Dreaming of Jiro & SushiAugust 25, 2012
In MemoriamSeptember 11, 2012
After folks find out that I’m writing a novel about the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, we usually get to talking about that event and its historical context. On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked for my recommendation of books that cover it. While there are some excellent historical sources that I’ve relied on to ensure the accuracy of my fictional story (including anything by the incredible Paul Preston, the British historian who’s written extensively about the war and Franco’s repressive regime), the first book I plan to suggest from now on is Nada, a novel by Carmen Laforet, a Catalan writer that a friend turned me onto.
In Nada, Laforet captures the beaten spirit of post-war Spain—in particular 1940s Barcelona, a city that was crushed both physically and emotionally during the conflict. Though the tale of Laforet’s specific characters works brilliantly on its own novelistic terms, the story is also the perfect metaphor for the oppressiveness of the Fascist dictatorship that went on to rule the country for more than 35 years. But what’s most remarkable to me is the fact that Laforet’s book was published in 1945, at the height of Franco’s power, when he and his cronies were keeping themselves quite busy rounding up tens of thousands of “undesirables” and other political enemies, and having them tortured and executed. The very fact of Nada’s publication illustrates how hubris blinds people to what is right in front of them, and provides further proof (as if we needed it) of the absolute soul-crushing stupidity and arrogance of the Generalísimo and his cohorts.
Nada is the tale of a once-prosperous family that’s been stripped of its grandeur and is barely getting by. (The title means “nothing,” which is exactly what these people have left.) The main character, a teenaged orphan named Andrea, comes to the city to attend university and live with her grandmother, uncles, and aunt in an apartment that can only be described as a tomb filled with the walking dead. The sense of suffocation is nearly palpable as Andrea struggles to avoid emotional (and physical) starvation and the psychological blows that her family members inflict on each other. One of the blurbs on the book’s back cover compares it to Sartre”s work, and it’s true that this novel often reminded me of his claustrophobic No Exit, with its thesis that hell is other people.
In Mario Vargas Llosa’s introduction to Edith Grossman’s excellent translation of Nada, he points out that even though there is no explicit mention of politics in the book, “[it] weighs on the entire story like an ominous silence, like a spreading cancer that devours and destroys everything: the university purged of life and fresh air, the bourgeois families calcified in good manners and visceral putrefaction, the confused youngsters who don’t know what to do or where to look to escape the rarified atmosphere in which they languish from boredom, privations, prejudices, fears, provincialism, and a limitless confusion.”
All of this would be achievement enough for a first novel written by a 23-year-old under such challenging circumstances, but what’s even more amazing about the book is Laforet’s haunting imagery and her use of language, which manages to be both delicate and visceral at once. When Andrea describes life in her family’s apartment, the passage works on two levels—as the young narrator’s specific observations on her stunted existence as well as Laforet’s take on the wreckage that was Spain at the time: “I remember the first autumn nights and how they intensified my first moments of disquiet in the house. And the winter nights, with their damp melancholy: the creak of a chair interrupting my sleep and the shudder of my nerves when I discovered two small shining eyes—cat’s eyes—fixed on mine. In those icy hours there were certain moments when life broke with all sense of modesty before my eyes and appeared naked, shouting sad intimacies, which for me were only horrifying.”
Nada by Carmen Laforet; translation by Edith Grossman (Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2008).