Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1669
In a series of novels begun in 1967 with the publication of Volverás a Región and continued in Una meditacion (1970; A Meditation, 1982), Un viaje de invierno (1972), and La otra casa de Mazón (1973), Juan Benet has created the chronicle of a mythical area of Spain to which he has given the name Región. Critics have frequently compared Benet to William Faulkner, not only for his invention of a fictional place as the locale of his several novels, but also for his dazzling stylistic innovation and linguistic complexity.
Critics have also noted the similarity between Región and the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970). In A Meditation, as in García Márquez’s novel, there is an indefinable narrative attitude that seeks a mythic base to the collective identity of a people—the Spaniards of Benet’s novel and the Colombians of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Stylistically, however, the two works are as different as one could possibly imagine, and to that difference is attributable the extraordinary popular success of García Márquez and the very limited appeal of Benet. Because it is a mythic interpretation of the origins of the present generation of the Colombian urban middle class, One Hundred Years of Solitude has an enormous appeal to the general reading public in Latin America as a kind of cultural history. A Meditation is also a search for the mythic origins of the present generation in Spain. It does not, however, have the accessibility of its Colombian counterpart because of its esoteric, convoluted style. Although Benet’s novel attracted the attention of the literary establishment and received the prestigious Biblioteca Breve literary prize, it will only appeal to the serious, dedicated reader of fiction. It is one of those rare works that contribute to the evolution of the novel as an art form, but it is a book that will be read by very few.
In A Meditation, Benet creates an experience of the Spanish society that is the heir to the trauma of the Civil War of 1936 to 1939. The unnamed narrator is an exile who returns home to attend a memorial service for Jorge Ruan, a young poet and son of the family that has always been the rival of the narrator’s family in the struggle for dominance in Región. The narrator’s return becomes a pretext for reconstructing through memory the intricate relationship between the two families.
The similarity of this basic premise of the novel to that of Juan Goytisolo’s Señas de identidad (1966; Marks of Identity, 1969) is striking. The theme is the same but the techniques are quite different. Marks of Identity is a novel of transition, still in the tradition of realistic narrative, although there is a tendency toward the innovation of the later novels of Goytisolo’s exile trilogy—Reivindicacion del Conde Don Julián (1970; Count Julian, 1974) and Juan sin tierra (1975; Juan the Landless, 1977). When Goytisolo becomes more experimental, he tends to create a fantasized representation of reality which becomes an extensive metaphorical expression of his reaction to the Spanish experience. Benet creates a world much more in accord with the historical reality that his narrative reflects. The narrator of A Meditation tells a story that, for the most part, is plausible, however convoluted and fragmentary.
In Benet’s novel, the reconstruction of the past takes the form of a meditation, in which the narrator allows each memory to conjure up other recollections, which lead in turn to philosophical observations on the meaning of the recollected experiences, which return him to other remembrances of other events and other characters. As the reader slowly and gradually accumulates details about the complex relationships of the characters, much of the mystery of this enigmatic reality is clarified, yet there is also much that remains confused and contradictory.
Benet has been compared to Marcel Proust, and the similarities are striking at those points in Benet’s novel in which the narrator is stimulated to a remembrance of the past by the things of present experience. There is a moment in A Meditation that is reminiscent of the famous Proustian madeleine scene. The narrator stoops to tie his shoe, looks at three of the friends attending the service for Jorge, and—frozen in that instant of concentration on his own posture in adjusting the shoelace and the posture of the three friends—draws together the various threads of the remembrance, explaining a complex web of relationships that summarizes the novel. As he sees Cayetano Corral and Carlos Bonaval talking to Mary, he realizes that Bonaval is the man with whom Mary ran away for an amorous adventure on the eve of her marriage; the man with whom she spent nights in the inn from which she called for Jorge’s brother Enrique, who summoned Julian to marry her; the man who had returned primarily to find the posthumous papers of the poet Jorge. These same papers are those which Mary’s son would put in her coffin right before her burial a year later, after which Carlos Bonaval and Leo (Laura) would go off to the mountains for a lovers’ tryst, where they would be seen by Emilio Ruiz, who had been waiting for Mary to die so that he could marry her older sister. These illicit affairs occurred in the same inn to which Jorge fled from the sanatorium and, finding Muerte, the proprietess, in bed, nearly bit off her earlobe while having coitus with her, because he had seen Rufino, the foreman of the mine run by Emilio Ruiz, bite the jugular vein of a rat to kill it, a rat like the ones that Camila Abrantes persuaded him to burn alive before she sent him to the Indian’s hut, where he was found by two Civil Guards, near the spot where he was later found murdered.
