Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three years old when Nada, her first novel, won the prestigious Premio Nadal literary award in 1944. The book, which caused a bit of a sensation on its release, heralded the birth of an exciting new voice in Spanish Literature. My edition of Nada is eloquently translated by Edith Grossman and comes with a useful introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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As the story opens, we join Andrea, an eighteen-year-old girl, as she arrives in Barcelona. Filled with all the hopes and expectations of a new life in the city and the prospect of studying literature at the University, she makes her way to her grandmother’s apartment where she is to live. It’s the middle of the night, and as she approaches the flat in the Calle de Aribau, a sudden fear overtakes her emotions. As Andrea enters her family’s home, a strange collection of ghoulish figures emerge from the shadows – in addition to her grandmother, Andrea is confronted by her aunt Angustias, her uncle Juan and his wife, Gloria, and the maid, Antonia. Faced with her uncle Juan, Andrea sees a man with a face ‘full of hollows, like a skull in the light of the single bulb in the lamp.’ (pg. 6, Vintage Books)

The flat itself is filthy and decrepit. Cobwebs hang from the ceilings; the rooms are bathed in an eerie greenish light; the stained walls of the bathroom show ‘traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair.’ (pg. 8)

It’s a brilliant, but disturbing, opening to the story, and we feel for Andrea as she tries to reconcile this harrowing picture with her dreams of the city:

I don’t know how I managed to sleep that night. In the room they gave me was a grand piano, its keys uncovered. A number of gilt mirrors with candelabra attached – some of them very valuable – on the walls. A Chinese desk, paintings, ill-assorted furniture. It looked like the attic of an abandoned palace; it was, I later found out, the living room.

In the centre, like a grave mound surrounded by mourners – that double row of disembowelled easy chairs – a divan covered by a black blanket, where I was to sleep. They had placed a candle on the piano because there were no light bulbs in the large chandelier. (pgs. 8-9)

And a few lines later:

Three stars were trembling in the soft blackness overhead, and when I saw them I felt a sudden desire to cry, as if I were seeing old friends, encountered unexpectedly.

That illuminated twinkling of the stars brought back in a rush all my hopes regarding Barcelona until the moment I’d encountered this atmosphere of perverse people and furniture. (pg.9)

We follow Andrea as she tries to survive in this nightmarish environment in which feuds and arguments erupt from nowhere – this is a family damaged by secrets, suspicions and prejudices. She longs to break free from the ever-watchful eye of her authoritarian aunt Angustias, and yet Andrea realises that her aunt might be trying to offer some form of protection from the ensuing chaos:

When I was completely awake, sitting on the edge of the bed, I found myself in one of my moments of rebellion against Angustias, the strongest I’d had. Suddenly I realised I wouldn’t put up with her any more. That I wouldn’t obey her any more after the days of complete freedom I’d enjoyed in her absence. The disturbances of the night had put my nerves on edge and I felt hysterical too, weepy and desperate. I realised I could endure everything: the cold that penetrated my worn clothes, the sadness of my absolute poverty, the dull horror of the filthy house. Everything except her control over me. That was what had suffocated me when I arrived in Barcelona, what had made me fall into ennui, what had killed off my initiative: that look from Angustias. That hand that quashed my movements, my curiosity about a new life…Yet Angustias, in her way, was an upright, good person among those crazy people. (pg 75)

Andrea finds brightness through her friendship with Ena, a sophisticated and intelligent girl from her university class, and the days and weekends she spends with Ena and her boyfriend, Jaime, offer a stark contrast to life on the Calle de Aribau:

Ena never resembled on weekdays the rash girl, almost childish in her high spirits, that she turned into on Sundays. As for me – and I came from the countryside – she made me see a new meaning in nature I’d never thought of before. She made me understand the pulsing of damp mud heavy with vital juices, the mysterious emotion of buds that were still closed, the melancholy charm of algae listless on the sand, the potency, the ardour, the splendid appeal of the sea (pg. 110)

But on weekdays, Andrea’s mood descends as she’s driven to distraction with hunger, and she quarrels with Ena. When Ena visits Andrea’s home to make up with her friend, Andrea is absent, and Ena spends the evening with the enigmatic Roman, another of Andrea’s uncles who also resides in the flat. Andrea, who has become increasingly disturbed and repulsed by Roman’s predatory behaviour, is puzzled by Ena’s fascination with Roman, and there are hints of a deeper mystery behind this development.         

