Nada

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1692

Sixty years after its original publication in Spain in 1944, Nada has been translated and published in English, bringing not only the coming-of-age story of one young girl but also the story of a country coming out of a civil war and into a fascist regime to a new audience. A longtime classic in Spain, Carmen Laforet’s Nada captured the void, the nothing (nada) that many Spaniards felt under Francisco Franco’s rule in the years immediately following the civil war (1936-1939) and hinted of the artistic revolution that was to occur by paralleling the struggles Spaniards experienced with the pain of an adolescent girl. Twenty-three-year-old Laforet wrote Nada in a style that is simultaneously calming and unnerving, that elicits pity and unease, as she shares the heartbreaking tale of eighteen-year-old protagonist Andrea. Nada begins with Andrea alone at a Barcelona train station after traveling to the city to attend a university. Orphaned as a child, Andrea has moved from relative to relative across Spain and travels to Barcelona to find an education, freedom, and herself. What she does not anticipate finding is a demented and depressing family waiting to welcome her, and potentially destroy her, with their dysfunctional structure.

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The family is made up of the maternal grandmother matriarch, “a black-white blotch of a decrepit little old woman,” Andrea’s uncle Juan, whose “face was full of hollows, like a skull in the light of the single bulb in the lamp,” Juan’s baby and his wife, Gloria, who is “thin and young, her disheveled red hair falling over her sharp white face,” Andrea’s uncle Román, “with curly hair and an amiable, intelligent face,” and her Aunt Angustias, whose “expression revealed a certain contempt. She had graying hair that fell to her shoulders and a certain beauty in her dark, narrow face.” They inhabit an overcrowded apartment that Andrea’s grandparents purchased new. After the grandfather died, they divided their once-large flat into two, selling one half and forcing themselves and their possessions into the other. The result is a macabre environment, a gothic labyrinth filled with antiques and oppressive furniture precariously stacked and rich yet tattered curtains that keep the sun out and the dust thick. Andrea reflects on the factors that attracted her grandparents and herself to the city and muses, “They came to Barcelona with a hope contrary to the one that had brought me: They wanted rest, and secure, methodical work. The city I thought of as the great change in my life was their safe haven.” Barcelona more than changes Andrea’s life, it offers her one for the first time and serves as a sometimes emotionally painful backdrop for her rites of passage.

The apartment on Calle de Aribau becomes its own characterreserved, oppressive, and cold, reflecting the Franco regime, with its isolationist and oppressive control over its inhabitants. The dysfunction that occurs on Calle de Aribau is not limited to the mountains of possessions in various stages of disrepair but extends to the family members themselves. The grandmother is aware only of what she wishes through her dementia. Juan and Román fight nearly to the death regularly, Juan taking breaks only to beat Gloria, who supports the family by running an illegal gambling den out of her sister’s house and secretly selling off pieces of furniture to local ragmen. Aunt Angustias judges the other occupants with a puritanical strictness and attends church regularlynot to pray but to criticize how others are praying and dressing. Finally, the bitter maid Antonia, about whom Andrea remarks that “no other creature has ever made a more disagreeable impression on me,” is kind only to her dog Trueno and sneaks around the house taking pleasure in everyone’s pain. Andrea describes the bizarre human menagerie and their oppressive setting as “a thousand odors, sorrows, stories, rose from the paving stones, climbed to the balconies or entrances along Calle de Aribau . A mix of lives, qualities, and tastesthat’s what Calle de Aribau was. And I: one more element on it, small and lost.” Such is the overall theme of Nada: one girl feeling obsolete and unaccepted, along with a country waking up from a bloody civil war to discover its citizens too were small and lost.

In the midst of the familial madness, Andrea quietly tries to go unnoticed, so as not to encounter a lecture, a possible flying hatchet, or an attack on her lifestyle from Angustias, who threatens, “If I’d gotten hold of you when you were younger, I’d have beaten you to death”to have prevented her from growing up to be wicked and without morals. Andrea finds a degree of refuge at the university, where, awkward and introverted, poor and shabbily dressed, she draws the attention of her classmates and is pitied by Ena, a beautiful, wealthy, and popular girl. Ena and Andrea become fast inseparable friends, studying together at Ena’s house and socializing with Ena’s friends. The time Andrea spends with her are the only moments of happiness that Andrea has; she is so intoxicated by Ena that at times she doubts whether their friendship truly exists. Yet through this relationship and others she develops, Andrea is constantly reminded of what she does not have; she spends her meager monthly allowance in just days to impress her friends, then goes hungry for the remainder of the month, resorting to drinking the water used to boil vegetables. In fact, Andrea lacks more than money; she lacks the family, love, and confidence her friends possess, increasing her feelings of separation and casting her into deep despair.

