Carmen Laforet: Nada (1945) A Classic of Spanish Existentialism

One of the most important literary works of post-Civil War Spain, Nada is the semiautobiographical story of an orphaned young woman who leaves her small town to attend university in war-ravaged Barcelona. Edith Grossman’s vital new translation captures Carmen Laforet’s feverish energy, powerful imagery, and subtle humor. Nada, which includes an illuminating Introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa, is one of the great novels of twentieth-century Europe

I  had read an article about Carmen Laforet’s book when the re-translated German version came out in 2006 and although I was interested I forgot all about it until I read Richard’s intriguing review a couple of weeks ago. After having read what he wrote I had to get it immediately.

What a fantastic book! One of the best I read so far this year which is saying a lot as there were quite a few wonderful books already.

I can only agree with Richard,  Nada deserves to be called a classic. However, as he correctly stated, it isn’t a classic because of the plot which can be summarized in a few sentences but because of the style. This is a young writer’s book who manages to capture the intensity of living typical for the very young and passionate.

Set in post Civil War Spain, Nada (Nothing) tells the story of a young orphan, Andrea, who leaves the country for Barcelona where she wants to study literature. Young, enthusiastic and full of hopes she arrives in the middle of the night to find that no one is waiting for her at the train station. She is going to live with her family but since she missed the earlier train, they didn’t bother to wait for her.

Andrea is too happy to be in the big city to think much about it and enjoys the ride in a horse-drawn carriage in the middle of the night. When she arrives at the apartment of her relatives, they are sleeping. What awaits her reads almost like a scene from a horror movie.

In front of me was a foyer illuminated by a single weak light bulb in one of the arms of the magnificent lamp, dirty with cobwebs that hung from the ceiling. A dark background of articles of furniture piled one on top of the other as if the household were in the middle of moving. And in the foreground the black-white blotch of a decrepit old woman in a nightgown, a shawl thrown around her shoulders, I wanted to believe I’d come to the wrong flat but the good-natured woman wore a smile of such sweet kindness that I was certain she was my grandmother.

The flat has clearly seen better times. It used to be a big and elegant apartment once but after the death of the grandfather, the apartment was halved and the family continued to live in one part, keeping all the furniture. Apart from being messy, the flat is, as we soon will see, also very dirty. Not unlike his inhabitants who are all displaying various states of squalidness. The grandmother is not the only one who lives here in those narrow crowded rooms. Her two sons, Juan and Román, one of her daughters, Angustias, Juan’s wife Gloria and their son, and Antonia the housekeeper plus the dog Trueno, all share this sordid abode.

There was something agonising in the entire scene, and in the flat the heat was suffocating as if the air was stagnant and rotting. When I looked up I saw that several ghostly women had appeared. I almost felt my skin crawl when I caught a glimpse of one of them in a black dress that had the look of a nightgown. Everything about that woman seemed awful, wretched, even the greenish teeth she showed  when she smiled at me. A dog followed her, yawning noisily, and the animal was so black like an extension of her mourning. Then they told me she was the maid, but no other creature has made a more disagreeable impression on me.

As surprised and alienated she is, Andrea hasn’t seen it all. The more she enters the apartment, the more it gets squalid.

The bathroom seemed like a witches’ house. The stained walls had traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair. Everywhere the scaling walls opened their toothless mouths oozing dampness. Over the mirror, because it didn’t fit anywhere else, they ‘d hung a macabre still-life pale bream and onions against a black background. Madness smiled from the bent taps.

Andrea’s family is a family on the verge of madness and total poverty. Juan is a brutal man who hits his wife, Román seems deluded, the old grandmother is half-demented and Angustias is a Catholic zealot who follows Andrea’s every step, lecturing her every minute. They fight constantly over one thing or the other and there is not one moment of peace to be had.

At the university Andrea doesn’t fit in at first. There is a rift between her and most of the students who come from rich families.  But then she makes a friend, Ena, a charismatic girl whom she loves fiercely. Ena will take care of her, invite her into her family and spend a lot of time with her.

Nada is as much the story of a young girl as a novel about Barcelona. It reminded me of an extended stay in this mysteriously beautiful city. Andrea is a loner and she loves to go for walks. We follow her on her ramblings through the nocturnal city.

Andrea is such an endearing narrator, she must have been given the writer’s voice, as Carmen Laforet was only in her early twenties when she wrote Nada. This is the story of a young woman who experiences everything with an intensity that is often lost in later years. Sorrow and joy are very close. And loneliness, a loneliness that makes her sad but that also permits her to explore states of mind she otherwise might not have explored. And there is the hunger. Andrea is constantly hungry, hungry to an extent that makes her almost hallucinate. She is poor and the family is poor. They are all skinny and starving. Andrea has a little allowance but she prefers to spend it on presents for Ena or cigarettes.

I was really touched by this story and curious what the outcome would be as it was obvious that the family wasn’t improving, on the contrary, they acted crazier and crazier, the violence intensified from page to page.

Nada has quite a surprising finale to offer and an ending that was not foreseeable.

The book is also very interesting as it paints an accurate picture of Spain after the Civil War. The rift between the rich and the poor is getting bigger and bigger and families that were well off before the war, loose everything and slide towards poverty.

Despite many gloomy descriptions, highly dysfunctional characters and a lot of sadness and loneliness this is not a depressing novel at all. Andrea is still joyful and her curiosity and intelligence are uplifting.

I read the German translation (not the brightest idea but it would have taken too long to receive the Spanish book), you can see the cover below.

I have read a lot of Latin American and Carribbean novels but, apart from a few, I don’t know a lot of Spanish books. Do you have any recommendations?