By Carmen Laforet
(Spanish version, also available in English)
Carmen Laforet was 23 when she wrote Nada (Nothing), apparently in haste and in only a few months. It was published in 1944, five years after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) ended.
Nada follows the life of 18-year-old Andrea. She moves from the Canary Islands to live in her grandmother’s flat in Barcelona, enabling her to study literature at the city university. There are lots of illuminating and important scenes away from the flat, yet it is the foreboding residence and its residents that provide the narrative backbone. The vocabulary Laforet uses is dense, dark and pervasive from the moment Andrea steps over the threshold; hunger, violence and poverty drive the emotions of the characters that live there. It is a stultifying place of trouble and torpor.
The grandmother never sleeps, dotes on her two sons, Juan and Roman, but rejects her daughters. Juan swings from beating to cherishing his partner, Gloria; Gloria is a victim seen to provoke Juan’s wrath through late-night drinking, and gambling, and having an affair with Roman; Roman offers escapism through his musical abilities. Much of the action is born from Roman’s affairs.
Andrea does manage to see some more positive sides to life, befriending Ena, who herself is plotting revenge for past crimes. Laforest always seems to question: Should we let sleeping dogs lie?
Fidelity to lovers, family and tradition run through this examination of Spain at the time, its possibilities, contradictions and social issues. All paths feel like the winding, narrow streets of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, all twists and turns with no end. The more forks and choices, the more your return to the same starting point. It’s an intricate web woven beautifully; the plot is rarely pushed forward, but when it is, you feel like you’ve found the warm sunshine of an open plaza and gulp down the chance to breathe. It’s not that nothing happens, it just feels that way and that much of life is a black hole. It is both an ominous warning and an observation of times passed.
Nada is often recommended to intermediate level Spanish students as a good bridge to advanced level, which is why I read it in Spanish. That does it a disservice – its intricate and oftentimes poetic language is feathered to appeal to the most layered of readers. It is also available in English.