposed or contradictory suggestions within a single context. Similar to Faulkner's use of oxymoronic or near oxymoronic terms in many of his novels, Benet utilizes the contradictory statements to maintain his novel in a state of flux or suspension, thereby keeping the reader confused and uncertain in his response. The oxymoronic descriptions which Benet employs are constructed by the simultaneous suggestions of disparate or opposed elements, and therefore create a sharp polarity or tension. (pp. 91-3)

Walter Slatoff's conclusion that full coherence in Faulkner's novels is something the author hoped to avoid can also be applied to Benet's Una meditación. The distorted time sequences, the juxtaposition of largely independent stories and the unsyntactical marathon sentences all indicate an eagerness to avoid order and coherence. Benet constantly imposes obstacles to the complete and rational comprehension of events by his experiments with both style and content. He chooses to suggest complex, enigmatic realities rather than define circumstances which are orderly and unequivocal. (p. 93)

Benet's use of animalistic imagery to describe some of his characters, coupled with the stylized manner of narration and dialogue and the ambitious nature of much of the action, combine to create essentially dehumanized and abstract characters…. [However], the problems with which they are associated are palpably real: sex, the escape from time, memory, despair. Thus Benet's "dehumanized" characters struggle with "human" problems characteristic of all mankind. (pp. 95-6)

By means of his complex style Benet invents a reality which is more obscure and enigmatic than the realities external to his novel. He refuses to remove the obstacles which, once eliminated, would clarify the mysteries of his work. The events of Una meditación are maintained in a constant flux, and therefore many aspects of the novel remain paradoxical and intentionally insoluble. (p. 100)

Una tumba (1971) represents a significant departure from Juan Benet's first two novels in terms of style and narrative technique. It is by far the most easily understood and least complex of any of Benet's novels written to date. In contrast to the peripatetic narration of Volverás a Región and Una meditación, in which the concern with plot and dramatic development is only of secondary importance, Una tumba suggests Benet's preoccupation with a more traditional novelistic structure and plot formation. (p. 101)

At the outset of the Civil War a "niño" (whose name we are never told), is left with an elderly couple charged with overseeing a mansion which the child will apparently inherit one day. During the course of the novel the niño fulfills a mysterious destiny in which he gains a kind of diabolical power from both his ancestors (whom we learn about through retrospective action) and the mansion he is to inherit. However, it is the ambience of the novel, and not the plot, which creates the primary interest and establishes the main tensions. As in his previous two novels, Benet carefully constructs the psychological and physical environment and creates a symbiotic relationship between his characters and their surroundings. (p. 102)

Una tumba forms a unique part of Benet's novelistic repertory by virtue of its contracted length, the supplementary use of photographs and, above all, due to its relative simplicity. Nonetheless, the novel possesses several characteristics found in both Volverás a Región and Una meditación: the historical background of the Civil War, the recurring themes of solitude and decay and the mysterious environment of Región are portrayed in varying degrees of intensity in each of these novels. Furthermore, although Una tumba is stylistically a much less complex work, it shares with the other two novels such features as baroque-like sentences, the dehumanization of the characters, the deliberate withholding of meaning and the suggestive, rather than the precise use of language to create the overall novelistic reality. (p. 113)

The physical and psychological atmosphere of Una tumba reflects Benet's most characteristic manner of writing. Enhanced by the use of magical realism and the portrayal of fear and superstition, a sensation of mystery and destruction pervades the novel. Within this ambience the niño-protagonist awaits the fulfillment of his destiny. Like the principal characters of both Volverás a Región and Una meditación, the child is overcome by a predetermined future, against which it is impossible to struggle….

