Decades before Elena Ferrante gifted us with Lenù and Lila in her Neapolitan novels, Carmen Laforet gave us Andrea in NADA. The works have a great deal in common: in both, passionate young women try to wrench themselves from the poverty and close-mindedness of their society. The specter of World War II looms over both books, along with the reality that for many that war never ended but continued on in broken hearts and crooked streets all across Europe.
Written in 1945 during the most difficult times of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, Carmen Laforet’s semiautobiographical novel NADA explores the inner turmoil of a young woman trapped by poverty and restrictive social mores in fascist Spain. Andrea is an orphan who has lived for years in a convent in rural Spain. When she is awarded a scholarship to attend university in Barcelona, she is elated, yet the metropolitan paradise she imagined is a mirage. She lives in squalor with her grandmother—who does not realize that her once-majestic home is collapsing around her—and her aunts and uncles who fight violently almost every night.
Looking for beauty and kindness amidst this brutality, Andrea befriends the wealthy Ena, yet on her meager stipend she must often choose between buying her friend a small gift of flowers or eating that day. Caught between her family’s past and the possibility of a future as her own woman, Andrea must find a way to survive in a culture in which she is seen as less than nothing. The sights and sounds of 1940s Spain are vividly re-created here. Even if you know nothing of this time period, you will be swept away by Andrea’s voice and her descriptions of her turbulent neighborhood.
NADA was a major hit when it was published and in later years was often read as a subtle political response to Franco’s Spain—one that was smart enough to slip through the censors. By focusing on Andrea’s inner life and emotions, Laforet appears not to be writing a political work. The book even advertises itself as not being about and not meaning anything—the title translates in English to “nothing.” Yet the repression and despair that Andrea feels is a deep critique of the chauvinist and violent society Franco sculpted.
Andrea is starving not just for food, but for something deeper than the pettiness that infects her neighborhood. She documents the selfishness and smallness of those around her, unable to control her anger or find a way out. Yet her rage is empowering—it gives her strength and a voice. Here is a girl with nothing, who screams, as if in vain, into the wind. Yet we can hear her, across the decades, and we reach out our hands to pull her close.
Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes is the author of The Sleeping World.