Dutch Literature Recommendations

Lost Paradise

A post on Guy’s blog His Futile Preoccupations, followed by a discussion and comments on Dutch literature inspired me to write a post on maybe not sufficiently known Dutch literature. There is maybe also an upcoming European book tour on Bookaroundthecorner’s Blog.

I did learn Dutch because I wanted to read Dutch books in the original language. It’s a funny language and very close to the Swiss German dialects therefore I can’t say it was difficult to learn for me. The structure of the sentences is very English, the words have either German or English origin. However I read most of the books in the German translation which was mostly OK. Despite having read a fair amount of books I still have a big TBR pile of Dutch books.

I tried to find as many English translations as possible but depending on the author the result is somewhat meager.

The list below consists of literary fiction and a few crime writers. The authors that deserve particular attention are Grünberg, Mulisch, de Winter, Palmen, Hermans and Nooteboom.  I have also read the crime writers. Janwillem van de Wetering’s series is very different, very enjoyable. Saskia Noort seemed rather a bit in the vein of Mary Higgins Clark. Maarten t’Hart writes crime and memoirs and is good at both. Mulisch, Nooteboom and van de Wetering should be easy to find. Many of their books have been translated.

Arnon Grünberg: Phantom Pain

Arnon Grunberg’s masterful first novel is a rare feat: a work that manages to be shocking yet not sensationalist, hip but not trendy, ironic but not cynical. Most of all it is highly affecting. Highly recommended.

Leon de Winter: Hoffman’s Hunger

Felix Hoffman’s hunger is both physical and emotional. A Dutch diplomat with a chequered career behind him, he is now Ambassador in Prague in the late 1980s; his final posting. In Kafka’s haunted city, Hoffman desperately feeds his bulimia and spends his insomniac nights studying Spinoza and revisiting the traumas of his past. A child survivor of the Holocaust, Hoffman married and had beloved twin daughters, but a double tragedy has befallen his family; one daughter died as a young girl of leukaemia, the other, who became a heroin addict, has committed suicide.This has wrecked Hoffman’s marriage and his life; he has not had one decent night’s sleep since the death of his daughter over twenty years ago, and his constant physical hunger reflects his emotional hunger for truth and understanding. When Carla, a Czech double agent, gets into Hoffman’s bed, political and emotional mayhem ensues. Hoffman’s past and his present predicament are inextricably bound up with the tormented history of Europe over the fifty years since the Second World War. Like Europe, he is at a crossroads, and the signs point to an uncertain future.

Willem Frederik Hermans: Beyond Sleep

A gripping tale of a man approaching breaking point set beyond the end of the civilised world: a modern classic of European literature.

Margriet de Moor: The Virtuoso

A novel set in 18th-century Naples. For one entire season, Carlotta sits in her candle-lit box, held in the spell of a world in which knowledge, beauty and love collide: music. She has fallen in love with the male soprano, Gasparo.

Cees Nooteboom: Lost Paradise

Nooteboom brings a subtle, playful brilliance to this exceptional story of escape, loss and identity.

Harry Mulisch: The Discovery of Heaven

On a cold night in Holland, Max Delius – a hedonistic, yet brilliant astronomer who loves fast cars, nice clothes and women – picks up Onno Quist, a cerebral chaotic philologist who cannot bear the banalities of everyday life. They are like fire and water. But when they learn they were conceived on the same day, it is clear that something extraordinary is about to happen. Their worlds become inextricably intertwined, as they embark on a life’s journey destined to change the course of human history. A magnum opus that is also a masterful thriller.

Connie Palmen: The Laws

A debut novel which won the European Novel of the Year Award about unconventional love spanning seven years. A young philosophy student Marie Deniet encounters several men: an astrologer, an epileptic, a philosopher, a priest, a physicist, an artist and a psychiatrist, and attempts to comprehend the laws these loves live by.

and The Friendship

Ara and Kit, two girls in the village school, seem to have nothing in common. Ara, the elder, is large, earthy and illiterate; Kit is lean, brainy and interested in abstractions like philosophy. After they leave school Ara cannot let Kit alone – she is drawn to her as a moth to a candle flame.

