By: Carmen Laforet
Eighteen-year-old Andrea moves to Barcelona to stay with relatives she has not seen in years while she pursues her dream of studying at university. Arriving in the dead of night she discovers not the independence she craves, but a crumbling apartment and an eccentric collection of misfits whose psychological ruin and violent behaviour echoes that of the recent civil war.
As the tension between the family members grows in claustrophobic intensity, Andrea finds comfort in a friendship with Ena, a girl from university whose gilded life only serves to highlight the squalor of Andrea’s own experiences. But what is the secret of the relationship between Ena and Andrea’s predatory uncle, Roman, and what future can lie ahead for Andrea in such a bizarre and disturbing world?
I’ve been looking forward to reading this book ever since I got my hands on it. As I mentioned in my Book Beginnings on Friday meme, I discovered it when the Book Depository featured Spain during its “12 Countries in 12 Days” special. Contains major spoilers ahead!
What can I say about this novel? I couldn’t put it down; for such a slim novel, it sure had a lot of things going on–enough to feel suffocating at times–and certainly a tour de force. It caught my complete attention from the very first sentence right down to the last. Andrea’s narrative brings you into her world and how she sees everything: her hopes, her feelings, her observations. The crazier and bleaker that things got in her time in Barcelona, the more agitated and sympathetic I felt for her. She seemed so out of place with the people she was living with and yet Barcelona strangely fit the mood and phase that she was in at that point of her life. While the novel takes during the immediate period after the Civil War, its impact is not as in-your-face as one might assume it would. Yet at the same time its consequences can be felt all around.
Andrea’s relatives from the moment the reader is introduced to them are, for lack of a better word, insane. Every time the story shifts to the home setting, madness ensues from domestic violence to brotherly rivalry/hatred to all-around-shouting fest. At first it seemed like extreme melodrama but with each confrontation, it’s clear that the family was going to collapse at any moment by some form of bloodbath. I found myself holding my breath, wondering whether this confrontation or that was going to be the final straw. It’s disturbing to because it really brings out the ugliness in the characters, in humanity itself, the vulgarities and the violence that they commit against each other. On a symbolic level, I can see the parallels it makes with the state of Spain at the time; I just can’t tell you which brother represented which side of the fight. Juan and Ramon, the two brothers, were absolutely deplorable in their own way and although I found Gloria’s behaviour to be confusing at times, shifting from one extreme to another (did she represent Spain itself?), it was horrible to see her suffer so much. Her fate, like the fate of Spain at the time it was written, is left with a question mark; her struggles on but has anything really changed? I was so happy when Andrea left when she did–I’m surprised she lasted a year with them–because it was just such a toxic environment. When her friend Ena talked about the bewitching, charming aspect of Andrea’s home, I thought she was being silly since she clearly did not witness the sort of things that Andrea witnessed behind closed doors.
Speaking of which, while I found Ena to be interesting in relation to Andrea’s overall story I did have problems with why she was spending so much time with Ramon and her explanations/confession afterwards. While she clearly showed that she approached Ramon with a particular mission in mind, I thought what she did was not only incredibly silly but incredibly dangerous; it was like playing with fire and from what we’ve learned about Ramon, he could’ve done something stupid at any point. I suppose this was another “coming of age” story coming up as a secondary plot and feeding into Andrea’s growing maturity but I did find myself shaking my head a bit; as she admitted, she knew she was hurting the people who cared about her by pursuing Ramon the way she did. She was lucky to have broken things off before the situation became more intense–she is different from her mother, after all–I would say it was a very close call.
I enjoyed Nada because of its introspective nature. The other reason I became so attached to Andrea and her story was because in some ways I found myself relating to her. Some of the thoughts that came to her mind were thoughts that occurred to me at one point or another in my life. The way she wanders through the streets, observing life around her and yet searching for something particular are feelings that I share with her. There are also a lot of things she is confused about, not necessarily because she came from the province and is suddenly living in a big city but because she is growing up. It’s a poignant journey for Andrea, albeit a somewhat subtle one amidst the backdrop of her tormented family and woes of school, friends and love.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed the novel and carries a mysterious and tense atmosphere akin in some respects to reading Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind (commentary). Sometimes the novel seemed as thought it was not following a particular plot but as a reader you do feel as though it’s heading towards some kind of major confrontation as a climax. The translation appears flawless and reads as though it was originally written in English. I would highly recommend this novel if you’re looking for a novel set in Spain or are into Spanish literature or are just looking for a good novel to read. This is certainly one of the best novels I’ve read this year.