SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Nada’ by Carmen Laforet

nada

One of the most important literary works of post-Civil War Spain, Nada is the semi-autobiographical story of an orphaned young woman who leaves her small town to attend university in war-ravaged Barcelona. Edith Grossman’s vital new translation captures Carmen Laforet’s feverish energy, powerful imagery, and subtle humor. Nada, which includes an illuminating Introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa, is one of the great novels of twentieth-century Europe

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Nada is one of those books which sat in my to-read pile for far too long. Classics sit waiting while newer releases get sent to me for reviewing. Now, after reading this book in one day, I feel the need to facepalm for sidelining such a novel for so long. I find it difficult to connect with fiction (yes, I know…) but this book is an instant hit.

Nada is the story of 18-year-old Andrea, an orphan who moves to Barcelona from the country, to live with maternal relatives while starting university. Andrea had visited her grandparents’ home before the civil war as a very young child, and was filled with loving memories of city life. But life on Calle de Aribau has become a nightmare.

Gone is the lavish apartment of her family; now they in one half of the house, a dark, scary place filled with odd objects like a grand piano, huge mirrors, big heavy unused furniture and a candelabra, a hint of the former life of the family. As time passes, each of these expensive once-loved items gets sold off to pay for food and hope of survival. The opening chapter where Andrea meets her family is dark enough – they are like skeletons, ghosts in the night, in a home where a cold shower is relief from company, but the damp stains on the wall look like evil clutching hands. Andrea’s grandmother is a starving, frail old woman, surrounded by her adult children – Román, a vile man with hidden depths, tortured by the Republicans for being a Francoist spy. His brother, Juan, an artist who hates his life, beats his wife without remorse, with a demeanor of a broken man who has deeply suffered during the war. Gloria, Juan’s wife, a beautiful but simple-minded woman, who feeds everyone by leaving her baby son at home and winning card games in Barrio Chino. Andrea’s grandfather has died, like her own parents, and are unexplained, by it’s easy to imagine what may have happened to them.

The creepiest character lies in Angustias, the aunt from hell. She is a religious fanatic, who, in standing with her high and mighty attitude, sees Andrea as her charge, who needs to be broken and obedient. Angustias is hell-bent on making sure Andrea has no life, sees nothing, hears nothing, experiences nothing. As Angustias fails and hates Andrea, who has done nothing wrong, she tells her that she should have been beaten to death as a child. Angustias has been hiding a hypocritical lifestyle for so long that she has become almost insane. Even the crazy maid, Antonia, is a horrid and bewildering.

Andrea is a saint for coping with these vicious and hateful people in a dark, freezing cobwebbed environment. While the past hurts and torments her family, Andrea tries to break out – she makes friends, hangs out with artists, meets boys she doesn’t really like much, but reality  is still in the way. Andrea’s close friend Ena is wealthy, which puts a gap between the pair. Ena has the attitude of a child who has wanted for nothing, and has the luxury of wanting and experimenting. Andrea is starving, resorting to drinking water the family’s vegetables have been boiled in. Old pieces are bread are treats.

The book shows the pain of Barcelona post-war in human terms. With its will crushed by Francoism, some have flourished and the losers have been ground down to nothing. Being sniffed out by police for being a ‘red’ is still a threat. Work is hard to find, and money is only for some. The cathedral, in its religious beauty, shines like a beacon while people starve in the alleys nearby. There is little hope for people like Andrea. As the stories of all the characters come together, the haves and have-nots have history that provides both a big twist, and ultimately, a vicious death.

While the Barcelona that Andrea lives in no longer exists, the book gives a perfect feeling to post-war reality. The book was autobiographical, written after Carmen Laforet went to study in Barcelona, before moving on to Madrid. This book will leave you wondering about the long-term fates of all the characters (and their real-life counterparts), if indeed they had one at all.

Nada was published in 1945, the first of LaForet’s novels. If you prefer English, it was excellently translated by Edith Grossman in 2007. Don’t wait to read another week to read Nada.

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