Nada portrays a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, a loose collective torn apart and struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Whilst the war itself is rarely mentioned, we sense its recent presence in the background. It’s there in the suffocating and decaying environment of Andrea’s family’s home, in the fractured lives of her family, and in the poverty and hunger of her day-to-day life. We follow Andrea as she tries to navigate a path for herself, longing for her to escape.

In his introduction, Mario Vargas Llosa describes Nada (which means ‘nothing’) as a ‘beautiful, terrible novel’, and this reflects the Andrea’s experiences of postwar life in Barcelona. It’s a wonderfully evocative book, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. I’m very glad to have discovered Nada by way of Claire at Word by Word and Elena at Books & Reviews. Stu at WinstonsDad’s and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos have also reviewed it – just click on the links if you’d like to read their thoughts on this book.

I chose this novel to link in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit month, which is running throughout July, and I’ll be reviewing another two or three books between now and the end of the month.

Nada is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy.

38 thoughts on “Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. Edith Grossman)

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I loved it, Marina – it’s just so atmospheric. I bought it off the back of recent reviews by Claire and Elena, and I thought Stu must have blogged it! I’d love to hear your thoughts on Nada if you do read it.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Claire, for putting me on to Nada as I hadn’t heard of it before your review! Yes, I thought it very evocative, and the opening is so compelling for all the reasons you state in your comment. The novel also left me pondering just how traumatic life must have been in Spain during this time.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I’m afraid so, Helen – sorry! It is a terrific novel, one that appears to capture the intensity of its time and place, as well a story of a young woman trying to find herself.

      I’m trying to think of a book set in Seville, but nothing springs to mind at the moment. I’ll come back to you if I hit upon one, but I suspect we may need to seek advice from Stu or Richard (or others participating in Spanish Lit Month) – they’re the experts!

      Reply
      1. Richard

        Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Seville Communion is a decent enough contemporary thriller set in Seville. For something way older, Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville is a good 17th century theatrical option (Don Juan, swordfights, revenge from beyond the grave).

        Reply
  1. Tony

    Not one I’ve heard of, but it sounds interesting – although perhaps you should have left it for August for Women in Translation Month ;)

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I think you’d enjoy Nada, Tony – in fact I’m pretty confident you’d love it. Yes, I did think about leaving it for #WITMonth in August, but the other three books I’ve read for Spanish Lit Month are all by male authors, So I’ve posted Nada now to redress the balance, in part at least…

      Reply
  2. Bellezza

    Looks like we’re both reading of the shadowed side of Barcelona for Spanish lit month! Tony said keep it in August for Women in Translation, which would fit the evil woman in Barcelona Shadows, too, but I also liked your idea of keeping the dark books for autumnal/winter months.

    I’m picking up Binocular Vision today; by some miracle our library has it!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Doesn’t it just! I’ve got some other books lined up for Women in Translation (#WITMonth) in August. Are you planning to join that one, Bellezza? I’m aware you’ve got your Japanese Lit Challenge on the go at the moment, and there’s only so much one can commit to.

      Oh, that’s a piece of luck with Binocular Vision – I hope you enjoy it! Do let me know what you think of Edith Pearlman’s stories – I’d be very interested to hear. .

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Great review in that you seem to have captured a lot of feeling for the book.

    This does sound somber and dark. Of course some of the greatest book are. Indeed Post Civil war Span must have been a terrible time for so many people.

    I like the Mario Vargas Llosa. Art and literature can really derive beauty out of the terrible.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Brian; it’s good to hear. That’s just what I was aiming to get across in my review.

      Yes, this novel left me considering just how terrible life must have been in Spain during this time. The Mario Vargas Llosa quote is very apt, as is your final point on art and literature’s ability to extract some beauty out of the life’s traumas. Thank you, as ever, for your comments.

      Reply
  4. winstonsdad

    Such a great book I think it took Grossman to finally get the English readers to appreciate it fully from what I hear the earlier translation soften the book some what her and Cela are two writers I want to try more

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting, Stu. That sense of intensity, of lives damaged by the Spanish Civil War, really comes across in Grossman’s translation, doesn’t it? She’s done a tremendous job with the text. I’m not familiar with Cela (Camilo José Cela?) – what have you read by him?

