Friday, 16 August 2013

Book Review: Nada by Carmen Laforet

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2817206-nadaOn my travel through Europe and around the Mediterranean Sea, I'm making a stop in Spain today, more precisely in Barcelona. There are many novels set in the Catalonian capital, but I decided to review one which deals with the aftermaths of the Spanish Civil War on the individual level and which – undeservedly – is little known outside its country of origin. Nada by Carmen Laforet marked a turning point in Spanish literature and is considered an important modern classic. In addition, it’s one of very few novels of the post-Civil War era written by a woman.

Carmen Laforet was born in Barcelona, Spain, in September 1921. She grew up on the Canary Islands and after the Civil War returned to mainland Spain for her university studies, to Barcelona in 1939 and to Madrid in 1942. Her debut novel Nada (meaning ‘nothing’ in English, but the title usually isn’t translated) came out in 1945 and received the prestigeous Spanish Premio Nadal the same year. Her later works comprise the novels La isla y los demonios (1952; The Island and The Demons) and La mujer nueva (1955; The New Woman) as well as a couple of short stories and novellas, but neither of them seems to have been translated into English, yet. Carmen Laforet died in Madrid, Spain, in February 2004 after having suffered from Alzheimer's disease for a decade.

The scene of Nada is Barcelona and the story begins in autumn 1939, maybe a year or two later. The protagonist is 18-year-old Andrea, an orphan from the province arriving at the Estación de Francia after many hours on the train. It’s midnight and on her way to the Calle de Aribau where she is going to stay with the relatives of her dead mother she experiences a first taste of freedom, away from the narrowness of the village, of the convent school and of life with her cousin who took care of her after her father’s death. Andrea is looking forward to the independence which being a student of literature promises, but in her new home she is received by a bizarre assembly of people in a decayed flat crammed with the relics of a prosperous past. There are her feeble grandmother who says of herself that she never sleeps and who strolls through the flat like a ghost, her austere aunt Angustias holding on to the morals of the old days, her uncle Juan who is a would-be painter beating his wife Gloria because he’s constantly frustrated or jealous and unable to control himself, their baby son who is left nameless in the story, her intriguing and malicious uncle Román charming his surroundings as a gifted musician and painter, and the generally hostile maid Antonia always dressing in black and with the dog Trueno by her side. They draw Andrea into their nightmarish world which is filled with all the big and small tragedies of home life reigned by penury and hunger. Only when Angustias decides to retire to a convent and to take the veil, Andrea is free to come and go as she likes. As often as possible she flees the oppressive and depressing atmosphere in the Calle de Aribau to roam the city and spend time with her well-to-do friends from university, above all with Ena who invites her to her home regularly until she begins to go out with Andrea’s uncle Román. Without her friend Andrea sinks even deeper into loneliness and sadness. The absurdities of home life entangle her mind and Andrea needs all her remaining power to avoid becoming an integral part of the insanity surrounding her. Things take a new turn, when Andrea finds out that Ena has taken revenge upon Ramón for the misery of her mother as a young girl and that after the summer she will move to Madrid with her parents.

Nada is a first-person narrative with all its limits and advantages, but it’s told by the grown-up Andrea and leaves open how much time has passed since the events. The language of this Existentialist novel is clear and simple. In some aspects the book reminds of Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse and J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. In reality Carmen Laforet’s masterpiece is their neglected precursor, though, since it was written and published almost a decade earlier, only a few years after the end of the Civil War in Spain which is most famously represented by Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica. This historical background makes Nada much more than just the story of a girl who is coming of age in a grotesque environment. The disintegration of society by war terror is depicted in a powerful expressionistic imagery passed on to the reader almost exclusively through Andrea’s impressions and sensations.

When I started reading Carmen Laforet’s Nada, I already knew a few things about life under the regime of General Franco from other novels like for instance The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Záfon or A Manuscript of Ashes by António Muñoz Molina, but this book has given me a new view on the time and the psychological condition of people after the Civil War. I definitely enjoyed the read although in Spanish it was a bit of a struggle as usual. It would deserve much more attention from readers worldwide. 

6 comments:

  1. I have this one on the shelf since Caroline (Beauty is a sleeping cat) reviewed it.
    Thanks for the review, it reminds me that I should start it soon.
    It's part of my EU Book Tour.

    Emma

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    1. It's a really interesting read and not on everybody's list... which is partly why I picked it. I love reviewing books which are famous and yet not too much talked about on the internet. I hope that you'll soon find the time to read 'Nada'.
      Thanks for the comment! Edith.

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  2. VERY nice blog. FANTASTIC posts.

    Following you via e-mail.

    Elizabeth
    Silver's Reviews
    My Blog

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    1. Thank you for the praise, Elizabeth! Always nice to know that my reviews are appreciated. Just joined the followers of your blog - looks very nice and interesting, too.

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  3. do you have this in the english version? If so, where does one download it?

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    1. Well, I read this one in Spanish - since I always prefer the original versions in the languages that I speak. Before writing the review I made sure that there is an English translation available in print, but I don't know about an e-book. The author died only ten years ago, so her work isn't in the public domain... and won't be for a long time.

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