Book envy hardly had time to rear its head before my Uncle said “but Claire, you must read this too” and rather than it returning to its owner, this book came home with me, delighted to be off the shelf once more, this time travelling closer to the territory where it was conceived.
Nada was written by Carmen Laforet when she was 23 years old and first published in Spanish in 1945. Born in Barcelona, she moved to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands when she was 2 years old and like her protagonist Andrea, moved to Barcelona when she was 18 to study literature and philosophy.
Edith Grossman, who also translated Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa (who writes a brilliant introduction in the opening pages) puts Nada into English in what Alberto Manguel describes as “a fluid translation”, one that I read as if it has been written in English as its first language. The book was finally published in 2007, three years after the death of its author.
Andrea has spent a dreamy summer in her hometown, looking forward to coming to Barcelona to study and spend time with her family she hasn’t seen in years and barely remembers. She arrives three hours late and thus finds her way to the Calle de Aribau alone in the dead of night, arriving at the dilapidated apartment to be met by an apparition, a strange gathering of eccentric characters.
Her family, weathered by years of neglect, corruption and psychological torment, live in a claustrophobic environment that causes Andrea to develop her own eccentric behaviour in an effort to escape theirs. The house is inhabited by her two uncles, Juan and Roman, her aunt Angustias, the maid Antonia, and Juan’s wife, Gloria, plus a menagerie of cats, an old dog and a parrot.
“That illuminated twinkling of stars brought back in a rush all my hopes regarding Barcelona until the moment I’d entered this atmosphere of perverse people and furniture. I was afraid to get into the bed that resembled a coffin. I think I was trembling with undefinable terrors when I put out the candle.”
Though never mentioned, the city and its people are in the shadow of the recent civil war which has pushed the population to its extremity, people are either starving or drowning in excess, oblivious to the plight of the depleted middle class, who grasp onto whatever they can, the more practical selling the candelabra and curtains no longer given occasion to flaunt their long-lost beauty.
“The memory of nights on Calle de Aribau comes to me now. Those nights that ran like a black river beneath the bridges of the days, nights when stagnant odours gave off the breath of ghosts.”
Carmen Laforet writes in a way that makes the reader experience the brutality of each encounter, while instilling in us something of the toughness of Andrea, we seem to know she will handle it all, despite her growing thinner by the day as she observes the decline into madness of her extended family.
The depth of the prose is extraordinary and intriguing, the kind of work that makes a reader want to listen to the writer talk about what inspired them and what was going through their mind when these words flowed onto the page.
Carmen Laforet has created a heroine who is witness to a decline, who is oppressed by it and at the same time somewhat oblivious to it, captured it with an intensity that causes us anguish, the story sits uncomfortably with the reader but compels us to turn the pages ravenously. An utterly absorbing and spellbinding read, what a treasure that took so long to be shared with the English reading world.
“She achieved this, and half a century after it was published, her beautiful, terrible novel still lives.” Mario Vargas Losa
Elena’s Books and Reviews – an excellent review by Spanish blogger, Elena Adler. Studying literature and humanities, her insights add much value to our reading and comprehension of the underlying tensions and dysfunction of society post the civil war.
The Guardian – Alberto Manguel hails the first appearance in English of the modern Spanish classic Nada.