Trying to Talk about Nothing, er, Nada

Nada  In five years of hosting a reading group, I’ve never seen anything like it. Slowly I watched the faces around the table last night losing their confidence as we waded deeper and deeper into our discussion of Carmen Laforet’s Spanish classic, Nada. It was like discovering you had read the wrong book. One person would make a statement, the next person would completely disagree with it. One member announced it was her favorite book of the year. Another couldn’t get past the first forty pages. But what’s it about? No one agreed. Why is it called Nada? No one agreed. And why are we having such a hard time trying to pin this book down?

Carmen Laforet  More than any book I’ve ever seen discussed, we all slowly realized that every one of us had read a different book – different Nadas because we ourselves had interpreted it. Sure, the reader always collaborates to an extent with the author, but in Nada we’re piecing together clues, trying to figure out what’s happening, and those clues can be read in more than one way. Was Roman a dangerously powerful man or the most vulnerable character? Was Ena intentionally revenging her mother, or was it just a young girl’s curiosity? Just how hungry was Andrea really? Was Gloria a perpetual victim or a survivor? And was she a prostitute, or was she really going to her sister’s house to play cards? And who was really responsible for that death at the end? One by one, we realized that none of us agreed. A few members got red faces. They began interrupting each other. It was very confusing.

Carmen Laforet 2  Well, blame it on good writing. It was due to Laforet’s fascinatingly ambiguous style. Sure, she tells you stuff, but she’s telling you through the mind and words of an eighteen-year-old virgin who is completely thrown when she receives her first kiss. Just how reliable is Andrea? Is she really seeing things the way they are? Mario Vargas Llosa analyzes it this way – in Nada, what’s most important is what doesn’t get said. We are given data, but only data, and it comes through an imperfect, inexperienced filter that unintentionally distorts the data. Just how good a friend is Ena, really? Or does she have ulterior motives right from the start that Andrea can’t see?

Carmen Laforet 3  Laforet may have been only a young twentysomething when she wrote Nada, but she knew exactly what she was doing. As one character warns the young writer Andrea, “As for the rest of it, don’t make up any novels about it: Our arguments and shouting don’t have a cause, and they don’t lead to any conclusion…”

We all came away from the meeting slightly humbled and quietly thrilled. Seldom had a book been such a mirror to show us our own interpreting quite so clearly. I can’t recommend Nada highly enough for book groups. Sixty years after it was first published, readers are still fascinated looking through the eyes of that innocent young country girl at that dark house on Calle de Aribau where secrets from the past are constantly erupting into violence.

Here’s hoping your reading group has as rich an experience as we did!

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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.

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