Although Una tumba has not received the critical acclaim granted Volverás a Región and Una meditación, it nonetheless constitutes an important part of Benet's novelistic art. It reveals a certain willingness (or desire) on the part of Benet to participate in an esthetic endeavor quite distinct from that which is normally involved in the writing of a novel. The result … [is] a work which is relatively penetrable, yet which remains characteristically abstruse and deceptive. (p. 114)

The complex, dense style of writing which characterizes Volverás a Región and Una meditación, reappears in Benet's fourth novel, Un viaje de invierno (1972)…. Once again the reader is forced to penetrate a world which consists of marathon sentences, a complex framework of recurring images, an ambiguous temporal structure and an interrelated series of events which remains essentially unexplained in terms of motivation and ultimate resolution. (p. 115)

As José Domingo has pointed out, Un viaje represents Benet's maximum effort to eliminate plot as an integral part of the novel…. [The] characters of Un viaje, which perhaps can be described more accurately as "apparitions," are never brought into clear focus, but instead remain obscured in a dense fog. As a result, Benet succeeds in creating a mysterious world of shadowy figures who approach a destiny which, although never explicitly defined, is suggested by the title of the novel: a winter's journey or, more precisely, a journey toward death.

In addition to stylistic and thematic elements …, Un viaje shares important temporal and spatial characteristics with Benet's earlier novels. In the first place, the spatial background of Un viaje consists of the area in and around Región…. Although not described in detail, the oppressive, ruinous atmosphere of Región appears in Un viaje as an important component of the physical and psychological environment. (pp. 115-16)

Although the temporal setting of the novel remains vague, the Civil War and the post-war period are mentioned several times as a symbol of the past ruin which continues to influence the lives of the characters…. In Un viaje …, as in Benet's first three novels, the destructive power of the Civil War continues to gnaw at the heart of Spain and results in a negation of the life force through which the characters strive for meaning and fulfillment. (p. 117)

The fatalistic concept of destiny which is portrayed in each of Benet's first three novels reaches its fullest and most critical development in Un viaje. As he does in his other novels, Benet eliminates the dimension of free choice for his characters by infusing them with a fatidical acceptance of their destiny. (p. 122)

A large part of Benet's style of writing in Un viaje seems to be based upon the desire 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 awareness of a situation in terms of pure consciousness of it. In this sense, Benet can be viewed as an idealist: since our consciousness seizes nothing but manifestations, reality is very illusory. When reading Un viaje, we sense that we are before the dream of reality, instead of reality itself. Indeed, much of Benet's style supports this point of view. (p. 127)

Benet's style of writing in Un viaje is similar to that of both Volverás a Región and Una meditación. In characteristic fashion he utilizes page-length sentences, complicated syntax, parentheses and parentheses within parentheses. However, Benet seems to exert a control over the flow of his prose in Un viaje which is absent from his previous full-length novels: he exercises restraint in the length of his sentences and paragraphs, and eliminates many of the subordinate clauses which characterize much of his earlier writing. In addition, he places many of his typical digressions in the margins of the page in reduced-size print instead of within the narrative itself. As a result, the more condensed nature of his prose appears less peripatetic than usual. Nonetheless, Benet's style continues to evolve as a complex webwork of language replete with delays and confusions. (p. 130)

Until now, the similarities between the novels of Faulkner and Benet are manifest primarily in terms of style: recurring motifs, oxymoronic constructions, ruptured syntax and peripatetic sentences appear repeatedly in the works of both authors…. In La otra casa de Mazón (1973),… Faulknerian influence extends well beyond stylistic similarities. As in the American's Requiem for a Nun (1951), Benet's novel consists of interwoven sections of narrative and dramatic dialogue in the form of a play. However, whereas Faulkner's work consists of three acts, each of which is preceded by a lengthy prose introduction describing the historical background of the events, La otra casa consists of five sections each of prose and dialogue (including stage directions) which are intimately related by plot and thematic similarities. Indeed, a large portion of the drama serves either to clarify the ambiguity which characterizes the prose sections, or to enhance the themes of physical and psychological ruin which pervade the novel.

