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Reviewed by:
Roberto C. Manteiga, David K. Herzberger, and Malcolm Alan Compitello, eds. Critical Approaches to the Writings of Juan Benet. Hanover: UP of New England, 1984. 171 pp. $18.00.

If you've been searching for a way to penetrate the literature of Juan Benet, look no further. Critical Approaches to the Writings of Juan Benet offers a ring of keys that unlock many mysteries of his multifaceted works. Each key is an essay dealing with topics ranging from language and style to themes and perspectives. Reading Benet is a critical task, and the essays are intended to guide the reader through his literary labyrinth. Benet protests in the Foreward that explaining the enigmas and difficulty of his art simply denies its value. Apparently, he doesn't admire the reader who requires assistance in appreciating his work. Nonetheless, Critical Approaches supplies even the sagest critic many valuable perspectives in assessing Benet's literature.

The first three articles deal with Benet's use and theory of language. Robert Spires explains that Benet "miswrites" so that we will "misread." He negates the traditional process of connecting the signifier with the signified in order to decode the language needed to interpret the novelistic reality. The reader must infer meaning from his own preconscious experiences, which differ from the author's; thus, language assumes a plural dimension. Malcolm Compitello argues that Benet's practice often diverges from his own literary theory and that he [End Page 446] has a lot in common with the critical modes he scorns. He analyzes the ideas shared by Benet and the formalists and suggests that the best example of literature with social intent (which Benet despises) is his own Volverás a Región, a scathing condemnation of Francoism. Janet Pérez probes Benet's rhetoric of ambiguity, an intentional, positive effort by the author to endow banal subjects with interest. Like Marshall McLuhan, he is concerned with the medium and how it controls communication.

The next two studies deal exclusively with Volverás. Esther Nelson likens the reality of Región to the Chinese carvings of spheres within spheres, which give the illusion of infinity and an unknowable reality; similarly, the myriad of perspectives lends the novel this sense of layering that prevents us from learning the truth. Volverás is actually an epic in a paralytic state, according to Nelson Orringer, with the frustration of waiting in the Civil War and the sense of circular time paralyzing the action. Orringer draws parallels between the novel and Book Two of the Odyssey and suggests that Benet's relationships to classical literature may well be the key to comprehending his art.

Several essays are devoted to character study in Benet's novels. Stephen Summerhill draws on Freud to interpret Numa as an imaginary being who represents a threat (warning people not to give in to their passions) and protection (neutralizing their passion through exile). Mary Vásquez examines the process of existential self-creation through the reconstruction of the past in Una meditación, noting that the despair of the narrator-protagonist stems from the impossibility of true knowing. Julia Westcott illustrates how Benet subverts conventional character structures in his first three novels, and David Herzberger analyzes the metamorphosis of the Cain/Abel myth in Saúl ante Samuel caused by the blurring of good and evil, innocence and guilt, and justice and punishment.

Perhaps the most intriguing essay is Díaz-Migoyo's investigation of Benet's ironic narrative attitude. He explains how Benet imitates Flaubert in En el estado, then mocks the reader for creating the final irony himself: the reader, not Benet, creates this irony by attributing ironic intent to the author in order to preserve his own traditional expectations.

The final two essays treat literary influences on Benet. Randolph Pope reviews the Bergsonian ideas that Benet and Faulkner have in common and observes that Benet is more akin to certain Latin American writers than to Spanish authors. Roberto Manteiga points out that in his short stories, Benet uses Proust's mémoire involontaire, Faulkner's notion of time, and Robbe-Grillet's photomontage technique to project the central motif...

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