Nada by Carmen Laforet

After the war is over…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Civil War is over but Spain is still suffering its after-effects when Andrea comes to Barcelona from her provincial home to study literature at the University. She is enthralled at the idea of Barcelona, having only childish memories of earlier visits to her then wealthy relatives. Now she is an orphan, existing on a tiny stipend granted to her by the state to enable her to study. When she arrives at her grandmother’s house in the middle of the night, she discovers the family is no longer wealthy – quite the reverse. The house is old, run-down, dirty and over-stuffed with furniture and trinkets, relics of when the family owned the whole house, before they had to divide it into two and sell the other half. The family are as Gothic as the house. Grandmother is very old and frail, and her mind is beginning to fail. Aunt Angustias is sternly religious, determined to maintain the standards of the past, and insists that Andrea must obey her in all things. Grandmother’s two sons, Juan and Ramon, seem to be in a perpetual fight which often results in fairly extreme violence, not towards each other so much, but because Juan takes out his anger and frustration on his wife, Gloria, whom the family consider socially beneath them. There is a general air of insanity in the family – only Gloria, the outsider, seems to have her feet firmly on the ground. Over the next year or so, Andrea will gradually learn the secrets of each of the family, and come to understand what has brought them to their present state of decay and mutual antagonism.

Written under the constraints of the still new Franco dictatorship, Laforet avoids overt discussion of the politics of the Civil War or of the current regime, but she shows clearly the deprivation and poverty many Spaniards are facing at this time. However, she also shows that this isn’t universal by any means – plenty of people are managing to get along just fine. She hints that perhaps Ramon and Juan picked the wrong side, although Juan had tried to remedy that by switching sides when it became clear who was going to win. She doesn’t, as far as I could tell anyway, pass her own judgement on who was right and wrong, but it’s intriguing that she takes such a negative view of a family that was rich and pampered before the war, and is considerably less cynical about the people who are doing quite well under Franco. Whether any more can be read into this than that she was keen to get the book past the censors, I am unable to judge.

Book 8

The book is considered a classic of existential literature, and part of the Spanish tremendismo style, which apparently was characterized by a tendency to emphasise violence and grotesquery. I only found this out when googling after reading, and I rather wished I’d known in advance, since certainly the grotesquery and violence in the book makes more sense when placed in the context of a literary school. In terms of existentialism, there is undoubtedly existential angst for many of the characters, but Andrea herself seems to be curiously untouched – she feels like an observer more than a participant most of the time, and despite her youth often seems more adult than the adults around her. There is also a sense of the absurd which somehow makes the violence seem almost cartoonish, so that it’s not nearly as grim in tone as the content suggests it should be. In fact there’s quite a strong vein of black humour running through it for much of the time.

I’m not sure that I really fully got the book – my lack of familiarity with the conventions of both existentialism and tremendismo means that I suspect I missed a lot of nuance that would be clearer to people steeped in those schools, and Laforet’s necessary circumspection around the politics of the day made it difficult for me to place her on the political spectrum, which meant that I couldn’t quite tell how biased were her depictions of the various parts of the society she shows us.

Carmen Laforet

None of that prevented me from appreciating it though. I enjoyed the grotesque family and their fights and rivalries, and while I thought that Laforet didn’t give much of a picture of the day-to-day life of Barcelona, she instead invoked an atmosphere of almost hallucinatory, slightly nightmarish unreality which I felt was very effective in symbolising a city coming to terms with the after-effects of a war where the citizens had fought and killed each other in the streets only a few years earlier. There is no sense of a return to the status quo before the war – instead Andrea seems to epitomise a new generation looking with interest at the past, but with no desire to relive it. The book was written in 1945, still too soon for anyone to know how post-war Spain would develop, and that feeling of uncertainty seems to be captured in Andrea’s lack of vision about her own future.

There is an underlying plot of sorts, relating to the brothers and their past, and it is also a kind of coming of age story for Andrea. But both of those things are secondary to the overall feel of the book – a kind of nebulous quality that somehow in the end gives a clearer picture of the social dislocation caused by civil war than a more direct depiction might have done. I read it quite some time ago now, and it has lingered in my mind, growing in stature the more I think about it, so that although I can’t say I wholeheartedly loved it while reading, I have gradually come to appreciate it more and to recognise why it’s considered a classic.

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33 thoughts on “Nada by Carmen Laforet

  1. What an interesting way to look at the times, FictionFan. It sounds like the story of family dynamics, as much as anything else, and that’s a fascinating way to go about depicting them. I know what you mean about the ‘grotesque’ factor. When it’s done well, the violence is still there, but doesn’t pull the reader (well, this reader) out of the book. And, as you say, adding those almost otherworldly aspects does help a book get past the censors… Glad you enjoyed this.

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    • Finding ways to get past the censors must be hard but it does lead to authors finding more original approaches, I suppose, and also stops the temptation for them to preach politics! I’ve found the Spanish writers have been far less polemical than the British or American ones, and I assume that’s the reason. The grotesque over-the-top violence kept reminding me of an old strip cartoon we used to have over here, called Andy Capp, where Andy and his wife Flo always ended up coming to blows, sometimes with one winning and sometimes the other. I imagine it would be considered unprintable now, but it was so exaggerated it was funny rather than shocking…

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    • Yes, and Franco’s dictatorship lasted for such a long time that some of the authors spent their entire writing life under his regime, though I believe the censorship eased off over time. In a sense I enjoy it though – it means they concentrate on developing an atmosphere rather than preaching politics, and make the reader work harder!