There is no plot in La otra casa in the traditional sense. Instead, the novel consists of a carefully selected series of events from the past and present which represent the decadence of the Mazón family. The house … which is mentioned in the first sentence and recurs throughout the novel, forms the setting for both the drama and prose sections, and therefore provides spatial unity and serves to intensify the themes of physical and psychological destructiveness…. [The] narrative segments serve as an informational background to the play, allow Benet to introduce his thematic concerns by portraying the decadence of a once wealthy family and, primarily due to his style, enable him to create the ambience of despair and ruin which forms the essence of all of his novels. (pp. 137-38)

Benet has so far set the action of all of his novels in or around Región. In La otra casa, although the area bears the name El Auge, the geographic similarities between it and Región (which is also mentioned in the novel) clearly indicate that Benet wishes the reader to associate the two towns as part of the same spatial background. This fact is underscored by reference to several incidents, characters and geographic locations which have appeared before in Benet's novels. (p. 139)

Similar to the novels of Faulkner in which the history of such famous literary families as the Compsons, Sutpens, Sartoris and Snopes is related in detail, the Mazón family tree becomes the subject for study and analysis by Benet. However, in contrast to Faulkner, who generally develops several family members to a high degree of complexity, Benet concentrates on only one character, Cristino Mazón, who appears as the central figure in the play and also merits detailed attention in the narrative. The other family members, however, appear and disappear throughout the novel and never gain full development as real human beings. Cristino, then, becomes the symbol of the entire Mazón family and personifies the theme of "ruin-in-life" which dominates the novel. (pp. 142-43)

The differences in style between the prose and dialogue segments of La otra casa could not be more pronounced. The play, which consists of five sections of dialogue, is characterized by a straightforward and succinct manner of speech which is highly realistic in terms of syntax and word usage. In contrast, the dense, circumlocutory style of writing which marks each of Benet's previous novels appears in the narrative segments of La otra casa with characteristic intensity and complexity.

One of the principal achievements of Benet's style lies in the author's ability to draw the reader into the flow and rhythm of his words as they interanimate. In La otra casa, Benet frequently amasses words in order to describe as accurately as possible the complex reality which he portrays at any particular moment. Most commonly, he compounds words into groups of three, and thereby gives depth and multiformity to his descriptions. (pp. 150-51)

[In conclusion, like] the French new novelists, Benet writes complex novels which are the antithesis of the popular "novels of consumption." Indeed, he intentionally writes for a minority of people…. (p. 155)

The fundamental question persists, however, as to what genuinely distinguishes Benet as a writer for the elite; a writer whose novels are difficult to read, let alone understand….

In short, what is the figure which Benet is weaving in his still incomplete carpet? In the first place, the extreme difficulty of Benet's works stems from … the enigmatic and inexplicable nature of nearly all of his novels…. Like Faulkner, Benet offers obstacles, obtrusions and confusing digressions in his novels which discourage the passive reader but challenge the active one. However, one pronounced difference between the novels of Benet and Faulkner reveals an underlying contrast in their approach to writing. Whereas a novel of Faulkner may be extremely difficult to untangle, the intelligent reader will be able to overcome the obstacles in his path and understand the work because Faulkner furnishes (albeit indirectly) all the necessary information. Benet, on the other hand, not only imposes barriers, but by means of delaying or partially disclosing certain incidents and ideas, he in effect forecloses the possibility of total understanding of his work…. [A score of questions] remain unanswered in Benet's novels, primarily, I believe, because they represent the author's view that many facets of our existence defy rational cognition. (pp. 155-56)

David K. Herzberger, in his The Novelistic World of Juan Benet (copyright © 1976 by The American Hispanist, Inc.), American Hispanist. 1976, 174 p.

Kessel Schwartz

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

[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 his tragic role. Indeed, as the fortune-telling cards of the grandmother convey, all of the protagonists, the jealous unloved young brother, the incompetent father, the arrogant older brother, are actors in a tragic play, serving at the same time as symbolic multiple representations of a decadent Spain.

The author dwells on destiny as a "mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for futile purpose," with events predestined rather than aleatory, though the disordered cards, one of the leitmotifs, seem to reflect the destructive forces and chaos of life, the repetition and reversal of mutually compensating roles, and life's dualities and antinomies. Benet governs a time frame in which events seem atemporal, with little difference between real and imaginery trips, possible or probable futures. He examines the intellectual thought processes, determining that memory, capable of detailing precisely fixed mnemonic cross sections of past events, may also change and deceive.

