I turned the last page of Return to Region today. Book by Juan Benet. I can’t, however, stop thinking about this book.
Do you see these two pictures? They were taken in 2008. The sepia one was at Pedraza, Madrid. I’m facing the camera, one of my daughters in the stroller. My husband is the guy in front of the other stroller, with our other daughter, his back to us, his armed raised, hand pointing.
My memories of 10 years ago, of these two days in which these two pictures were taken, are hazy. I don’t remember who took the Pedraza picture. I don’t even know well where the snowy road picture was taken. There was this day when my father took us up the mountains to see the snow. And there my memory stops.
Last month, my dad wrote me an email telling me he had just read Return to Region. He told me that I had read the book in 05/28/1997, and that I wrote this:
His last name is French (I was refering to Benet, the author), his style enveloping, distressing, Kafkaesque. I’d love to write like him when I grow up.
It was a bit strange to not remember anything about the book. Even when I started reading it this second time.
The book is not, I’d say, for a wide audience. It’s been translated by Gregory Rabassa, prestigious translator who has translated books by authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar. I can’t tell you how his translations in English are, but my bet, by looking at his profile, would be that they are pretty amazing. It’s worth noting this not well known book merited his translator efforts. (You may say that with age, I’m becoming a bit of a rare book reader. Some of these books are not totally unheard of among Spanish readers, but they are minor classics. I see others who have a passion for books that I find recondite.)
Return to Region is quite a specific text, I’d say. It’s about our Civil War (1936 – 1939), but not directly. To explain this better, I’d tell you that many say Benet emulated Faulkner in his style. But I have not read Faulkner, so I can’t tell you, ha ha ha. Don’t expect a straightforward narration nor clear cut characters. And that’s the thing with much 20th century literature. Style and content, or one of the two, have ceased to be relatable or palatable. And that’s when reviewing such books gets complicated.
How can I review, say, Madame Bovary. Nothing to like. Characters won’t earn a Miss or Mr Congeniality title. It’s been said to death that Flaubert’s style is impeccable. Yet who reads a book because the style is perfect? Just because he agonized for days to find the perfect word, and took ages to write it, I don’t have to read it, or like it. It happens that it’s one of my favorite books for reasons beyond likability, (though I admit to have taken to his elaborated descriptions that annoy some, and put others to sleep.) Can there be other reasons why we enjoy or like a book, beyond the obvious ones we all deal with?
Books have to have something that we appreciate, or we have to be willing to read in the cases when there’s not obvious joy or lessons learned. The experience of reading some books may be worth for complex reasons that work in the confines of each reader’s system of values, place in life, interests, and goals. Reasons beyond a clear plot or relatable characters. Some of us, as I’ve commented before, have some additional personal moral limitations when it comes to some content. Even when the intention of the author, or the value of the book as a whole surpasses that content, going through it, -or also through the difficult style, loses us, affects in a way we don’t want our conscience to endure. But even with the limitations, there’s a tremendous variety. Sometimes I find such variety exhilarating, others paralyzing.
While thinking of this book, I became aware that I may be using two reviewing criteria. I’m not a literature critic, though I admit that a literary critique has its place and value. Personally, I’m fond of other bloggers reviews. I appreciate the blend of personal impression that also informs me about the book or author. But there’s times when our feelings and thoughts about a book run parallel to the value of the book. We enjoy, not the book, or the characters, but our having read the book.
Recently, I’ve been aware of two very different takes on One Hundred Years of Solitude. One American reviewer was exasperated about the book. All that she could see in it, was affairs, immorality, tons of confusing names, repetition, baseness, vulgarity. The other reviewer, who had read it when young, and was re-reading it now, saw something else. Gabriel García Márquez is from Colombia, my friend, reviewer #2, is from a different Latin American country, yet she mentioned how this second read came across as an x-ray of the culture Latin Americans share. Themes such as memory, wars, generations who lose those memories, and people like Israel, playing the harlot, came to her mind. Her second reading experience at an older age, exposed many layers that she missed the first time around, -even though she enjoyed it both.
I’m always talking about that indefinable quality that we detect with our sixth sense, that is many times a deal maker or breaker when reading some books. There has to be some initial chemistry, and it can get better with time and more reads. Other people’s reviews have helped me reconsider or try books I couldn’t get into. But more times than not, I depend and expect that chemistry, -which is not simply readability, but the hope of something worth the time we are investing, -whether is 200 or 1500 pages.
This is when I get totally paralyzed by my strong desire to meet new authors and books which conflicts with my ever growing need to re-read. (At the time my friend talked to me about it, I wanted to re-read One Hundred Years and join her in finding out if I too saw those abysses and valleys, those jungles of the human heart in the Buendía family.) I wish I could replicate my reading persona and reach out and cross paths with all those of you, reader fellows. If I could read British, North American, Latin American, European (French, Italian, Greek, German), Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, African, Canadian, Portuguese, Irish, Scottish, Turkish, Swedish, Swiss, Norwegian… , and, of course, continue nurturing the Spaniard reader I am. And not only, all that, across the ages! (Arghh, why did I start a list, I’m meant to fail at mentioning all.)
This month, though, my re-read, my awkward re-read, had to be Return to Region. Not only did my father mention it reminded him of his childhood, but he said he identified himself with some characters, and identified his dad and family with others too. I know next to nothing about my father. I only know what I’ve seen him do while I lived at home. I never met any of my grandfathers. Both men died young. That generation from the Spanish Civil War all had many physical and mental health problems. Pneumonia and heart attack were the end of many. In addition, they all suffered from many psychological afflictions.
