Reading Nada by Carmen Laforet, I could instantly understand why it’s commonly viewed as one of the great classics of twentieth-century European literature. However, it was surprising that such an intriguing internationally acclaimed novel, authored by a 23-year-old student in 1940s Spain, was only translated into English in 2007.
Published in 1945, Nada was relatively successful given that it was Laforet’s first novel, and even won the first Premio Nadal (a prestigious Spanish literary prize). It was written in the span of only a few months and captures the youthful energy and dynamism that Laforet arguably fails to mirror in her later, more planned work.
Nada ultimately passed the rigorous censorship of the Franco regime – unfortunately, this resulted in it being unable to truly contend with the suppression of Catalan culture that Laforet would have experienced first-hand as a university student in Barcelona. However, the book acted as a pivotal contribution to other Existentialist literature that was emerging out of post-Civil War Spain, even if it was not able to fully question the harsh nature of the Franco dictatorship.
Nada is partly based on Laforet’s own life and follows the story of 18-year-old Andrea, who moves to Barcelona to stay with her unusual extended family as she starts her university career in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The chaotic flat where she lives with her aunt, grandmother, two uncles and other curious characters becomes a focal point of sexual tension, drama and conflict.
Arguably, some of the most fascinating passages from the novel come from episodes in which Andrea wanders the streets of Barcelona alone at night. These dreamlike scenes contrast with the reality of her more depressing life within the confines of her family’s apartment, as she is finally able to marvel at the grandeur of Barcelona’s city centre.
The narrative features many gothic and surrealist elements, which contribute to the disconcerting feel that prevails throughout the text. This book is enjoyable for several reasons, one of them being the relatability of Andrea’s character. Not only does she start a daunting new stage in her life as a university student, she also experiences the excitement and nervousness that comes with being in a vibrant new city alongside the inevitable ups and downs of growing up.
The setting of Barcelona is particularly thought-provoking. A Republican stronghold during the Civil War, the city experienced some of the most intense fighting and persecution. It also witnessed horrific oppression on a wide scale throughout the regime as a result of the Catalan language and culture many people in Barcelona identified with.
The novel ends with Andrea managing to escape to Madrid, yet there is still an uncomfortable sense that nothing has truly been resolved. She continues to be isolated, like many others, within post-Civil War society, especially given further restrictions as a result of her gender. Women in Franco’s Spain notably experienced a great diminishment in their political and economic autonomy, as patriarchal social structures were strengthened by the government’s close ties with the powerful Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, I’d like to think that, in Nada, Laforet encompasses a sense of artistic optimism. Over the course of the story, Andrea encounters several students who are pursuing the arts and attempting to question established intellectual authorities. This perhaps foreshadows “la movida madrileña”, a cultural revolution that captivated Spain following the death of Franco in 1975 and the removal of the restrictive censorship policies that defined his rule.
If anything, this hidden gem of twentieth-century Spanish fiction proves that impactful literary voices can emerge from conflict and periods of immense oppression. Laforet was clearly an exceptional author, who not only faced setbacks as a result of her gender, but also because of the artistic censorship imposed by the Franco regime. All of the uncertainties of her own life and Spain’s unclear future during this period are perfectly captured in Nada.
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