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.