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Carmen Laforet: Nada (Nada; Andrea)

When first published in 1945, this book came out of nowhere. It was the first novel by an unknown writer and, moreover, by a woman, in a market dominated by male writers. It had and continues to have considerable success, remaining in print since it was published and translated into many languages, including English. Most interestingly, though it is considered worthwhile as it portrays a somewhat dysfunctional family, a theme less common in Spanish literature than other literatures, it is as much a critique of Francoism, which led to the well-off middle-class family of the heroine falling on hard times, like so many other families.

Andrea is an orphan and has been living with her cousin Isabel. At the start of the novel, she arrives in Barcelona. Unfortunately, her train is late and does not arrive till midnight. She takes a taxi to the house of her grandparents, a house which she remembers with affection from her childhood. On arrival, the household is naturally asleep but already she is shocked by the state of her grandmother and the general dilapidation of the house. The next morning, things get worse. She is not offered breakfast. She finds that they have had to sell some of the house and only live in part of it, with furniture and other items stored in the remaining rooms. Beside her grandmother, who has definitely deteriorated since she last saw her, there are the five others. Of the six children her grandparents had, three of the women left to get married, including Andrea’s mother, who is now dead. Her unmarried aunt, Angustias, is strict, critical and often at odds with her brothers. Her married brother, Juan, is a painter of very limited talent. He is married to Gloria and they have a young son. When not fighting with Gloria, Juan is fighting with his unmarried brother, Román. Angustias and Gloria dislike one another, though there is some suggestion that Gloria and Román may have had some sort of relationship. Gloria will later explain what actually happened.

Andrea is able to escape by going to university, though her aunt berates her for going out on her own, something nice young ladies do not do. But things continue to get worse at the house. Román disappears for days at a time, no-one knows where to. He is something of a musician and even plays for Andrea but it is only from her friend at university, Ena, that she learns that he is in fact an acclaimed virtuoso violinist. Angustias does her disappearing act for a few days and no-one knows where she has gone. Her boss even comes round trying to find out where she is (we learn that there may well be something between them, at least for his part.) She reappears later. However, she will eventually decide to become a nun. The grandmother is going senile, everyone seems to squabble or even fight with fists and Gloria steals from Andrea. Even at university, things do not work out. Ena, her friend, becomes distant for some reason and it may well because she is seeing Román, despite the fact that she has a boyfriend, Jaime. Meanwhile Gerardo starts to show an interest in Andrea. When things get worse with Ena and Román and there is even more fighting at the house Andrea cannot wait to get out.

Laforet never repeated the success of her first book. Though she wrote several more novels, none of them was translated into English and none had the same success in Spain. It is easy to see why, as this novel does work very well, showing the disaster in Andrea’s grandparents’ house, which clearly mirrors the situation in Spain in general and Barcelona in particular, immediately after the Civil War. Andrea, like many ordinary Spaniards, struggles with the situation in the house and does not always succeed. Like many Spaniards, she is eager to get away but that is not usually possible. Fortunately for us, the Spanish censors did not see the comparison with the overall political situation and took the story at face value, a young woman struggling in a dysfunctional household. Indeed, it works very well even if you do read it that way. Amazingly enough, this book is in print not only in Spanish but also in English, in both the USA and the UK.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1945 by Destino
First English translation in 1958 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Translated by Edith Grossman