Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081
A Meditation consists of one long, rambling paragraph, without divisions, in which the narrator sets forth his memories of growing up in Region and the outlying area. There is no coherent plot. Instead, the work consists of isolated scenes, philosophical meanderings, fragments of speech, parts of a letter, and diverse reflections, all arranged in no particular order. Through recollection and reflection, the narrator hopes to understand better his own life, as well as the lives of his family and acquaintances. Memory becomes a tool in the process of existential self-creation, which serves to give meaning to the existence of the individual. As Region is a symbol of Spain and a microcosm of the world, the narrator’s meditation is an ambitious search for the meaning of not only his own life but also that of his nation and of human beings in general. At the end, however, the narrator is no closer to an understanding of reality than he was at the beginning.
Although memory is the operating force of the narrative, there is an element of will that assigns greater or lesser importance to every recollection. Will is not necessarily subject to reason or logic: It “has its own predilections.” For will, “the death of a blood aunt can be much less a reason for concern than the loss of a cigarette lighter.” Thus, memory dredges up and dwells on those incidents for which the individual feels a particular passion or interest. That is why seemingly unimportant details sometimes occupy pages, while major events may be mentioned only in passing. For example, on one occasion, the narrator’s family sends his cousin to pick hazelnuts outside the house of a prestigious clan with which his aunts have become obsessed, in the hope that the girl will be invited inside. On the way, the narrator, then a young child who is fascinated with his cousin, falls and scratches his knee, then runs to catch up with the group, so that he will not miss Mary’s entry onto the terrace. The episode is described in great detail. “I don’t know why I keep that entry so engraved in my memory, why I remember it with such insistence and precision, and why at times I see myself trying to inquire into its most insignificant details, as if the discovery of one of them might change the whole balance of the system remembered,” the narrator muses. Then he realizes that falling, shedding blood, and pushing himself to go on had taken on “heroic characteristics” in his then-childish mind. He had subconsciously transformed the incident into a sort of sacrifice, a proof of valor, that he must make on behalf of Mary, whom he greatly admired. On the other hand, when the narrator refers to Emilio Ruiz, a self-righteous, hypocritical man who hopes to marry into the narrator’s family, he remembers the name only vaguely, referring to him as “Emilio something Ruiz something.”
Illogically, an event as cataclysmic as the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War takes on importance only because it allowed the narrator more freedom as a child, for, as the adults became more concerned with the war, their preoccupation with the children’s behavior diminished. The Civil War is the focal point of the novel. It is the chronological referent for all other events, which are often described as having occurred before, after, or during the war. Yet A Meditation is not a political novel. Juan Benet is interested in the effect of the war—and other occurrences—on the psyche of the individual.
The narrator’s recollections range from the humorous to the grotesque, from the trivial to the repugnant. Often, there is a note of irony. When his Uncle Alonso appears with an unmarried couple posing as husband and wife, the narrator’s scandalized family, which suspects the truth, entertains the pair only with reluctance. After raising eyebrows by retreating into the bedroom for a long period, during which time they make a shockingly loud racket, the guests further upset the family by splitting up for dinner. The lady pleads exhaustion and stays in her room, while the gentleman dines with the adults. (The children have been shooed away to protect them from corruption.) In spite of their prejudices, the staid aunts and uncles find their guest to be highly entertaining and soon are laughing and joking with him—much to their embarrassment when he is gone.
In another episode, a missionary with a reputation for saintliness gets his beard caught in a drawer. When one of the nephews suggests that the beard be cut in order to free the man, the missionary hurls a series of oaths and curses at him.
Much of the humor of the novel revolves around a liqueur created by the narrator’s grandfather. The potion is so strong and unsavory that guests routinely pour it into plants, which die shortly thereafter. Yet Mr. Hocher, a stubborn Swiss gentleman who is anxious to marry into the family, drinks it with apparent pleasure and compliments the grandfather on it constantly, thereby irritating the old man. These episodes not only relieve the tedium of Benet’s wordiness but also serve to point out the hypocrisy of society.
Other episodes jolt the reader by reducing the characters to grotesque, repulsive, animalistic beings. For example, one night, Jorge Ruan goes to the room of a woman known as Camila. As he ejaculates, he bites her earlobe, causing blood to run out of her ear at the same time that his own secretions flow from his body. Afterward, he places a dead rat on the pillow beside her. Later that night, a woman whom Camila desires and for whom she had been waiting, appears and places the dead rat between the girl’s legs. This episode underscores the spiritual ruin of the characters, who, alienated and frightened, seek temporary escape in sex, only to sink back into the depths of their misery after the act. Typically, Benet’s characters are emotionally uninvolved, even distant, during sex. Often they are nameless. The narrator is deliberately vague about the woman’s name: “I don’t think [she] was called Camila, as the few friends who knew her and dealt with her said.” The effect is to distance and dehumanize the participants. With irony, the narrator refers to the “cadaver” of the rat, thereby humanizing the animal and insinuating that it is more human than the people who handle it.