The one almost normal aspect of Andrea’s life is shattered when Ena develops a friendship with Román that excludes Andrea. Out of fear for her friend’s well-being, and motivated by personal jealousy, Andrea tries to end the relationship; in doing so, she discovers secrets about Ena’s mother and witnesses an unsettling side of Ena. Andrea makes other friends to fill the void left by Ena, but each relationship only reminds her that she does not truly fit in. Pons, a friend from school, introduces Andrea to the bohemian art scene by taking her to his friend Guíxols’s studio. Although his friends welcome her, it is more out of a curiosity than acceptance. Poor and alone, she is never able to relate fully to their conversations and experiences. Her feelings of isolation climax when Pons invites her to a dance at his parents’ house. Feeling as if she were Cinderella, Andrea arrives at the dance to find that she is grossly underdressed (although in her finest clothes), and, after Pons declares his feelings for another girl, she leaves the party embarrassed and ashamed. It is at that moment when Andrea “began to realize that it is much easier to endure great setbacks than everyday petty annoyances.” Andrea has plenty of both.

Laforet parallels the feelings of isolation, political conformity versus nonconformity, and sexual and artistic repression that followed the civil war through the life-changing events that Andrea experiences in Nada. The characters of Calle de Arbrau are isolated in their fortress of an apartment, with little interaction with outsiders, and what interaction they have is frequently negative. Andrea too suffers from feelings of isolation and alienation, both within her relatives’ home and with her friends at the university. Although she has family and friends for the first time in her life, she still feels as if she is an outsider and never truly assimilates. Many citizens of Spain experienced similar feelings under Franco’s regime, as if they no longer belonged within their country, their home.

Andrea, in her quest to create a new life for herself, struggles between conformity and nonconformity. She conforms to Angustias’s strict laws, silently takes the abuse from her uncles, and goes through her university invisible. Ultimately, she ignores Angustias’s rules, stating, “I realized I could endure everything: the cold that permeated my worn clothes, the sadness of my absolute poverty, the dull horror of the filthy house. Everything except her control over me.” She rebels against her uncles as well. Andrea also seeks out nonconformity at school by socializing with the Barcelona bohemian sect, discussing art and politics (even if only as an outsider). As in Andrea’s world, such decisions to conform or revolt took place throughout Spain, as many Spaniards rebelled against the fascist rule and created an artistic revolution, their own coming-of-age.

Laforet draws further parallels between Spain’s sexual repression and sexual tensions surrounding Nada’s characters. Throughout the novel, there are subtle references to and innuendo about incest and adultery. Gloria had a relationship with Román while carrying Juan’s baby. The current status of this relationship is unknown. At the same time, Román makes several uncomfortable comments toward Andrea and blatant advances toward young Ena, while carrying on a secret affair with the maid Antonia. There are also undertones of feelings of more than friendship between Ena and Andrea, which are interrupted by Ena’s boyfriend Jaime, who takes Andrea on the couple’s outings. Even Aunt Angustias’s skeletons are exposed, as her love affair with her married boss, Don Jerónimo Sans, is revealed, forcing her to join a convent.

After a difficult and emotionally uncomfortable coming-of-age of a girl and a nation, Laforet allows Andrea to realize that “perhaps the meaning of life for a woman consists solely in being discovered like this, looked at so that she herself feels radiant with light. Not in looking at, not in listening to the poisons and stupidities of others, but in experiencing fully the joy of her own feelings and sensations, her own despair and happiness. Her own wickedness or goodness.” This revelation gives Andrea meaning and strength and was a daring sentiment for Laforet to write under Franco, since it not only went against the government by empowering women but also suggested that meaning for Spaniards was not defined by what the government deemed acceptable but by what uniquely constituted the individual during a time when individuality was discouraged.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30

The Guardian, June 23, 2007, p. 16.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 23 (December 1, 2006): 1192.

New Statesman 136 (March 5, 2007): 59.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (April 15, 2007): 8.

The Times Literary Supplement, March 16, 2007, p. 21.

The Washington Post, February 18, 2007, p. BW15.

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