Nada by Carmen Laforet

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.

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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.

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UPDATE: Claire suggests Edith Grossman’s English translation for all my non-Spanish readers.

28 thoughts on “Nada by Carmen Laforet

    1. Edith Grossman translated it into English and it was published in 2007, it’s an excellent translation and she is a renowned translator. I just read this version and noted to another reader that it was as if I were reading it in the original version, if only!

  1. Do not miss the novels “Entre visillos” by Carmen Martín Gaite or “Blanca y radiante” by Sara Suárez Solís. Wonderful novels, well written and very telling from a feminist perspective, although they are from the 1950s and 1970s. Also the collection of short stories “Recuerda, cuerpo” by Marina Mayoral. Contemporary Spanish Literature is brimming with good narratives by women – it´s a pity that nobody seems to care and they are not translated into English, which is the most ample readership at the moment.

  2. Ha, I love coincidences! I was literally just reading a review of this book on a different blog and thinking that perhaps I should ask for your take on it as well. (I see now from your post that it is actually somewhat overlooked in the Spanish-speaking world as well – based on how wonderful it sounded I had assumed that it must be very popular.) I did a double take when you tweeted your review. I do want to order this book now – I think I might even try to brave the Spanish original as it is the only version available on Kindle and I’m so tired of waiting weeks for books to arrive.

    Btw, here’s the other review, with a discussion on the quality of the Grossman translation (verdict: excellent) as well: http://clairemca.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/nada-by-carmen-laforet/

    1. Claudia, yours is my 2,000 comment on the blog, so thank you. It means a lot 🙂

      I’ll check that review tomorrow, but I am glad there is a good English translation. There was another reader asking for one, so I am directing her there.

      It’s a pity the book is not famous or included in the canon. You know how these things work though… Please let me know if you read the Spanish original and do not hesitate to ask me anything. I will be very glad to help if possible xxx

  3. So great to have the opportunity to read #WomenInTranslation and wonderful to have to context and thoughts of someone born into the Spanish culture.

    Thank you for a thoughtful and enlightening review and for sharing your own personal anecdotes, the books hints at the underlying tensions and dysfunction created by war, and it is a great read even without deep knowledge of what happened and the consequences of those years of civil war, but your words give us an important context and understanding, hard I imagine for many to imagine, who visit the city today. I have never visited Barcelona, but I am sure that when I do, I will be looking beneath the layers, her walls are testament to so many as yet unwritten stories.

    I am glad you have discovered this book, sometimes our literary gems are well hidden and we discover them far from home.

    1. I did visit Barcelona and luckily the city has healed, like the rest of the country. It is the underlying scars and traumas what still haunt people and even some places.

      I love that we have reviewed the book at the same time. And yes, literary gems (especially written by women) are quite hidden. It’s a pity.

      1. Yes, I was very happy to be directed towards your review too, and to discover you were reading and reviewing it at the same time as me. You bring to the reading so much more that I was curious about and didn’t understand with sufficient depth to be able to write about.

        I was surprised to learn both in the introduction by Marios Vargas Llosa and the Guardian review by Alberto Manguel that there existed a kind of disparaging view of Spanish literature, that negativity is so hard to overcome (I know one of my favourite English writers has a disparaging view of New Zealand literature and and so refuses to read anything by an author coming from there, we have to separate the literature from the opinions of the writer sometimes)

        I like to encourage people to dig a little further and not be influenced by the perceptions of others, especially the literary greats, I mean surely they hadn’t read all of Spanish literature to come to such a point of view, as with my English author, by refusing to engage with the literature we become less entitled to a valid point of view..

        I follow a couple of excellent blogs that review only literature translated into English and it is here that many gems lie, but I also know that far more lie outside of that, not having been translated.

        Yesterday I took my Granta 113 off the shelf and went through it folding back the pages of the women writers. This volume is The Best of Young Spanish Novelists and they will revisit the writers in 10 years time to see which of their predictions have come true. all the writers are under 35 years.

        The women writers they have shared stories from (5 out of the 22 profiled) are:
        Lucia Puenzo Argentina
        Pola Oloixarag, Argentina
        Sonia Hernandez, Spain
        Elvira Navarro, Spain
        Samanta Schweblin, Argentina

        I am going to read all their short stories compiled in this book, during August for #WITMonth, Women In Translation month. I hope you join the challenge. 🙂

        1. Woha, thanks, Claire! I hope people look up those authors for the more diversity in their shelves projects 🙂

  4. This sounds really interesting. I’m adding to my list for #WITMonth. I’m not sure I’ve read any Spanish novels.

    Also, Elena, I’d be really interested to hear more about your grandfather’s story if you ever feel able to tell it.

    1. Hi, Naomi! I am very glad you can blame me for another book on your TBR pile. Please let me know what you think about it or if you need some background information 🙂

      I will let you know if I ever write something about my great-grandfather. I am very proud of him even though he died 60 years before I was born. But, the fact he was executed for his political views casts a too dark veil on his story. I have the very last lines he wrote to my great-granmother framed at home and it takes me a lot of courage to revisit them, beautiful as they are… Thanks for the interest. It means a lot that people want to know more about him.

  5. Great review, Elena! Glad you enjoyed it; I think it was last year that I got around to reading it and absolutely love it to pieces, it’s such a haunting novel and the themes it explores are just fantastic. I’m surprised they don’t teach it in schools over there–they should! 🙂

    1. I totally agree they should. But you know, it’s a young woman’s story and it is written by a young woman as well…

      I think I first read about it on your blog, and although the name rang a bell, I didn’t pay much attention to it. I should have!

  6. I’ve seen a couple really positive reviews of this now. I think I already have it on my list–or if not, I will add it, as everyone makes it sound so good. Glad you found a Spanish novel you liked!

  7. Hello. I found your blog through Claire “Word by Word”.
    I find your blog compelling and interesting.
    I was born in Argentina and I sense that female writers have been discriminated there for most literary classics belong to men.

    1. Hi, Julia! Thank you very much for leaving a comment 🙂

      i think women writers all over the world have been neglected, but, luckily, they are coming to light.m

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