Jessica Durlacher. I couldn’t find any of her books in English but she is famous as she writes on the Holocaust and is mentioned in this book: The Holocaust Novel

Dutch crime

Janwillem van de Wetering: Outsider in Amsterdam

Piet Verboom is found dangling from a beam in the Hindist Society he ran as a restaurant-commune in a quiet Amsterdam street. Detective-Adjutant Gripstra and Sergeant de Gier of the Amsterdam police force are sent to investigate what looks like a simple suicide.
Outsider in Amsterdam is the first in the Amsterdam Cops series of internationally renowned mysteries.

Saskia Noort: The Dinner Club

On a cold winter’s night, an elegant villa goes up in flames. Evert Struyck, happily married, father of two and successful business man, dies in the fire. His wife, Babette and the children manage to escape. Babette is part of a group of five women, known as “the dinner club”, who meet regularly and whose husbands do business together. Karen, a dinner club member, takes Babette into her house after the fire, but soon discovers that the friendships in the dinner club are not as unconditional as they seem. It becomes clear that some people have benefited from Evert’s death. Within weeks another member of the club falls from the balcony of a hotel and dies. Karen starts to put the pieces together. White-collar crime, fraud and adultery are the putrefying glue that has kept the dinner club together. Not for much longer. Set in a world of affluent suburbs, flashy 4×4’s and country clubs, familiar to readers in the UK and the US, “The Dinner Club” is a psychological thriller about a group of people desperately hanging on to the outer varnish of their lives. Some of them will defend their material success at any price. Imagine “Desperate Housewives” scripted by Patricia Highsmith. That’s “The Dinner Club”

Maarten t’Hart: The Sundial

The Sundial opens with Leonie Kuyper attending the funeral of her best friend Roos Berczy. She has always felt a little overshadowed by her friend’s glamorous looks and successful career so when she discovers she is the sole heir to Roos’s estate Leonie, an impoverished translator, cannot refuse. Leonie gradually begins to assume Roos’s identity, and as questions arise about her friend’s past, her curiosity becomes piqued. Leonie’s investigations soon unearth certain suspicious circumstances surrounding Roos’s death and the culprit, alarmed by this, springs into action.

I’m planning on reading either Hoffman’s Hunger or Phantom Pain soon.

If you think of reading books in Dutch, it might also be worth trying the literature of Suriname. I have one or two books but they have not been translated.

Does anyone have other suggestions and/or know the books?

If you are interested in a Dutch read along taking place in June, please visit Iris on Books

Phantom Pain

Siri Hustvedt: The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves (2010)

While speaking at a memorial event for her father, the novelist Siri Hustvedt suffered a violent seizure from the neck down. Was it triggered by nerves, emotion – or something else entirely? In this profoundly thought-provoking and revealing book, Hustvedt takes the reader on her journey through psychiatry, philosophy, neuroscience and medical history in search of a diagnosis. Conveying the often frightening mysteries of illness, she illuminates the perenially mysterious connection between mind and body and what we mean by ‘I’

Siri Hustvedt is one of my favourite writers. Whenever she has a new novel out I’m likely to buy and read it. I’m a bit behind as I haven’t read Sorrows of an American and The Summer Without Men yet. Until now I haven’t read any of her essays but was planning on doing it and when I saw The Shaking Woman or The History of my Nerves in a bookshop I bought and read it immediately.

Whether someone likes this book or not depends a lot on the expectations. Many readers where disappointed to find a blend. The Shaking Woman is halfway between essay and memoir, very dense, hardly anecdotal but highly informative and thought-provoking.

“Nerves” is such an interesting term and topic. I recently watched the movie Housewife, 49 based on the diaries that a 49-year-old housewife wrote during WWII. She is  depressed and, as she says, “nervous” or has problems with her “nerves”. I also seem to remember distinctly Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice exclaiming on and on “My poor nerves”. By using the word we may mean quite a lot of things and this is precisely what Siri Hustvedt hints at too.

