The coming-of-age novel Nada by Carmen Laforet, written in 1944 when the author was just twenty-three, became a classic in Spanish literature. Despite not explicitly discussing the political situation of the time, it can be read as an engaging commentary on life in post-war Spain.
To understand the connections, it is useful to have a little historical background about the war and life in Spain when it was over. The Spanish Civil War (1936 and 1939) was fought between the Republicans, who supported the short-lived left-leaning Spanish Second Republic, and the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco. Because of the political situation in the rest of Europe at the time—the struggle between democracy and fascism—the Spanish Civil War became internationally relevant, with volunteers from other countries (such as England and Canada) going to Spain to fight with the republicans and often writing about their experiences —see, for example, Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls.
The Civil War tore apart families and villages. It is often discussed in literature in terms of its effect on family life, with brother fighting brother, and the accompanying loss of innocence. The post-war writer Ana María Matute explores these themes, for example, in her trilogy beginning with PrimeraMemoria. The eventual Nationalist victory led to Spain living under the rule of Franco’s dictatorship until his death in 1975. Life under the shadow of this dictatorship made post-war Spain a place of poverty, suspicion, and repression. There was censorship, imprisonment, and a lack of opportunities for many people.
In Nada the plot and the characters reflect both the idea of family feuds and these aspects of everyday life in Spain under Franco’s rule. The protagonist, Andrea, goes to stay with her relatives in Barcelona so she can attend university there. She is immediately in the middle of a web of weird characters and difficult relationships, characterized by violence and control. Despite happy childhood memories of the family home on Calle de Aribau, arriving now as a student Andrea is disappointed and bewildered by the situation she finds herself in—a place of secrets and chaos. She shares the house with her domineering aunt Angustias, musical and sometimes cruel uncle Román, uncle Juan who is violent and abusive toward his wife Gloria, and Antonia, the maid. Another key character is Andrea’s friend from university, rich and worldly Ena, who represents the possibility of another kind of life that is very different from Andrea's daily reality.
There is a general state of hunger and uncleanliness in the home. The house is dark and the behavior of its residents even darker, with secrecy and deception being ever-present. The town of Barcelona appears almost as a character in its own right—surreal and gothic, its decay and darkness are emphasized in Laforet’s descriptions. The impressionistic approach to the writing leads to a highly personal subjective style that draws the reader in and helps them see the confusing, polarized household through Andrea’s eyes....
Religion and the Catholic Church are another important part of post-war Spanish life that is reflected in the characters and the plot.
The notion of the passing of time and the destruction of an ideal parallels the situation of the country, Spain, and the town, Barcelona, where the novel is set. The sense of bewilderment, unhappiness, and hopelessness echoes the feelings associated with the war and the post-war period, where there was an acute sense of loss for many who suffered and continued to suffer as a result of the war and the dictatorship. The control and deception seen in many of the relationships (e.g., Angustias is always trying to restrict and control Andrea’s behavior and activities, Ena is deceiving Román to try to get revenge for the pain he caused her mother, and Gloria goes out in secret to try to win money to buy food for the family) reflects much of the contemporary reality, where certain behaviors were frowned upon, information was censored, nobody knew who they could trust, and many were struggling to feed their families.
Reading the novel with an awareness of what was going on in Spain at that time, it is easy to see the connections between the situation Andrea finds herself in and the the state of the country in the post-war period. Taking into account the role of themes like the loss of innocence, violence, control, religion, darkness, hunger, rules and regulations, hopelessness, deceit, and discrepancies between appearance and reality, it is, then, possible to start to draw numerous parallels between post-war life in Barcelona and Spain and the novel’s characters and plot. The sense of hope and discovery still felt by Andrea as she heads off to Madrid at the end of the novel to try to start a new life also hints at a hopeful liberating future for Spain and a possible way out of the darkness.