Divided into three parts and five chapters, filled with baroque sentences of more than one page, interspersed with French, German, and English, the novel builds up its mosaic with nuances, fragmentary allusions, and repetitious references to the same scenes or events…. Sharing his creative force with his characters, Benet enlightens the reader as to the "what" and the "why" of the plot while at the same time mystifying him concerning the "who" and the "how" of events through the use of a spectrum of subtleties and simultaneous time frames.

In the final analysis, as the long interpolations testify, the novelist reveals his predilection for the philosophical and psychological over the novelistic in this latest fictional elaboration. (pp. 478-79)

Kessel Schwartz, in a review of "Saúl ante Samuel," in Hispania (© 1981 The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Inc.), Vol. 64, No. 3, September, 1981, pp. 478-79.

James H. Abbott

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 301

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 931

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 feels like one of those dinner-party conversations in which your partner discourses so elaborately and at such length on a topic that you find you have no reply, not necessarily because nothing was said but because how it was said so smothers the content that its emotional import is dead on arrival.

The slow wide river of Benet's style carries along the broken pieces of a rather simple narrative about a group of friends who come to maturity after the Spanish civil war. Family stories drift into some funny, and some spooky, side-plots, in the leisurely interweaving currents of abstract meditations on the nature of power, reason, time, knowledge and belief, fear, love, memory, and morality. Some whirls of the philosophizing are interesting and beautiful, some are full of junk, some instantly evaporate in the mind. The themes of time (because it is linked to the story of a clock that finally focuses the whole novel), and memory (because the demonstration of Benet's theories on memory is in how he tells the story), and love (because of a few vivid scenes involving rats and other nonromantic images) are slowly built to complex conclusions. Other themes that are not so concretely tied down to the narrative may make the whirls wheel in pretty circles, but anybody with a background in philosophy can also spin the ABC's of these in their sleep, and yawn at some of them….

The style of the novel creates an intentionally weird, deadpan world, in which the wretched lives of the characters seem not quite emotionless, but only melancholic, wry, and too flat in tone to be human. Besides creating a mood for an unhealthy era, this tone exists because the stories are told from the perspective of memory, in which "the death of a blood aunt can be much less a reason for concern than the loss of a cigarette lighter; because it is the interest and the capacity for passion that fade away and it isn't memory that commands." And because memory does not command, some of reality has grown to be myth and fable….

Gradually most of the narratives come to include Cayetano Corral, the spokesperson for this madness, who comments. "Notice … how during times of peace like these the historical content decreases and the sociological increases. War resolves the past and peace the future, just halfway, because only disasters and passions are capable of fixing time."

I won't quite accept Cayetano's disclaimer on times of peace. It's unfortunate that there's so little said about postwar politics. The author leaves the characters isolated, floating amid his abstract examinations of morality and power, and this is slightly insidious; we can't see enough of how Benet judges the specific morality of the times, or what political position he's taking, since his focus on abstractions leads us to believe it's the abstractions themselves that comfort or disturb him, and not the human activities, the acts in the name of which all abstractions are invariably used, or misused.

Since there's so little factual or real context for Benet's characters, it's difficult to care about them in the end. They seem too deracinated. While this is in fact a point being made by the author about the period, the bloodlessness is also the result, and the major weakness, of this modernist style. It's too bad that Spanish writers continue to elaborate on South and Central American style; the transplantation doesn't seem to have taken root. It's dried up, full of cerebralized formalizations which lack juice, action, and passion….

One major point A Meditation makes over and over is that things always fall apart. When Cayetano finally fixes his clock and sets it ticking so imperfectly that after a few days its vibrations (which start time moving again in Region) begin to cause cracks, fissures, chaos, and change for miles around. I felt relieved. The flow of time was stopped for a bit too long while the narrator stooped to tie his shoelace, and the sheer weight of all that accumulating prose, while impressive, finally overwhelms everything else.

