Return to Región

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1753

In the preface to the 1974 edition in Spanish of Return to Región (published originally as Volverás a Región, 1967), Juan Benet explains that in 1951 he began a novel about a mythical guardian of a forbidden forest, which he rewrote in the years from 1962 to 1964 as an elaboration of three separate narratives—the myth of the guardian, a fictional history of the development and consequences of the Spanish civil war in a remote community, and the story of a frustrated marriage in the mountains of Northern Spain. When Benet received a rejection notice from a publisher indicating that the novel lacked the material most attractive to contemporary readers—sufficient dialogue—he intransigently set about revising his text by eliminating much of the dialogue from the manuscript. In 1967, two years after Benet’s fifth rewriting of the material, the novel was finally published by Ediciones Destino.

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Return to Región is a complex, difficult novel, rendered into English by Gregory Rabassa, a translator of consummate skill who has produced excellent translations of many Spanish and Latin American novels, including Benet’s Una meditación (1978; A Meditation, 1982). Benet had to sacrifice many “insolences” and “impertinences” to make Return to Región acceptable to the publishers. After his success, he was able to preserve the integrity of his manuscripts, as is evident in the novels that follow Return to Región. A Meditation is considerably more complex than the first novel, as are Un viaje de invierno (1972; a winter journey) and La otra casa de Mazón (1973; the other house of Mazón). These later novels are genuinely “insolent” and “impertinent” in the context of the neorealism of Spanish fiction in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Benet wrote A Meditation on a long, continuous roll of paper, without paragraphs, chapters, or periods. Sentences go on for pages, filled with parentheses within parentheses and quotations within quotations. The punctuation is so chaotic that the text is decipherable only with considerable patience and determination.

Return to Región is somewhat more traditional in its narrative techniques, probably because of the strictures placed on the unknown novelist by the publishers. Even so, it is an extremely difficult novel that marked a significant change in the direction of Spanish fiction in the 1960’s. In spite of the more conservative linguistic structures of the text, the narrative constructs a kind of reality similar to that found in Benet’s later novels—a mythographic configuration of a world that operates according to its own rules. Benet’s fictional reality is an uncertain one, posited through the process of memory. The characters of Return to Región recall the past, analyze the remembered facts, evaluate the reconstructed events, and leave the reader with a potential, partial truth that is not entirely accessible or understandable.

Benet divides his novelistic text into four sections. The first is a description and history of Región, an isolated village in the mountains of Northern Spain, in a dense forest guarded by the mysterious, mythical figure of Numa, the unseen presence that preserves the peace of the area. The second, third, and fourth sections of the novel narrate the visit of Marré the Gamallo to the house where Dr. Daniel Sebastián lives in isolation, caring for a retarded man who was abandoned by his mother during the civil war. The last three sections of the novel are devoted almost entirely to the spoken words of Marré Gamallo and Sebastián. It soon becomes evident, however, that these two characters are not engaged in a dialogue; rather, each is delivering a monologue not necessarily directed at the other. The purpose of the monologues—which at times become interiorized—is not communication but the re-creation of past experience through the act of recalling the events that established a relationship between the two characters, a relationship unknown to either of them until their meeting in Sebastián’s house.

The two primary voices in the novel—those of Marré Gamallo and Daniel Sebastián—together with the voice of the unnamed narrator and the comments of an unnamed editor of the text form the narrative of Return to Región. At many points, it is not clear who is speaking or to whom the pronominal forms refer. Both these characters are obsessed with the wartime experience. Marré Gamallo has come back to Región in search of her lover, Luis Timonel, who disappeared into the forest at the end of the war. She forces Daniel Sebastián to remember his experience, although his monologues dwell on the theme of the destruction wrought by time rather than on the events of the war.

Through the testimonies of Marré and Daniel, the narrator’s fragmentary history of Región presented in the first section is gradually clarified. Marré, the daughter of Colonel Gamallo of the invading Falangist forces, was held hostage by the Republican defenders of Región. After her first love affair, with a German soldier who was killed in the defense of the town, Marré had an affair with Luis Timoner, whose mother, María, was supposedly the lover of Colonel Gamallo. María rejected the advances of Daniel Sebastián, who harbors for her an unrequited passion years after her death. Daniel married another woman, with whom he lived in celibacy for twenty years, forever refusing to consummate the marriage. Since her death, he has lived alone in the house, caring for a violent retarded man abandoned by his mother during the war.

The novelistic text does not serve primarily to narrate this history of complex relationships. Rather, it is devoted to the obsession that each character has for the experience of the war in the remote Región. The details of the “plot”—the plot that hardly exists in the novel—are scattered throughout the monologues. Other related details are concentrated in a chaotic manner in the first section, which presents the obsessive remembrance of the other primary voice, that of the narrator.

