Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Nada by Carmen Laforet

Alberto Manguel reviews Carmen Laforet's Nada.
During my adolescence, in the Buenos Aires of the 60s, my friends and I believed that the only worthy literature in Spanish was written in Latin America, an arrogant opinion that seemed confirmed by the wealth of the writers brought on by the so-called boom, such as Julio Cortazar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The literature of Spain, smothered by the civil war, appeared to have survived only in its poetry, and not at all in its fiction. Then, one day, we discovered Nada by Carmen Laforet and realised how mistaken we had been. Written quickly, in barely a few months, expressly to take part in the first Nadal literary prize (which it won), Nada (Nothing) took the Spanish readership by storm. First published in 1944, barely five years after the end of the civil war, it now appears in English for the first time, in a fluid translation by Edith Grossman.
The author was 23, and it is hard to understand how someone so young, within the isolation of Franco's Spain, should have been able to produce such an accomplished novel, so powerful in its story and so polished in its style. With Nada, Laforet broke Spanish literature free from the cumbersome shadow of 19th-century prose and the cold, censored rhetoric of Spanish fascism. Read in Argentina before the military dictatorship, it spoke to us of a state of fear and oppression that we could not know was threatening us; read in English today, it retains, within the now alien world it depicts, a note of warning and salutary unease.
Nada tells the story of Andrea who, like Laforet herself, leaves her native Canary Islands at the age of 18 to live in her grandmother's house in Barcelona, with the intention of studying literature at the university. Besides her grandmother, 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. Andrea is a sort of 20th-century Alice, fallen into a Wonderland whose characters and rules she fails to understand, and whose maze of family dramas she must reluctantly follow, beset by narrow-mindedness, poverty, violence and hunger.
Gloria has been Roman's mistress before and after her marriage to Juan, the straight-laced Angustias has been having an affair with her married boss, the grandmother (who never sleeps) fawns over her two sons while disdaining her daughters - three of them managed to leave the dreadful house long ago, including Andrea's mother. The maze spreads outside the house, into the postwar city, into the gambling den kept by Gloria's sister, into the university circles of would-be artists, into the dark streets and crumbling churches. Even Andrea's relationship with her best friend Ena provides another twist in the course, when Andrea discovers that Ena's mother was once humiliated by her uncle Roman and that Ena's friendship serves to accomplish a terrible revenge. Read More

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