Kathryn Kilgore, "Modernism As a Second Language," in VLS (copyright © 1982 News Group Publications, Inc.), No. 7, May, 1982, p. 9.

Allen Josephs

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

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 ken of the rational mind. His convolutions and circumlocutions—his symphonically arranged style—give "A Meditation" a fidelilty to the movements of consciousness unique in the modern novel. Beyond the pale of conventional realism, Benet has become a kind of mythic realist, guardian … of the irreducibility of the sacred grove of human consciousness….

If you are a true aficionado of the modern novel, if you think the novel is the ultimate puzzle to be reconstructed by the reader, you will consider Benet a great discovery and another rung up the Gnostic ladder begun by the likes of Proust and Faulkner and Lowry. If you have the stamina and the patience, you may find that Benet's deliberately obfuscated narration creates a new bridge—or no man's land—between the double solipsisms of reader and writer. His ironic meditation, his universal story of time and memory and ruin, is also one more gauntlet thrown down by Spanish-language novelists in the arena of world literature. (p. 42)

Allen Josephs, "Onward Goes the Paragraph," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 23, 1982, pp. 13, 42.

Vincente Cabrera

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2467

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 man's inevitable failure embodied in one of Benet's most important images, that of the journey, which man must begin, even if he knows it will lead nowhere. The novelettes of You Will Never Get Anywhere are "Nunca llegarás a nada" [You Will Never Get Anywhere], "Baalbec, una mancha" [Baalbec, a Stain], "Duelo" [Mourning], and "Después" [Afterwards]. (pp. 31-2)

Juan, the protagonist [of the title novelette], recounts a trip taken in the past with Vicente, his wealthy friend, through northern Europe: France, Germany, Denmark, and other unspecified countries. His recollection covers the period of preparation and the trip itself. The mystery which clouds the story is progressively intensified with the detailed and introspective description of events. This description, however, is carried out not because of the events as such, but rather because of their metaphysical implications which enable Juan to evolve and elucidate his own conception of life and his vision of the world. The plot of the work, therefore, does not rest on the dynamic sequence of those events in time, but instead on their inner human value that motivates the character's search for himself and for his place in the world. Thus, the trip to northern Europe is a symbol of man's odyssey into himself. The more detailed it is, the more complete his concept of life becomes. Taking into account the development of the plot, this short story is a novelette that opens with what structurally constitutes its conclusion: the sketch of a drunken Englishman and what he says about the two traveling friends. After asking them why they force themselves to continue traveling aimlessly, he says that they are poor humans trying in vain to survive, "trying to rise again."… Acknowledging the truth of these statements (after the journey, but at the beginning of the narrative), remarks which when they were made had no meaning to either of them, Juan says somewhat regretfully that "we ignored him."… In the closing pages, the reader learns that the Englishman also said (consistent with what he has already stated about man) that "this common body, like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide, to rot itself with motion."… The part of the English sentence which impressed Juan the most was "to rot itself with motion." He is not sure about the construction of the enigmatic language in which, he felt later, the truth was hidden. So in order to reveal it, measure its scope, as if impelled by the inner desire for self-definition, he must start the recollection of his symbolic journey. It should be realized that what his anonymous friend had to say is reproduced defectively, thus emphasizing the fallibility and the efforts to grasp the truth embodied in the English statement.

