Rewriting the Spanish Civil War as a traumatic episode: Nation, gender and trauma in the narrative of Juan Benet

Date of Completion

January 2008


Literature, Modern|Literature, Romance|History, European




Juan Benet's narrative offers challenges that have often led critics to define his work as deeply enigmatic and experimental, and to enter with uncertainty into what Benet himself has termed "the zone of shadows" that lies at the heart of his writing. As a result, many critics have approached Benet's work from a formalist perspective, seeking to explain the techniques and structures that form the foundation of his enigmatic fictional worlds. In contrast, this study proposes a cultural analysis, rooted in history, that explores Benet's narrative as a compelling site of memory (lieux de mémoire) of the Spanish Civil War. From such a perspective, Benet's work can be understood as a rewriting of the past within the frame of trauma, and therefore as a discourse that resists the mythical dimensions of the Civil War constructed by Francoist historiography with the purpose of making the past the private property of the State. ^ Through their revisiting of this traumatic site of memory, Benet's novels challenge hegemonic ideas of the nation by subverting historical myths of national identity. The narrative space in Benet's novels recasts a nation that acquires its meaning through a complex and enigmatic rewriting, and thus subverts the Francoist Regime's notion of a "true" and essential Spain that disallows diversity and difference. In addition, Benet's ambiguous, fragmented and polysemic nation belongs to a literary tradition that establishes the dysfunctional family as the principal allegory for national identity. ^ The study of the sites of memory related to time and nation in Benet's narrative also underscores two crucial aspects related to gender and the national essence. First, Benet's texts restore women to a central position of subjectivity during the Civil War, thus rejecting the representation of women as the Other. Second, female characters are shown in Benet's narrative to be uniquely situated to re-examine the national trauma associated with the war, thus transcending their assumed passive role and transforming its narration into an active, historical and defiant act against Francoist institutions. As a result, women become central figures of history in Benet's narrative. ^ In brief, Benet creates sites of memory in his writing in which marginal and forgotten characters obtain an active role in the Spanish Civil War by articulating the traumatic history of the nation, and by challenging the mythic foundation upon which the Franco regime had legitimized its own place in history through exclusion of the voices of others. ^