It is not until the last pages of the novel that it becomes obvious that the meditation is constructed around the trip that Bonaval and Leo take to the mountains, a trip that touches the lives of many of the characters in a direct or an oblique way. As Bonaval brings Leo home and deposits her, immobile in her ecstasy, on her bed, the narrator recapitulates all of the events and relationships of the novel, as if everything were concentrated on that moment of Bonaval’s realization that the sexual adventure with Leo has left him in despair. In the enigmatic condensation of the experiences of all of the characters in that moment—enigmatic because the reader does not understand why that episode is the distillation of everything else—the meditation ends with Bonaval rubbing his face with the black earth of the ruins of the factory where Cayetano Corral had worked on his clock, the very place where Bonaval had first met Leo.
The enigma of this narrative is unresolved, and the reader is left with an intense uncertainty about the characters and their relationships. Although the narrative is so obscure that it often becomes irritating, the novel creates an extraordinary representation of the process of meditative reconstruction of the past through memory. The narrative is indeed a meditation, a series of references to events in the lives of the characters, references that are repeated continually, at times clearly and at times obscurely. The accumulation of remembered reality gradually reveals a truth—albeit a partial truth—both to the narrator and to the reader.
That partial truth has something to do with the intermingling of the two rival families—the narrator’s and the family of Ruan. Carlos Bonaval, locked in a struggle with the narrator’s grandfather, has his liaison with Mary, marries her to Julian, the Ruans’ tutor, then runs away with Leo, the lover of Cayetano and an intimate friend of the Ruans, while Emilio Ruiz, a distant relative of Cayetano, marries Mary’s older sister. The truth of this reality is also related to Cayetano’s clock, an extraordinary pendulum timepiece that symbolizes to these characters their own anxieties; it is also related to the inn over which presides the mysterious Muerte (death), and in which occur the events that seem to be the most significant of the novel.
That A Meditation creates only a partial truth which is not entirely accessible through rational cognition is evidence of Benet’s departure from the postwar tradition of the Spanish novel. As Jorge Rodríguez Padrón has observed in a review of Benet’s work in the literary magazine Insula (November-December, 1979), Benet’s novelistic theory rests on the concept that fiction is a mythographic activity that configures its own world according to its own laws, that creates with words not a reality which can be fully known by the intellect, but a potentiality—a suggestion of an uncertain reality. In A Meditation, Benet creates a representation of the process of memory, which restores the past through recall, analysis of the remembered facts, evaluation of the evidence, and a positing of a possible truth.
Reading Benet’s A Meditation can be frustrating but is also enriching and rewarding. Gregory Rabassa’s translation is a monumental achievement, for the structures of English are not as suitable to Benet’s continuous narrative as are the structures of Spanish. There are no traditional divisions in the text, no paragraphs, no chapters. The punctuation is chaotic, and there are sentences that go on for pages, with parentheses inside of parentheses inside of other parentheses. It is significant that Benet wrote this novel not on sheets of paper but on a long, continuous roll. It is unfortunate that it could not be published in the same format, for the narrative is continuous, with no breaks and no pauses. This is Benet’s most significant achievement, that he has been able to re-create that process of memory, that flow of consciousness which many novelists have attempted, but he has mastered.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 102
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