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Nada A Novel Carmen Laforet Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman Introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa Modern Library: 244 pp., $22.95

February 11, 2007|Richard Rayner | Richard Rayner is the author of several books, most recently the novel "The Devil's Wind."

THE Spanish writer Carmen Laforet died three years ago, at age 82. By then she was almost a recluse, although still famous for her first novel, "Nada," which was published in 1945. The book's laconic and brilliant title tells us lots: This is a story of youth and nihilistic disenchantment, those familiar literary handmaidens of the mid-20th century. "Nada" does indeed recall Sartre and Camus, but it is fresher and more vibrant than either, and with its call to intuition and feelings rather than intellect, it cuts deeper. In Spain, the novel has never been out of print and still sells thousands of copies a year; here, its patchier fate has now been reclaimed by Edith Grossman's mesmerizing new translation.

"Nada" recounts a year in the life of its narrator, 19-year-old Andrea, who travels alone to Barcelona in 1939, shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War. She is filled with hope at the prospect of studying in the big city; for the first time in her life, she expects to be free. But she arrives late at night and disillusion smacks her at once. Her relatives aren't expecting her and their apartment is rank and suffocatingly hot. The black-clad maid trails a farting dog and owns a foul-mouthed parrot. The light is gloomy and the living room is littered like the attic of an abandoned palace.

Andrea's grandmother is decrepit, her aunts and uncles worse. Juan is violent, always ready to explode, and he paints without talent. His wife, Gloria, while possessing a feline sexual allure, is self-centered and crazy. Aunt Angustias is religious, controlling and disappointed in love, with friends like "aged, dark birds, their breasts throbbing after flying so much across a very small piece of sky." The suave Roman, a failed musician, is affectionate and exuberant, but he's also the most provocative and dangerous of the entire, awful crew: a ladies' man who totes a revolver.

The book's opening is swift, stunning even, at once establishing a madhouse mood. Much like Kafka or Bruno Schulz, Laforet uses a feverishly animated exterior landscape to reflect a tender interior condition. Here's Andrea in the bathroom: "The stained walls had traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair. Everywhere the scaling walls opened their toothless mouth, oozing dampness. Over the mirror, because it didn't fit anywhere else, they'd hung a macabre still life of pale bream and onions against a black background. Madness smiled from the bent faucets."

"Nada," though, develops in an unexpected direction, with Andrea failing to succumb to this oppressive world. She has the tools to survive. Partly, that's due to youth's blitheness, partly to her own special qualities. She's tough, intense yet offbeat, so self-absorbed that she stands in the rain without noticing she's getting wet, but also radiantly insightful. "All the street doors were locked, and the sky was pouring a dense shower of stars over the roofs," she observes partway through the novel. "For the first time I felt at large and free in the city, not fearing the phantom of time. I'd had a few drinks that evening. So much heat and excitement rose from my body that I didn't feel the cold or even -- at moments -- the force of gravity under my feet."

That's a beautiful evocation of the tidal wave of late adolescent feeling. Little wonder that this oddly self-possessed ugly duckling attracts the interest of Ena, a glamorous fellow student who recognizes that Andrea, like Winona Ryder in the movie "Heathers," is too cool for school. Ena befriends Andrea and plunges into an affair with Roman, who once seduced her mother, a piece of history that provokes the novel's shattering climax.

As Mario Vargas Llosa notes in his introduction, "Nada" contains no overt references to the Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War, yet "politics weighs on the entire story like an ominous silence." The war is somehow ever present, in occasional glimpses of shattered buildings and a lingering attitude of fear. Andrea's middle-class relatives clearly belong to the winning side, yet they live in anger and isolation, as if they are continuing the hostilities within the narrow confines of their crumbling apartment. Intuitively, Andrea knows that the bitter tastes and foul smells of the place represent something larger that she wants no part of. So, when the chance comes to break away, she seizes it. "The ground seemed damp with night dew," she tells us. "Before I climbed into the car, I looked up at the house where I had lived for a year. The first rays of the sun were hitting its windows. A few moments later, Calle de Aribau and all of Barcelona were behind me."

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