By September 24, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

A Masterpiece Takes Sixty Years to Get Here

When you read as many books as I do, you develop a special fondness for any novel that surprises you, that catches you off-guard with a new way of looking at things, that dares to be a little more honest, a little more daring. When I stumble on a new author with real insight or a new novel that rattles my thinking and surprises my emotions, I rejoice.

I’m rejoicing.  Nada

Nada is one of those books. It first appeared in Spain back in 1945, the first novel by twenty-three-year-old Carmen Laforet. Sixty years later, it’s finally available to us in a tight, supple new translation by Edith Grossman, the world’s most respected living translator, currently in a beautifully-packaged Modern Library paperback. Nada has been a Spanish classic since it blew people’s minds back in 1945. It’s still blowing minds. I’m only amazed that it’s taken sixty years for a translation to get here.

Carmen Laforet  Well, it’s a lucky reading group that takes on this fascinating, mysterious, unique novel. What’s it about? Ostensibly, it’s the story of eighteen-year-old Andrea who comes to the city of Barcelona to live with relatives while she goes to the university. Period. You could call it a growing-up novel: there are the family characters inside the house, and the university friends outside the house, two circles of plot that intersect fatefully in more ways than we suspect.

Carmen Laforet 2  But the real plot of the story is only hinted at. It’s lurking under the surface. You find yourself thrust, with Andrea, into the midst of a feuding, furious cast of characters in the house on Calle de Aribau – austere, religious Angustias, sexy, dangerous Roman, violent, drunken Juan and his battered, tough-as-nails, beautiful wife Gloria. What are they all so angry about? Like Andrea, you try to find out.

Carmen Laforet 3  Occasionally you piece together a clue from some careless comment. You put together two facts. Then another, and there’s a revelation, and then a surprise. When you’re finished, you look back on the story and say, “Ah…” as it all seems to unfold logically, once you have enough information and can interpret it correctly. I don’t know about other readers, but I simply came to my own sensible conclusions about what was going on, who was vulnerable, who was at stake, Ena, the baby, the grandmother, poor battered Gloria. Someone was bound to get hurt.

I was just wrong about who it would be.  Carmen Laforet 4

Okay, shut up, Nick. That’s all I’m going to say, and that the story always defied my expectations. It’s a growing-up novel with repressed passion bubbling up between the words. The characters are fascinating – volcanic Roman, vulnerable Gloria, pathetic, desperate Juan. They become mythic. You never know what they’re going to do next, whether they’re going to burst into tears or punch someone in the face.

It all takes place in Barcelona – but this isn’t the pretty, sunny Barcelona of tourist poster fame, but a dark and brooding city, tormented by rain and shadows. Three teenagers stumble into happiness, fall in love with each other, and briefly manage to sustain it before Andrea’s two worlds collide. The only novel I can compare it to is Wuthering Heights – the emotional brutality, the moody unpredictability. I did not know where that plot was going right up to the final surprising, satisfying chapter.

Nada will be the October book club selection for University Book Store in Seattle.

My only regret is the book’s ridiculous introduction by that superb novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, who thick-headedly misses the point and reduces the entire novel to repression and politics. Yeah, sure, Mario. Stick to writing great novels like The Bad Girl, my favorite novel of 2006. Smart readers will skip the dreadful introduction. Read it afterward to laugh.



About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

Post a Comment