The Construction of the Tower of Babel by Juan Benet, translated by Adrian Nathan West / ISBN 9781939663320 / 88-page paperback with flaps, 4.5 x 7 inches, from Wakefield Press / out-of-print, but new copies available here
Juan Benet’s penultimate book, The Construction of the Tower of Babel brings together two essays that testify to the multiplicity of the author’s interests, both personal and professional. The titular essay is a meditation on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1563 painting of the Tower of Babel: the first painting in European art history to feature a building as a protagonist. An engineer by trade, Benet brings his knowledge of building construction to bear on Bruegel’s creation, examining the archways, pillars, windows, and the painter’s meticulously depicted chaos at the heart of the edifice’s centuries-long execution. An unusual analysis of architectural hubris and the linguistic myth that gave rise to it, Benet’s essay builds its own linguistic telescoping structure that could be described as an architextual discourse on the madness of the unending project.
Also included is “On the Necessity of Treason” (a theme of particular interest to Benet, whose father was shot by Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War, and whose brother was forced to escape to France, exiled for his Republican sympathies). Benet considers the essentially dual nature of the spy and the curious World War II cases of Julius Norke and William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) to conclude, in a spark of lucid reflection, that within the order of the State, the traitor is not only necessary, but welcome.
A civil engineer by profession, Juan Benet (1927–1993) began writing to pass the long nights of solitude he spent on construction sites in León and Asturias. He self-published his first novel, You Will Never Amount to Anything, in 1961. In 1967, he won the Biblioteca Breve Prize for his novel A Meditation.
“His body of work, I have said on many occasions, seems to me the most important in Spain in the second half of the twentieth century. His work as a novelist and also his work as a literary essayist. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that as a literary essayist, he has very few peers.”
“I recall Juan Benet's narrative constructions as imbued by a complexity of thought proper to a singular talent. For years, in his novels and essays, he carried out the most ambitious project in Spanish literature of the second half of the previous century.”
“The two texts are a welcome addition to the scarce body of work by the Spanish writer currently available in English. West’s introduction does an excellent job of providing context and insight into Benet’s life and work.”
—Anne Posten, Words Without Borders
“Adrian Nathan West’s translation is admirably lucid and burrows around the austere cladding of Benet’s text with a perfectly on-key, poetic detachment.”
—Martin Billheimer, Counterpunch