The novel, then, is a revelation of the interior conflict of Marré and Daniel, and also of the abandoned child. The conflict of each has its origin in primal sexuality, aggravated by the prohibitions of civilized society. Marré, after an adolescence of repressed sexuality and the death of her first lover, became promiscuous and even spent a period in the inn of ill repute that figures significantly in the next novel Benet wrote, A Meditation. Her return to Región is a search for the happiness and sexual fulfillment of the period with her second lover, Luis Timoner. Daniel, rejected by the woman whom he loved, has spent his life first in a pseudomarriage, denying all sexual involvement, and then in isolation, nurturing a man whose infantile incestuous relationship with his mother was frustrated by her disappearance. The abandoned man-child lives out his life awaiting the return of his mother and even thinks that Marré is her and that Daniel is denying him access to her.

The wartime experience of Región, then, is merely a pretext for a more turbulent, interiorized experience. The war disturbs the isolation of the community and opens it up to the more cosmopolitan outside world. It aggravates the tension of the conflict between primal sexuality and civilized society, which in Benet’s novel becomes a metaphor for the struggle between the liberal and conservative forces of the civil war. That the novel’s central event—the encounter of Marré and Daniel—takes place in the mid-1960’s, at the height of Francisco Franco’s repressive reign, is significant. In the midst of a well-ordered, stagnant society, Marré and Daniel struggle to release the tension of their inner conflict through remembrance of the pervasive, frustrated sexuality of the wartime experience.

Throughout the narrative of the war in the first section of the novel, and also underlying the monologues of Marré and Daniel, is the image of the mythical Numa, who stalks the forest with carbine in hand, always ready to preserve the order of things and punish transgressors with rapid death. At the end of the novel, after Marré and Daniel have re-created the intense sexual transgressions of the past and the abandoned child has murdered Daniel, a single shot rings out in the quiet forest. Marré and all that her reappearance in Región represents are eliminated by Numa, the complex of repressive prohibitions is reaffirmed, and the social order is restored.

In A Meditation, Benet continues his exploration of the experience of Región with a narrative of the events from the end of the civil war up to a point some years before the time of Marré’s return. Once again, that experience is primarily sexual. Within Benet’s Freudian concept of frustrated sexuality, the history of Región is a continual process of society’s repressive prohibitions and the individual’s frequent transgressions, or the eternal conflict between reason and instinct. In Return to Región, the emphasis falls much more on the obsession with the conflict than on specific examples of it. It is as if this novel should have followed, rather than preceded, A Meditation, for this is the theoretical formulation of the struggle between instinctual impulses and rational constraints that is worked out in the later novel.

The encounter between Marré and Daniel in Return to Región seems to occur outside of time, because of the emphasis on the obsession itself. Daniel’s monologues concentrate to a great extent on the essential timelessness of experience. The impossibility of reconstructing a past or imagining a future inevitably renders the immediate present as the only reality. Región is a timeless, eternally stagnant representation of the repressive socialization of primal instincts. This pessimistic vision of society is reinforced by the eternal presence of Numa, to whom Marré sacrifices herself when she realizes the hopelessness of her attempt at fulfillment through restoration of the past.

Benet’s distinctive narrative style contributes significantly to his representation of the fictional reality as one that exists beyond the confines of chronological time. The fragmentary record of events and the chaotic arrangement of episodes parallel the natural process of memory, but also compromise the authenticity and reliability that characterize more traditional novelistic texts. Yet, whether the testimonies of the characters of Return to Región—Marré, Daniel, and the narrator—are authentic and reliable is of no consequence, for the significance of their experience lies not in what it was but in what it is in its remembered state.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 153

Choice. XXIII, November, 1985, p. 455.

Compitello, Malcolm Alan. “Language, Structure, and Ideology in Volveras a Region,” in Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Hispanic Literature Conference, 1982. Edited by J. Cruz Mendizabal.

Herzberger, David K. “The Emergence of Juan Benet: A New Alternative for the Spanish Novel,” in American Hispanist. I, no. 3 (1975), pp. 6-12.

Herzberger, David K. The Novelistic World of Juan Benet, 1976.

Library Journal. CX, June 1, 1985, p. 141.

Los Angeles Times. September 20, 1985, V, p. 28.

Mantiega, Robert C., David K. Herzberger, and Malcolm Alan Compitello, eds. Critical Approaches to the Writings of Juan Benet, 1984.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, September 15, 1985, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, April 26, 1985, p. 72.

Schwartz, Ronald. “Benet and Volveras a Region, 1967,” in Spain’s New Wave Novelists, 1959-1974, 1976.

Summerhill, Stephen J. “Prohibition and Transgression in Juan Benet,” in American Hispanist. IV, no. 36 (1979), pp. 20-24.

Wescott, Julia L. “Exposition and Plot in Benet’s Volveras a Region,” in Kentucky Romance Quarterly. XXVIII (1981), pp. 155-163.

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