Nada is a strange novel. I’m not completely sure what to make of it. Spanish literature can often have a labyrinthine quality to it, which isn’t surprising when you remember that Spain gave us Gaudi, Dali & Picasso. It’s a theme picked up by contemporary Spanish authors like Zafon; in films like Pan’s Labyrinth; and in Nada, Carmen Laforet’s award winning 1944 novel – translated by Edith Grossman – where the heroine is continuously wandering the hallways, streets and alleyways of Barcelona. The plot wanders as well. Repeatedly (and abruptly) leading the reader into dead ends.
Andrea, the narrator and heroine of the story, is an orphan. She is plain and sullen. To her, Barcelona is a glamorous city and she’s come there for all the cliché reasons that young people leave their homes in the country to travel to big cities. On her first morning she tells us, “I was in Barcelona. I had heaped too many dreams onto this concrete fact for that first sound of the city not to seem a miracle”. Her plan is to attend university and live with her dead mother’s family. Illusions are quickly brushed aside, though, and the realities of her new life exposed – squalor, petty melodrama and hunger.
Nada is set after the Spanish Civil War in Franco’s Spain. A chasm divides the rich from the poor and Andrea’s family falls in amongst the latter. They live in filth and are slowly starving to death. But the reader get’s the feeling that their poverty is of their own making. The inhabitants of the small apartment on the Calle de Aribau are actors in a macabre, co-dependent drama. Sadistic and manipulative Uncle Roman is the planet around which the others orbit like an astroid belt, colliding and crashing at his amusement. There is crazed Uncle Juan, Gloria his battered wife, and their baby (always on the verge of dying); pious and hypocritical Aunt Augustias; the grotesque maid, Antonia, slavishly devoted to Roman; Andrea’s vague, sweet grandmother. Nada strives to be a Gothic tale. Unfortunately, it never quite achieves the success of its English, 19th Century, counterparts.
It’s not without some charm, though. Which I suppose is what I mean by strangeness – the plot and the writing feels truncated. Edith Grossman may or may not be to blame. This new translation has garnered a lot of praise, but the sentences are too self-contained for my tastes and do not transition smoothly one into the other. I’d like to believe that is what Laforet intended when she wrote them, but there are other, lyrically descriptive passages in this novel that hold the promise of better writing.
“The night seemed splendid, with its breath as warm and pink as blood in a vein opened gently over the street”.
“When it was almost dawn, a cortege of dark clouds, like extremely long fingers, began to float across the sky. At last, they put out the moon.”
“The ships were enormous, their sides extremely high… From some deck, perhaps, Nordic blue eyes would see me as a tiny brushstroke on a foreign print… I, a Spanish girl with dark hair, standing for a moment on a dock in the port of Barcelona. In a few seconds, life would move on, displacing me to some other point. I’d find myself with my body framed by another print…”
At the same time, this choppiness of the rhythm could be defended by a fan of the book. It adds to the disjointed atmosphere of the novel. During the period in which the events she describes take place, Andrea is starving to death. The story she tells us is limited to what she has been told, what she observes and what she imagines. What she knows, we know – no more and no less. All relayed in a narrative voice that is both feverish and rambling. (There is even a portion in which she admits she was slightly delirious and half asleep – hearing the voices of Gloria and her grandmother as she drifts in and out of consciousness). Maybe the tone of the writing sometimes feels dated, but the descriptions are saturated with the colors of the 1930’s and 40’s. Andrea’s life is messy, so why shouldn’t the prose to reflect that?
Did I like Nada? Yes and no, for all the reasons I listed above. Would I read another book by Carmen Laforet? Definitely. Would I recommend Nada to someone else? Maybe. If a friend wanted to borrow it I wouldn’t try to dissuade them or redirect them to another book. But I wouldn’t worry about them returning it either.
Publisher: New York, The Modern Library (2008)
ISBN: 978 0 8129 7583 3