      Reply
  5. Richard

    Fine review of a fantastic debut novel, JacquiWine! I think Nada made my Top 10 list for 2011 if I’m not mistaken: I loved the shadowy, almost gothic elements of the story that you touched on, of course, but I was really blown away by what a distinctive, powerful first person voice Andrea bore throughout the novel. What a compelling, memorable and believable character/narrator.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Richard! Yes, the near-gothic atmosphere is evident from the opening when Andrea arrives at the Calle de Aribau apartment – I loved this element, too.

      That’s a very good point regarding the strength and distinctiveness of Andrea’s voice. As you say, such a memorable and compelling young woman, and what strength of character to maintain a sense of sanity in the midst of this fractured environment. It seems as if Laforet may have drawn on her own life experience when writing Nada, and I’m sure this helped her construct such a credible, authentic voice in Andrea.

      Thanks for dropping by. Spanish Lit Month seems to be going well – I’ve seen quite a few reviews flying about!

      Reply
  6. Col

    Really enjoyed your review. I’m spending the year trying to read as much Spanish Fiction as I can so thanks for the heads up on this one. In several those I’ve read thus far it seems the Civil War frequently casts some pretty long and pretty dark shadows.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Col, and thanks for dropping by. ‘Nada’ is considered a classic of 20th-century Spanish literature, and many readers have loved it; I hope you enjoy it, too. I thought it very evocative of its time and the dark shadows cast by the Civil War, and it’s an extraordinary debut novel.

      If you’re reading Spanish fiction, you’re probably very familiar with Javier Marías (I’ve reviewed ‘The Infatuations’ here on the blog if it’s of interest). I’ll also be posting my thoughts on ‘Never Any End to Paris’ by Enrique Vila-Matas – the review should be up here next Thursday.

      Do you have any recommendations from the Spanish fiction you’ve read to date? It’s always useful to hear what others have enjoyed.

      Reply
      1. Col

        I’ve ordered ‘Nada’ today and looking forward to it! I’ve read Javier Marias but “A Heart So White” – really liked it. I’ve got The Infatuations on the proverbial shelf so will have a look at your review.
        Of the Spanish works I’ve read so far I loved Soldiers Of Salamis and The Enormity of the Tragedy but my favourite was easily The Yellow Rain by Julio Llamazares. Have you read it? If not I thoroughly recommend – I thought it was a fantastic book.

        Reply
        1. jacquiwine Post author

          Oh, that’s excellent – I’d be interested to hear what you think of ‘Nada’.

          I loved ‘A Heart So White’ (in fact it’s one of my favourites from the books I read last year).

          I haven’t read ‘The Yellow Rain’, but I’m going to check it out – thank you! And I do want to try something by Javier Cercas at some point, so it’s good to hear you loved ‘Soldiers of Salamis’. Another couple of books for the list.

          Reply
  7. Elena

    I’m really glad you like it. It is a complex, dark and twisted novel, isn’t it? I couldn’t believe that I had to read such boring and long novels back in high school – all written by men – while Nada sat there forgotten, waiting for a wonderful Spanish literature professor to discover it to me.

    Also, it’s Premio Nadal (like the tennis player).

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, very much so, with that darkness and complexity reflecting the mood of Barcelona at the time, I suspect. What a pity this novel wasn’t part of your high-school syllabus as it would have made for a fascinating analysis. I’m glad to have discovered it by way of you and Claire, so thank you.

      And thank you for mentioning that it’s Premio Nadal – I’ll correct it right now! I thought I’d typed Nadal, but I wonder if MS Word changed it to Nada…

      Reply
  8. Scott W.

    This was on my short list of books to pick for Spanish Literature Month, but I went with others instead. My loss, but only a temporary one, as thanks to your review I’m eager to pick this one up.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting, and great to hear that you’re keen to pick this one up! I found it hard to select three or four to read as there are so many terrific books in the Spanish language…and I keep adding others to my ‘to buy’ list as the reviews come through.

      Reply
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  13. poppypeacockpens

    What a fantastic review… of what sounds like an incredible read – I’m already hooked and desperately want to see what lies ahead for Andrea, especially given the gothic feel…on my MUST read pile.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Poppy. It’s a terrific novel featuring a distinctive, free-spirited first-person narrative. I loved the gothic elements and brooding atmosphere, especially in the first half of the story. And it would make a great choice for WIT Month if you’re looking for more options. :-)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome. I loved it and the time of reading, and it has held up well in my memory too. An atmospheric story with a powerful first-person narrative, quite an achievement for a debut.

      Reply
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