Nada by Carmen Laforet

Nada (2)On a recent visit to London, my Uncle was handing this book back to the friend who lent it to him and I listened intrigued as they discussed its merits. “Isn’t it brilliant?” she said.

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.

gothic barcelonaHer 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 1921 - 2004

Carmen Laforet 1921 – 2004

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


Further Reading

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 GuardianAlberto Manguel hails the first appearance in English of the modern Spanish classic Nada.


28 thoughts on “Nada by Carmen Laforet

  1. Oh this does sound good! I love characters arriving at a new place in the dead of night, it’s the way I secretly always want to arrive somewhere but never do 🙂


    • It’s a brilliant arrival, that image of how everything seems in the dead of night can never quite be overcome and sets the tone for the entire book, I am sure you’ll love this one! 🙂


  2. This sounds wonderful, Claire. I hadn’t heard of this author or the novel. I’m trying to hold off from buying any more books at the mo, but this might have to go on the list!


    • Maybe save it for that August challenge #WomenInTranslation but wonderful to discover a recent translation of a modern Spanish classic, I’d not heard of it either, but so pleased to have read it. Quite astonishing.


  3. I’ve owned a copy of this for a couple of years, but had no idea it was written in 1945. It sounds rather wonderful. Thanks for reminding me it’s languishing in my TBR.


    • I hope it travels up the pile Annabel, I’ve just posted a link to another review posted the day after mine, written by Spanish blogger Elena at Books and Reviews writing in English, very insightful and she comes to the same conclusion, it is a great read.


  4. Lovely review. I really like to see foreign readers getting to know the Spanish Civil War and I am very interested in how they perceive it. I think “Nada” is a masterpiece when it comes to dealing with the aftermath, especially for women.

    I have sent a trackback to this post and have allowed them in my Nada review so that readers can navigate between our two reviews 🙂


  5. Beautiful review, Claire, I enjoyed it very much. This was probably the first book I read in Spanish and I loved it, the settings, the characters, the drama. I still remember a scene where Andrea roams the streets eating a piece of chocolate.


  6. Beautiful review, Claire! This looks like a wonderful book though the theme it addresses is probably a bit bleak. I loved what Maria Vargas Llosa said about the book – “half a century after it was published, her beautiful, terrible novel still lives”. Terrible, beautiful novel – that says it all. I enjoyed reading the story of how you got the book from your uncle 🙂


    • I hope this gets added to your reading pile Vishy, it was a lucky find for me and always a joy to find hidden literary gems. It comes with high praise from some literary greats and is an excellent translation. Thank you for your thoughtful comments Vishy.


      • Just added it to my reading list, Claire. Looking forward to reading it whenever I am able to get hold of a copy. Thanks for recommending it.


      • Finally got around to reading ‘Nada’, Claire. I remember reading your review all those years back and was inspired to get the book. Can’t believe that I waited so long to read it! Loved the book! It is one of my favourite books of the year! Loved the introduction by Maria Vargas Llosa – it was so beautiful! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and inspiring me to read this 🙂


  7. I confess . . . I have a thing for Spanish and Latin American writers, and there are some lesser- known ones (Luisa Valenzuela, Maria Luisa Bombal, Merce Rodoreda) who have captivated me. ‘Nada’ sounds like something I really have to read, especially in light of the Edith Grossman translation and Vargas Llosa introduction. I’m in awe of translators. It’s such a nuanced art, and speaking of Edith Grossman, I highly recommend her book, ‘Why Translation Matters.’


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