Return to Región

by Juan Benet
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 839

The novel opens with a meticulous depiction of Region. The landscape is harsh, inhospitable, and unproductive. The winter is so severe that “the corpses of dogs who die in December don’t decompose until the month of May,” and the summer is so hot and dry that“the dogs who die during those burning months (and sometimes they die hanged, suspended from trees, like sacks of grain, their visceral mass all gathered in their hindquarters) are mummified in a couple of nights and are preserved like dried fish over the whole dry spell to serve as food for the creatures that come down from the mountains with the first snow.”

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The shepherds are savage and brutish, and the forested hills are so labyrinthine that they devour anyone who strays into them, subjecting him to the cruel and undisputed authority of Numa. The hostile setting, in which the individual is easily crushed, frames the struggle between the personality or spirit and outside forces, which is a major theme of the novel.

In Region, the individual is in constant danger of annihilation. Often that individual disappears. In the “conversation” between Marre and Dr. Sebastian, antecedents are often missing. Often it is not clear who is speaking. Some characters, such as the boy and the ferry woman, have no names. Mr. Rombal’s name has numerous variations. Marre’s name is mentioned so rarely that she seems almost without identity.

For Juan Benet’s characters, the struggle for the self requires the subjugation of reason to emotion. Reason is associated with order, conformity, compliance, while emotion is the chaos at the core of the personality. That is why Marre’s liberation requires that she rebel against authority and give vent to the senses. In the urgent struggle to affirm the identity, however, the identity is often lost as the individual sinks into an abyss of explanations.

Benet’s style, which is confused and often tedious, serves to emphasize the disorientation and tedium of the characters. Like the traveler in Region, who “will get to know the discouragement of feeling that every step forward is only bringing him a little farther away from those unknown mountains,” the more the characters search and delve, the further they get from the coveted goal of self-knowledge. Parenthetical phrases, often separated by dashes and parentheses within parentheses, heighten the obscurity of the text. Fragments of information that promise to contribute to an understanding of the action ultimately lead nowhere, while seemingly unimportant details become relevant many pages later. The novel, like Region and like the human personality, is a labyrinth of tricks and traps. The “truth” is unreachable. Return to Region offers no solution, no “way out.” For Benet’s characters, the search ends only with death.

All Benet’s characters are tormented by fear—a kind of primal terror rooted deep in their personalities. In a hostile universe in which there is no real caring, fear of action, of solitude, and of death dominates the individual. Sometimes Benet’s characters seek release through sex or even madness, but the existential angst is always there. They feel a “much more urgent necessity to conquer fear than to reach love because fear is always real and love [is]...a speculative invention to overcome the former without wishing to fight it.”

Such feelings are both personal and universal. They are personal in the sense that they are individual and cannot be shared. That is why, although Marre and Dr. Sebastian talk endlessly, there is no real communication between them. There is no coherent dialogue between any of Benet’s characters. Typically, they are too alienated really to care about one another. One of the adjectives most frequently used to describe people in the novel is “indifferent.” For these characters in search of the self, words are meaningless, for the self is buried below the layers of words that serve only to conceal it. Marre recalls the words of her father’s comrades as a kind of blur: “Almost everything was a string of abstract words for me, and I was scarcely able to make out their ultimate meaning.”

The primal fear that Benet’s characters experience is what unites them, for fear is universal. It transcends time. In Return to Region, chronological time is obliterated. The soliloquies meander from one chronological context to another without transition. For the characters, a moment in the past may be more real and vivid—and, therefore, more “current”—than the present. Dr. Sebastian explains that time is accidental; it is part of the external circumstance over which man has no control. To find peace, man must conquer time by becoming oblivious to it. Throughout the novel, there are references to Spain’s historical past, which intermingles with the immediate past, defined by the Civil War. Although the Civil War is the backdrop for much of the action, Return to Region is not a political novel. On the contrary, the war is seen as a moment in a continuing struggle between order and life.

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