During a speech for her late father Siri Hustvedt started to shake violently from chin down. She continued to speak and the shaking wasn’t in any way audible, it didn’t affect her capability to speak in any way. She says she didn’t even feel nervous or anxious before the speech. If this had happened only once she might not have felt tempted to undergo so many tests and read such a lot about various topics. But it did happen again and from what I understood still happens to this day.

Everybody with a chronic disease can feel with Siri Hustvedt and her struggle to make sense of what happens. It’s the nature of many chronic diseases that are somewhere on the borderline between physical and psychological to be hard to diagnose and even harder to treat.  These are some of the topics she writes about. But she doesn’t only write about the different tests and treatments she undergoes, she looks for a deeper meaning. What does it mean when you say “I’m ill”? Who is this “I”? What does it mean when you say you are physically ill? Is your mind not part of your body?

Who are we anyway? What do I actually know about myself? My symptom has taken me from the Greeks to the present day, in and out of theories and thoughts that are built on various ways of seeing the world. What is body and what is mind? Is each of us a singular being or a plural one? How do we remember things and how do we forget them? Tracking my pathology turns out to be an adventure in the history of experience and perception.

She thinks for a long time that what she has is a convulsion disorder and therefore we hear a lot about the history of hysteria, its early treatment and what has become of it now. She parallels hysteria and shell-shock and wonders why both terms are now out of fashion.

One of the doctors she consults tells her she has a panic disorder and she also reads a lot about this.

But it wouldn’t be Siri Hustvedt if she stopped there. She goes far beyond her illness and so, in the end, this book is less about a symptom than about the mind as a whole. She also writes at length about migraine and different ways of perceiving the world. About memory and imagination.

When I read a novel, I see it, and later, I remember the images I invented for the book. Some of these images are borrowed from intimate places in my own life. Others, I suspect, are taken from movies or pictures in books and paintings I’ve seen.

She also writes about mysticism, Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, Freud and mixes all kind of views and theories.

At the end she has explored numerous things but still doesn’t know what she really has.

The Shaking Woman describes one woman’s intellectual journey that starts with a symptom and ends with an exploration of all sorts of disciplines, theories and views on consciousness. It seems as if the inconspicuous sounding word “nerves” was a little door that Hustvedt opened to enter a huge, huge landscape. I’m glad I took the journey with her.

Elizabeth Gaskell: The Moorland Cottage (1850)

Growing up in Yorkshire, the daughter of a deceased clergyman, Maggie Browne is encouraged to devote herself to her brother, Edward, upon whom their widowed mother dotes. Through the example and guidance of her mentor, Mrs Buxton, Maggie learns that self-sacrifice is the key to living a fulfilled life. How much personal happiness will she forgo in the name of duty and devotion to her brother? This novella depicts the struggle of a strong-minded Victorian woman, torn between her dreams and her duty towards her family. Maggie’s love story, Edward’s perfidy and the dramatic conclusion at sea, make The Moorland Cottage a timeless tale.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel The Moorland Cottage is said to be the precursor and the template for George Elliot’s The Mill on the Floss as we can read on the inner sleeve of this very nice Hesperus edition. As a matter of fact this and the blurb sounded so interesting and the book looked so appealing that I bought it and only realized later that this was the very same novel I had seen reviewed on Violet’s blog and sworn to stay away from. It wasn’t a positive review at all. I trust Violet’s taste and felt quite silly that I bought it. I must add that the cover of her edition looked very different. Tacky is the word for it. I have never read anything by Elizabeth Gaskell and this was short enough (140 pages) so I thought I give it a try anyway. Halfway into the book I discovered that Katherine from the Gaskell Blog, who is hosting a group read of The Moorland Cottage, dedicated one of the first posts to a stunning photo tour of the first chapter of the book.