The artistic complexity derived from the Englishman's statements is unique and important to the total structure of the work, for the following reasons. (1) From a novelistic point of view, Juan recalls his journey and thus this novelette is created. He knows where and when it started and ended. From a metaphysical point of view, he is in the same situation as the reader; he is about to embark and does not know his destination. It is the tension between these two realities that enhances the artistic beauty of the work…. The reader knows from the Englishman that man's voyage in life will lead nowhere, yet he insists on reading the work, that is, binding himself to continue with Juan's self-discovery, which is also his own. (2) Thus, the reader and the protagonist, who shows him the way to nothingness, at the end become the drunken Englishman, both able to reach the same conclusion about themselves. (3) Juan and the reader follow in the footsteps of the Englishman, whom they unfortunately ignored and whose words—"you will never get anywhere"—they did not heed. (4) Ironically, the truth given at the beginning is the truth found and experienced at the end. In addition, that same loose truth of the beginning becomes at the end the unifying element which circularly structures the work, which is seemingly formless. This circular structure is aesthetically satisfying since the idea of an odyssey is developed. The actual destination of both the character and the reader becomes their point of departure: nothingness. One may say that if they reached nothingness, philosophically, they got somewhere. But that somewhere, in the poetic context of the work, means nothingness, which in the final analysis is nowhere, and hence the title of the work. This thematic and artistic vicious circle is another aspect that makes Benet's literature an essentially enigmatic experience. (pp. 32-3)

Benet's preoccupation with the traditional concepts of time and character in "You Will Never Get Anywhere" is minimal. These two technical elements are subject to the total vision of the work revealed through the inner reality of Juan. Character and time, rather than ends in themselves, are only means to the end of novelistic architecture … This is one of the reasons why the reader may experience difficulty in following the trend of thought and reflection wrought by the dense narration of the story. (p. 34)

It is enlightening to examine together the main thematic and technical characteristics of You Will Never Get Anywhere as a whole, that is, as a work of art in which its parts, although independent from each other, comprise a total structural unity embodying a specific vision of life. The four works underline man's nothingness in time and space. An individual, a family, a generation, or an entire era is rooted in nothingness to bear, in turn, nothingness. This pessimistic cyclical pattern makes of the characters in all these novelettes not so much individuals developed according to traditional tenets of depiction, as symbolic shadows whose raison d'etre is subject to the total vision of the work. That is, character is not subjugated to any ideal of realistic consistency, but to the effectiveness of the system of expression…. The same conviction of artistic independence from the traditional concept of the novel is also perceptible in the author's skillful engineering of plot and handling of time. With the possible exception of the first two novelettes, where "something happens," plot is minimal, almost nonexistent. Events, stripped of their realistic apparel, do not stand for themselves as signs of chronological sequence, but are almost imperceptible references in the midst of the characters' (or the narrators') flow of reflections. The events are there not for the plot's sake, but for the elucidation of the characters' conceptions of the world. The order in which they are arranged is determined by the characters' patterns of reflection rather than by a chronology of occurrence decided by the author, which explains why juxtaposition of past, present, and future is found throughout the collection. The fragmentation of Benet's typically long sentence through repeated subordinate clauses containing past, present, and future becomes the symbolic microcosm of the organic juxtaposition in the plot of the work, which in turn is the composite image of man's labyrinthine existence.

Other important technical modes common in the collection are (1) the use of symbols to infuse a variety of levels of reality and to give structural unity to the work, since these symbols are developed and transformed into extended metaphors; (2) the careful elaboration of mystery, paralleling life's enigma in which characters and readers are trapped and must find their way out through an interpretation of man's destiny; (3) the implementation of irony and absurdity in the character's thoughts and actions, which inevitably lead him to nowhere; and (4) the persistent recurrence of uncertainty regarding the distinction between reality and fantasy, between the natural and the supernatural, as in the case of the flying cups of "Afterwards." Benet's approach to reality, to conventional reality, recalls that of García Márquez, yet there are no grounds for implying influences from the latter upon the former, for this collection appeared six years before Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. (pp. 39-40)

"Numa" is Benet's latest novella, published as part of his book Del Pozo y del Numa (un ensayo y una leyenda) [Of Pozo and Numa (an essay and a legend), 1978]. It deals with the mysterious and ubiquitous guard Numa, already in Benet's fiction a legend in his own right. He is charged with watching over the sacred forest, a forest menaced in vain and persistently by an anonymous outsider or intruder. The mystery of both Numa and the intruder, and their instinctive desire to protect and tread upon the forest, is successfully sustained throughout the entire narrative discourse in the same way it is sustained in Benet's other major works. But unlike these works, this "legend" contains a deceptive intention and a special narrative method which the author employs to create—for the first time—a complete and comprehensive account of Numa. The reader is led to believe that this is the opportunity to grasp fully the elusive nature, personality, character, intentions, and intuitions of the legendary Numa. To this purpose Benet incessantly accumulates a variety of information concerning these vital aspects of Numa. (pp. 47-8)