My father was abused as a child. And I only knew about it this last winter. My brother told me. I heard my father talk that privacy wasn’t common currency when he was a child, and that he and his brothers were privy to marital fights and scenes no child should witness. My brother, my sister, and myself, grew up in what society has coined as a dysfunctional family. The older I get, I have come to the conclusion that all families have lots of problems and situations, the difference between happy, normal, problematic, and dysfunctional, may be in the duration and severity of the problems. We lived years under the strain of alcoholism, gambling, self inflicted financial problems, and verbal violence, (which escalated at times between them.) Something we had not, though, was violence from them to us. It may seem small, but it makes a whole difference.
There’s a second factor in the story of dysfunctional or abusive families. How they develop. In the case of my parents, they took a turn for the best. I’m 47, but my mom stopped drinking when I was 19. My father too is much tamer in his drinking and has cut his gambling habits. The sequels of all this are still present in their relationship and their way of life. One of the worst is to have grown with your father as a stranger, or to have been supporting your mom (and dad), emotionally and financially, which led us three to have a difficult and intense talk with them in early January, that somehow helped jolt their bad course.
How does one know if he or she is healed? Is there such a thing? I believe so. Even though this past winter when my family visited my parents house, it was a very difficult time, (as we all had to deal with consequences of their life choices), I no longer live in fear or anguish over who they were. While being there with them, with my family, was the hardest this past Christmas, once I came back to my life in the States, the relationship with them settled down once more. Talking to them on the phone, and emailing dad, is proven a great way to keep restoring our communication. Sharing some time with them in person has become almost impossible.
My life in Christ changes my outlook, my frame of mind. Not only I behave here and now under a certain morality and higher code, but I can also choose to interpret my past in the context of a bigger picture. My life, (past, present, and future), has meaning. I no longer feel angry about what my parents did or did not. I choose to forgive them. And looking at the present, there’s much love and worth in who they are, in who my siblings and I are.
Talking about books with my dad has been a positive experience. That’s why this review is meant to be like my memories, a confused review.
I started strong. I knew that the book was demanding of the reader’s attention. That’s something I welcome at times. Among the passages without a clear aim, a plot was starting to appear. Or was it? I didn’t shy away from the complex and long descriptive sentences and paragraphs. I welcomed those parts where Benet introduces us to the characters, and to Región, the place, which it’s a character in itself. By half of the book, I didn’t know when in time I was, or where I was. Región is like all villages, and like no village at all. A ghost town of sorts. (I thought about Hotel California to give me a laugh, I checked in the book, but I could never leave.)
I did not like reading it, but I did like it enough as not to abandon it. I held hopes of a last third of the book that came to wrap it all up. Nope. And yet I can’t shake the images it made in my mind, the feelings I thought were clear, but that were confusing in essence. That’s the nature of memory. Or part of it. When we recall or talk about something past, I’m at loss on how to present it. Was I sad as a teen, troubled?, a scarred young adult?, and if I was, does it matter now? By the grace of God, my life is a worth living life, so, whatever happened took me to today. How can I deny or reject the past which makes me who I am in the present? It also happens that in the middle of those ugly times, there was always beauty, and hope.
Did Benet fail when he did not draw a more clear to follow plot? Another reviewer had an eerily similar experience with the book. He noted what I noted too. Do our concurring thoughts expose the faults in Benet’s book? Or was Benet deliberate in his attempt to irritate us, bore us, confuse us, and do all this never in full. Always dropping genial paragraphs, painting with big strokes scenes that reflect a place and a state of mind. When it comes to memories, his are hazy and ambiguous. Aren’t yours like that too? Cause they are exactly like my own. When we had that tough discussion with my parents, as my sister and brother talked, and I talked, there were vivid remembrances I was reliving, and my brother had no idea what I was talking about, (even though he was there at the time.) My father also seems to have lost many of those memories. It’s possible we block all the bad, or become desensitized, as when we live in areas of constant shooting and we come to find that as nothing unusual.
Funny that this and another of my current reads, The Buried Giant, and a previous one, The Remains of the Day, deal very much with memories. The Buried Giant in particular. Not only. A dear friend, Judy, who in 2013 wrote her first book, Before the Door Closes, has published right now her second, Secrets Revisited. It’s a common preoccupation, to authors and just to people, to understand or revisit our memories, our secrets, those skeletons in the closet, and try to understand them or do something with them.
Now that I have finished Return to Region, I have time to read Secrets Revisited. I will let you all know about it, specially Judy.
This post got too long. I wanted to talk about emotional reviewers like me, who, when reading a book, always see it as the best book in the whole wide world, only to wait a few weeks after, and see our rating change from a gazillion stars to a modicum of 3 out of 5. I wanted to touch on guilty reviews, those I wrote pre-loving-Austen, where I confessed to not loving her, and gave her Emma, for example, 3 stars, just to start feeling pangs of culpability when fans popped in the comments being respectful about my inability to love her books, but expressing, -rightfully so-, their admiration for her. Or the prolonged guilt of having had friends who joined me in being frank about not loving Jane Austen, and feeling I’ve betrayed them now I’m team Jane! (And please, read all this tongue in cheek.)
I was going to get smart and say my reviews are like Heraclitus river. Five years of philosophy have left little more than that superficial knowledge, sigh. Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher that claimed we never bathe twice in the same river, -always in constant change. I guess that’s the same reason why Monet painted his water lilies at different times of the day and year. Likewise, my reviews are somehow fluid in my mind, they are subject to changes. Sometimes they are even contradictory, confused snippets of my thoughts that I unload here for whoever wants to read them.
My final verdict: this book was simply amazing. A great read at a perfect time. A book beyond liking, just a book to be stirred, tossed, and turned, a book that made me aware of who I am as a reader. Despite the arid moments, I also chose to remember the exceptional ones. Or maybe it is because of those precise difficulties and hurdles, that the book was so apt in capturing life with more precision or accuracy than when we are in front of a neatly wrapped product?