The descriptions are easily one of the best things in this novel. For very personal reasons I also liked the character portraits. The mother does, in some instances, sound so much like my own mother used to be that it felt spooky to read how she reprimanded little Maggie the whole time, trying to crush her joy and preferring the brother over the girl for no particular other apparent reason than that he is a boy.

The Moorland Cottage tells Maggie Browne’s story. She is the daughter of a clergy man who has died a few years ago and leaves little Maggie, her brother Edward and a cold-hearted wife, who has adopted a theatrical, ostentatious way of mourning him. In the little cottage also lives a housemaid, Nancy, an old woman who is very fond of little Maggie and loves her dearly. This is lucky as her own mother only cares for the boy who is an obnoxious, selfish and reckless child. He suppresses and exploits his sister whenever he can.

One day the family is invited to the estate of the Buxton family. The Buxton family consists of the invalid Mrs Buxton, Mr Buxton, their son Frank and the niece Erminia. In the Buxton family Maggie encounters acceptance and love. Mrs Buxton as well as the girl Erminia like her a great deal and in the absence of her mother Maggie shows her true nature. She isn’t only a subdued little girl but very intelligent and truly kind.

After the death of Mrs Buxton the novel fastforwards a few years. Maggie and Frank have fallen in love, Edward has become a lawyer and handles some affairs for Mr Buxton The two lovers want to marry but Frank’s father is opposed to the idea. Chapter 7 is by far the most interesting. It displays all the themes that are recurring in Gaskell’s novels, one of them is the situation of the poor.

I found it particularly interesting because Frank asks Maggie to go away with him, to Australia or Canada.

I would go off to Australia at once. Indeed, Maggie, I think it would be the best thing we could do. My heart aches about the mysterious corruptions and evils of an old state of society such as we have in England.

Frank has lost all faith in the European society. He longs for a clean start in an uncorrupted environment. Where would Frank want to go nowadays, I wondered. To the Moon?

Frank has a huge problem with the way the rich treat the poor and the lovers discuss this at length. Maggie says she would be glad if there really was such a thing as “Transmigration”, something she has read about in an Indian tale. She would like to be transmigrated into a slave owner to see his side of things.

I quite enjoyed the first 8 chapters. I have to agree with Violet, the tone of the novel is mawkish throughout and there is a lot of crying but up to chapter 9 I could forgive it. From then on the novel unfortunately takes a turn. Maggie commits a huge act of self-sacrifice and the story’s plausibility is stretched a lot.

Still I enjoyed it overall because I cannot compare it to any of her other novels yet and because I could see what a truly good Elizabeth Gaskell novel would have to offer. Her descriptions are nuanced and beautiful, the changing of the seasons is rendered masterfully. Depending on the season her descriptions are either light and cheerful or dark and gloomy. Some character descriptions are interesting. Mrs Buxton, despite her insufferable moral teachings, is an interesting character. Why is she ailing and why does she love little Maggie so much?  The awareness of social injustices and the social criticism are themes Elizabeth Gaskell is known for and there is already quite a lot of it in this early novel.

Although the end dampened the overall impression, I will always remember the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside and feel like reading either North and South or Cranford very soon.

Do you have any other suggestions? Did someone else read The Moorland Cottage?

Stéphane Hessel: Indignez-Vous! /Time for Outrage!/Empört Euch!



Bookaroundthecorner reviewed this tiny little booklet a few days ago and since I had bought it last October when it came out and am one of the happy few to own a first edition, I thought I might as well read it. Besides it is only 13 pages long + an additional 14 of introduction and afterword.

Since the French original came out the essay has been translated into many different languages and is a success pretty much everywhere. There is always a very good indicator whether a book is spoken of in Germany when you look at the number of reviews and the number of comments the reviews get on amazon and whether there are articles and TV programs on Swiss TV as well.

Reviews of Indignez-vous! generated up to 200 comments on amazon.de. One could say that Stéphane Hessel hit a nerve.

In France alone it sold far over 600’000 copies, in Germany I think it hit the 1’000’000 mark a while back already.