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  2. This challenge of yours is throwing up some very interesting reading and I like the thought of this esoteric (?) title turning up here sort of in the middle, when you’ve got a good background.

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    • I have loads of interesting looking novels lined up for next year, now that I feel more confident about the history! It definitely makes a difference – i think I’d have been completely baffled by this one if I hadn’t had a reasonable idea about the context she was writing it in.

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    • I often find that with good books – I forget the details of the plots and the characters names and so on, but the atmosphere lingers, and the memory of how it made me feel. Those are the ones that it tends to take me a while to really decide what I thought of them too, and eventually end up appreciating them more than I did during the reading… like The Road, or The Sun Always Rises, or The Grapes of Wrath!

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  3. Yes, I find it is the atmosphere of this novel that has stayed with me too. The disorder and squalor and broken down relationships were haunting and did seem to be a reflection of the largely unmentioned post war despair and chaos. The novel’s black humour and Andrea’s capacity to distance herself from her grandmother’s crazy household did make it easier not feel overwhelmed by the bleakness. I also found at least the potential of hope in Andrea’s eventual moving away from the dilapidated household.

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    • It was an odd one, and I wasn’t at all sure about it while I was reading it but it definitely has lingered, which I usually take to be the sign of a great book (or a terrible one!). It’s interesting seeing how authors of the time worked their way through the censorship maze – the few Spanish ones I’ve read are much less overtly polemical than the ones from British or American writers, and I actually thinks that adds to them – it makes the reader work a bit harder and think for herself rather than being told what to think. I felt the violence against Gloria ought to have made it feel much bleaker than it did, but it was so over the top it seemed symbolic rather than actual, if that makes sense…

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  4. The fact you are still thinking about this novel several months later is a good sign. Oddly enough, I think I would probably quite like this in a certain mood, even though I have very little knowledge or interest in the Spanish Civil War as such. I’ve been reading up on the somewhat depressing minefield of Existentialism among other things within my nonfiction over the last six months or so, so I have a feeling I would probably get some of it, even though it is far from a bundle of laughs. Thanks for putting another rather obscure novel on my radar.

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    • Yes, I always find that the books that linger are the great ones – or the terrible ones! I found myself reading a fair amount about both existentialism and tremendismo after this – I could kind of tell she was working to some kind of literary convention as I read it, but knew I was missing the nuance. The odd thing is that the grotesquery of the tremendismo elements probably stops the existential side from becoming too grim – funnily enough the violence seemed so extreme it felt more symbolic than actual, if that makes sense. I think you might enjoy it as an example of the style – she seems to be highly regarded by those who know about these things!

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    • I think it works on both levels – as the actual story of the family, and also on a symbolical level regarding the after-effects of the war. I think it would work even better with a little advance knowledge of the conventions of both tremendismo and existentialism – I certainly appreciated her skill more once I understood what she was doing, although even without that I still enjoyed it during reading.

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  5. I expect most of the themes would go over my head.
    I used to work with a bloke he always said ‘de nada’ instead of ‘no worries’ because he was practising Spanish for an upcoming trip to South America. I suppose ‘nada’ means worries or problems, which suits the story you’ve described.

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  6. This is one of the books I was most interested in when you first mentioned it on your blog, and it sounds like it really lives up to that. I don’t have any knowledge of either of the schools you mention so I’m sure those parts would go over my head too, but it sounds fascinating anyway. I love those books that kind of grow on you over a few months after reading.

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    • I always think the ones that linger are the great ones… or occasionally the terrible ones! I definitely appreciated this one more as time went on, especially once I’d googled the two styles and saw how well she had incorporated them into the story. But it had already worked for me before that – the atmosphere she creates is maybe more important than the actual story. I hope you enjoy it too – I think you will. It’s one that I think deserves its status as a classic!

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  7. Your description of the tone of this book reminds of one by Evelio Rosero that I read a long time ago called, Good Offices. A hallucinatory/madness element permeated the story. Here’s a synopsis from Amazon: A beautifully poetic and vivid satire of the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church.

    Tancredo, a young hunchback, observes and participates in the rites at the Catholic church where he lives under the care of Father Almida. Also in residence are the sexton Celeste Machado, his goddaughter Sabina Cruz, and three widows known collectively as the Lilias, who do the cooking and cleaning and provide charity meals for the local poor and needy. One Thursday, Father Almida and the sexton must rush off to meet the parish’s principal benefactor, Don Justiniano. It will be the first time in forty years Father Almida has not said mass. Eventually they find a replacement: Father Matamoros, a drunkard with a beautiful voice whose sung mass is spellbinding to all. The Lilias prepare a sumptuous meal for Father Matamoros, who persuades them to drink with him. Over the course of the long night the women and Tancredo lose their inhibitions and confess their sins and stories to this strange priest, and in the process reveal lives crippled by hypocrisy.

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    • Good Offices sounds interesting! There wasn’t too much about religion in Nada, probably because it was one of the contentious issues in the Spanish Civil War so any major criticism would have made it hard to get it past the censors, I imagine. Franco apparently was a devout Catholic all his life.

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  8. Apologies if I missed this in your review, but this is fiction, correct? I sure hope so, although I realize it’s based on real historical events, etc. I love a good gothic story, this crumbling mansion sounds like the setting of a delicious plot…

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