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