Hessel, a German Jew,  is a charismatic man and  looks back on a life story that isn’t shared by many. Hero of the Resistance, member of de Gaulle’s Free French organisation in London, he was captured upon returning to France in 1944, tortured and sent to two different concentration camps which he both escaped. He helped to draft the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and became a famous French advocate for Human Rights.

With this background and credibility it isn’t surprising that he would make people listen.

Time for Outrage!

Time for Outrage!

Hessel wants to incite a sense of outrage in his readers. Outrage is the fuel for resistance and the only way to stop things as he says. Our world is drifting away from democratic principles with the supremacy of money over everything else.

The worst attitude facing social injustice and exploitation is indifference. There are numerous things that outrage Hessel, one of the most important ones – and source of a lot of controversy – is his take on the situation in Palestine and his statements against the Israeli government. Despite being of Jewish origins he was promptly accused of anti-Semitism. Silly, really as there is a long tradition of Jewish intellectuals,  starting with Hannah Arendt, who criticized Israel.

Empört Euch!

Empört Euch!

It may come as a surprise but his answer to all the problems and conflicts is non-violence. Be outraged, do not stay indifferent and change things in a nonviolent way, is his core message.

That this book is such a success in France where the current politics give a lot of reason for outrage isn’t surprising. That it is an equal success in Germany isn’t any more astonishing. You cannot write anything and name Jews, Resistance, Nazism, concentration camps and Israel and not be read in Germany. To overlook this book would seem to many a German intellectual almost a sign of anti-Semitism. But there is more to it. His call for non-violence is something that strikes a chord in Germany more than anywhere else. The last time people were really outraged, they ended up killing people (RAF) and this cannot be a solution.

Still, why is it such a success? I think because it is so unflinching. There isn’t any superfluous word in this slim book, no adornment, no digression.

It is short and to the point and tells you without any ambiguities what his author considers to be right and wrong.

I am one of those who is against all sorts of relativism that seems to me just a means to avoid clear thinking and taking responsibility. The most outrageous things are just explained away by people who do not want to take position. There isn’t an excuse for everything, no matter how much some would like this. I particularly abhor cultural relativism and can still remember how I was ostracized as a young student because I dared criticizing the practice of female genital mutilation practiced in many African countries. One female fellow student dared telling me that I was “showing all the sings of the deluded belief of Western and Judeo-Christian supremacy” in criticising an African custom. Now I may be naive but I think whenever something harms someone it can not be right, whether this may be rooted in someone’s culture or not.

Another point in which I agree with Hessel is when he makes clear that outrage that leads to terror is not a solution.

Hessel would like to reach young people but I have my doubts whether his essay is read by the very young. I think those under 30 are getting more and more apolitical. I’m not even sure that growing insecurity will wake them up. Still, one should always try.

Hessel is a “phenomenon” that our world needs. A world that tends to pay attention to the young and good-looking rather than to the elderly. Although strong in numbers they seem to be treated more and more like a minority.  We need positive role models in every age group. Hessel demonstartes that you can be 93 years old and your thinking can still be fresh, your engagement intense and your ideas important enough to create an interest in a lot of people.

I attached a great interview for German-speaking readers.

Francine Prose: Goldengrove (2008)


One sultry summer’s day, teenage Nico and her vivacious older sister Margaret take a boat out on the lake by their family home. But when Margaret dives in, and doesn’t resurface, Nico realizes with horror that her sister is lost to the watery depths for ever. While her parents drift toward their own risky consolations, Nico searches for solace and security in books, art, and – recklessly – in a fledgling relationship with Margaret’s boyfriend. Heartrending and intense, Goldengrove follows a girl on the cusp of adulthood during a summer when a death changes her life for ever.

Reading Francine Prose’s novel Goldengrove felt at times like holding the clothes and belongings of a dead person in my hands. While I read it, and for a long while after I finished it, I felt as if I was grieving. It’s a really sad novel but at the same time it’s a very beautiful novel. It also reminded me of the series Six Feet Under. There is something very similar in the mood and the characters. Although I absolutely loved this novel I could imagine it isn’t for everybody.