Every bit of information ironically both creates and destroys the objectivity of the legend. This is important to emphasize here because this literary piece, this legend, is supposedly the most thorough and complete portrayal of Numa in Benet's fictional world. And the reader sees that, indeed, it is complete but at the same time, and paradoxically, helps very little to clarify the mystery of the character. The brilliant and persuasive reasonings handled by the objective narrator in the exposition of his material make him appear as a very reliable instrument for the discovery of the inner truth about the two opposing and irreconcilable forces (Numa-intruder) and motivations that make up the legend or history of Numa's domain—or, one may say, of Franco's Spain. One understands the narrator's lucid state ments. He says (and it is simple, just like Numa's mind) that he, Numa, knows exactly what his mission is: the protection of the forest. His consolation is that he has this limited function in life, which he needs as it needs him. (pp. 48-9)

As suggested earlier, this legend is, among other things, an extended metaphor of Franco's Spain. Unlike Benet's other works, here the reference to Spanish historical reality is more subtle. Between the lines, one finds allusions to the traditional confict between Republicans and Nationalists, allusions to Juan Carlos as the young and timid successor of Franco, allusions to Franco's semidivine right to rule Spain in death as well as in life. The substructure of meaning, of course, does not undermine the universality of the conflict implicit in the narration. Instead it enriches and enhances its ambiguity: it is one thing and also another, both at the same time.

As in Benet's major long works of fiction, in this legend plot is reduced to a minimum, making the narrative an immobile body of discourse. The confrontation at the end, between Numa and the unknown intruder who, more than a real person, seems to be a recalcitrant shadow in Numa's paranoid mind, is the only spark of action in the whole legend. It is not a plot in the traditional sense of the word, but rather an epilogue or appendix, attached to the end in order to show in action the conflict reasoned in the discourse of the text. The intruder seems to die by two shots, one in the buttock and the other in the face. For the reader's momentary relief, or better yet, for his further confusion and exhaustion, Benet resorts—as he does in his other works—to some recurrent symbols: the cloud of dust and the gray lamina of water wherein the two protagonists of history or legend must remain forever. Numa's legend (forest) is as eternal as the change of the seasons or as certain as the intruder's hopes that will turn inevitably into failure.

Benet's use of the third-person narrative point of view is effective. He does not allow Numa or the intruder to speak to the reader or to each other. They are confined to their corners of silence and solitude, there to live, fermenting mutual hatred and hostility, with no hope for communication or possible reconciliation. As they are mysterious to each other, so are they both to the reader and to the narrator. The language Benet uses to build this mysterious legend is consistently technical, cold, and precise. His clauses are extensive and broken in his usual fashion, with parentheses, hyphens, and commas, all contributing to make the text purposely an inflexible, alienating, and exhausting narrative discourse. (pp. 49-50)

To the present, Benet has published two major collections of short stories: 5 narraciones y 2 fábulas [5 Tales and 2 Fables] and Sub Rosa, that is, a total of fifteen short stories and two very brief, witty fables. As in the case of the novelettes, these two collections reveal Benet's artistic unity within a narrative variety. Enigma and futility continue to be the central forces of artistic creation and life, in Región or New York, among the young and the old, in situations of love, lust, greed, ambition, or death. Benet's short fiction, including the novelettes, is a gallery of enigmas incarnating passions that cover "a large part of human behavior's complex spectrum." (p. 51)

Vincente Cabrera, in his Juan Benet (copyright © 1983 by Twayne Publishers; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1983, 152 p.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Juan Benet Study Guide

Subscribe Now