As many of you know, I am Spanish, but I am not a huge fan of Spanish literature. However, I had to take a subject on national identity and one of the professors teaches Spanish literature. That is how I discovered Nada by Carmen Laforet, a very inspiring, complex and overlooked book in 20th century Spanish literature. I fell in love with the excerpts we read in class so much, that I borrowed it from the school library and got ready to read my first Spanish novel since high school.
From Book Depository:
Eighteen-year old Andrea moves to Barcelona to stay with relatives she has not seen in years while she pursues her dreams of studying at university. Arriving in the dead of night she discovers not the independence she craves, but a crumbling apartment and an eccentric collection of misfits whose psychological ruin and violent behaviour echoes that of the recent civil war. As the tension between the family members grows in claustrophobic intensity, Andrea finds comfort in a friendship with Ena, a girl from university whose gilded life only serves to highlight the squalor of Andrea’s own experiences. But what is the secret of the relationship between Ena and Andrea’s predatory uncle Roman, and what future can lie ahead for Andrea in such a bizarre and disturbing world?
Studying humanities, I came across the idea of national traumas in literature. I had never stopped to think about it, but sure traumas are one big theme in literature as they are in life. In Spain, that trauma is the Civil War (1936 – 1939). Sadly, it is also a family trauma since my great-grandfather was imprisoned and executed for his political views. I grew up seeing pictures of him and being read some very poetic excerpts from the letters he sent my great-grandmother from jail. As you can imagine, it is not a theme I like to dwell on, but Nada by Carmen Laforet provides a very different view on the trauma. The fact that the main character is a teenager and she is constructing herself in a world that has been recently destroyed and where families no longer necessarily stay together. Because if there is one theme in the Spanish civil war, it is the tearing apart of families due to their different political views.
Andrea is a complex, intelligent young woman who arrives in Barcelona feeling the city will allow her the opportunity to finally become something she wants. I think it is very easy to relate to the idea of places and even things as tools to become something we are not but we would like to be. This is how publicity works and, eventually, it is partly how we construct ourselves. However, doing so in a city that has been literally destroyed and where its people are struggling to return to normality is not the perfect setting. Andrea tries to negotiate her identity at home and in school, but finds herself most comfortable out in the streets of Barcelona. Something not lady-like to do and apparently dangerous. But, the city proves herself to be more welcoming than Andrea’s family.
The deterioration shows itself also in Andrea’s body. Hunger and poverty where everyday problems right after the war, so she struggles to lead a life like that of her fellow students, who belong to Barcelona’s high-class, and her need to eat. She starts to neglect her eating and buys herself little things that make her happy, like flowers and clothes. Along with the body deterioration, she finds herself hallucinating and caught in the family’s own traumas and troubles. Laforet makes a great effort and realistically describes domestic violence and its psychological tolls on the woman suffering it. Meanwhile, Andrea tries to navigate life.
Nada by Carmen Laforet is one of the best Spanish novels, if not the best, I have ever read. I was very angry this is not taught in school, probably because it has a teenager female main character. Laforet herself was a very interesting writer. She published Nada when she was only 23 and it was so well-received by the critics, that the pressure to write another masterpiece made her so anxious she could not write for years. The tittle of her debut novel, which means “nothing”, led to some puns and the fact the author was a young, previously unpublished woman who beat two well-known writers at the Nadal Prize first edition did not make the dictatorship’s patriarchal culture happy either.
The novel is sometimes compared to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and Carmen Laforet never denied this, however, I would suggest to take this similarities with a pinch of salt. Both novels take place in dark, and chaotic settings and have a troubled yet strong female main character, but Laforet’s post-war setting has a role of its own on Nada, something not present at all in Wuthering Heights.
So, I would totally recommend Nada by Carmen Laforet to anyone interested in women writers, female representation, national identities and, above all, a good reading. Although it was originally written in Spanish, there are translations available in English. Carmen Laforet is also a very inspiring writer, so I would like to share what she said about writing. Ever since I read this quote I have been writing daily:
If one is a writer, they always write, even though when they do not want to, even when they want to escape that uncertain glory and that suffering that becomes real when one follows their true calling.
UPDATE: Claire suggests Edith Grossman’s English translation for all my non-Spanish readers.