There is an epitaph at the beginning of the novel, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

To a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I didn’t know this poem before but now it haunts me.  It actually woke me in the middle of the nigh; it had burned itself into my memory. I felt as if I was wrapped in the poem and the book and as if I had just lost someone too. The poem is important in many ways. Margaret and Nico’s parents are creative people. Her mother is a musician, her father owns a bookshop that he has called Goldengrove and he is a writer as well. They chose to name their first child Margaret and it seems so fitting as Margaret is the creative one, the singer, while little Nico is the scientist of the family.

The first few sentences of the novel are as haunting as the poem and pull you right into the story:

We lived on the shore of mirror lake, and for many years our lives were as calm and transparent as its waters. Our old house followed the curve of the bank, in segments, like a train, each room and screened porch added on, one by one, decade by decade.

When I think of that time, I picture the four of us wading in the shallows, admiring our reflections in the glassy, motionless lake. Then something — a pebble, a raindrop — breaks the surface and shatters the mirror. A ripple reaches the distant bank. Our years of bad luck begin.

One afternoon in summer, Margaret, Nico’s older sister, drowns in the lake. The two girls spent the afternoon in a boat and Margaret swims back while Nico brings the boat in. Margaret never returns. Losing someone is painful but losing someone like Margaret is incredibly tragic. This was such a fascinating young woman. The lives of those around her literally stop after her death. She was charismatic, authentic, original and highly creative, an accomplished singer who could move people to tears. After her death there is nothing that doesn’t remind little Nico, her parents, or Aaron, Margaret’s boyfriend, of her.

Each of the four people Margaret leaves behind, mourns in another way. Nico dreams of her sister at night and believes her ghost tries to contact her. Attracted by the fascinating but somewhat loony Aaron, she spends long afternoons with him not realizing that they have formed an unhealthy relationship. Aaron cannot get over Margaret’s death and driven by an urge to get her back, he attempts to transform the young Nico into her older sister. Both parents have a hard time to cope as well, each seeking another form of consolation.

The four of them stumble through this summer, mourning and trying to make sense of something that makes no sense.

The end of the novel is very interesting and ambiguous.

I have read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and her novella Guided Tours of Hell. They both impressed me, still I didn’t expect such a beautifully morbid book. Since I was so impressed by what she wrote about style in her nonfiction book, I did pay special attention to her writing and although I was really immersed in this novel I had to admit it is far from flawless. There were even two or three cringe-inducing passages.

Despite its flaws, Goldengrove is an emotionally intense and haunting novel. Should it manage to touch you it will linger for a long time after you finished it.

Literature and War Readalong April 29 2011: The Winter of the World by Carol Ann Lee

Carol Ann Lee’s novel The Winter of the World that has the same title as a collection of WWI poems, is the last novel in the readalong to be dedicated to WWI. I discovered the novel on Danielle’s blog and thought it would be a good addition to the 11 I had already chosen.

Carol Ann Lee has written mostly nonfiction books before. The Winter of the World is her second novel. This is what can be found on her amazon page.

Carol has written two novels: ‘Come Back To Me’ which is semi-autobiographical, and ‘The Winter of the World’ – about the Unknown Warrior – which received rave reviews when it was published in France last year. Le Monde ended their review: ‘Finally, here is a writer who understands the subtleties of the soul.’ The book was nominated for two major awards in France, but has yet to find a UK publisher (one commented that it was a beautiful story and compared her writing to Ian McEwan, but said it was simply ‘too patriotic’) although it has been published in America by Harper Collins.

Sounds intriguing. The French title is La rafale des tambours.

Among her nonfiction books are One of our Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley, Anne Frank’s Story, The Hidden Life of Otto Frank and Witness: The Story of David Smith Chief Prosecution Witness in the Moors Murders Case.

Should you want to read along you might want to get started a little earlier as the novel has a bit over 300 pages, however the discussion will start late in the month, on Friday 29.

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?