In an unreal world


Carmen Laforet <em>Harvill Secker, 256pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 1843433028

"Nada", "nothing", is the pervading force in Carmen Laforet's loosely autobiographical debut novel. First published in 1945, never since out of print, and now published in a new translation introduced by Maria Vargas Llosa, it has influenced subsequent Spanish writers including the Madrid realist writers of the 1950s and a generation of women novelists, such as Carmen Martín Gaite, who likewise explore the physical and moral degradations of postwar Spain. The story is set in a sordid Barcelona immediately after the civil war, in the early days of the Franco regime, and the economic turmoil of the war-torn country and the consequent moral depravity that besets family life erodes any sense of identity - the fragile selves Laforet depicts are constantly threatened with erasure.

There is throughout a tension between the yearning for freedom and the inescapable prison of poverty. When Andrea, an orphaned young woman, leaves her small town to attend university in war-ravaged Barcelona in 1939, it is the first time she has travelled alone, but she is excited by the promised independence. Far from finding freedom, however, she ends up in a cold-water flat with her aunt Angustias, uncle Román and his violent brother Juan - Juan who regularly beats his beautiful wife, Gloria, who secretly gambles and sleeps with her husband's brother, who is eventually driven to suicide.

The novel juxtaposes the wealthy lives of her gang of school friends with the squalor and degradation of her home. The violence of civil war is mirrored in the violence of Andrea's home life, in which both physical and verbal abuse are the norm. The fear induced by the war is transplanted into their domestic environment, where family members live in terror of each other and also of themselves.

Stylistically, Laforet favours short, taut sentences that contain the wild, destructive energies raging about the novel. "I write short," she wrote in 1983, "my words tight to the thread of the narrative." This spare, realist style conjures a world shrouded in a sense of unreality, where "wan, greenish lights" skew the vision and even those closest seem ghostly, far from flesh and blood, their physically undefined contours metaphorical of a world in which relationships are unclear and the boundaries between people disturbed.

Written when she was only 23, the novel suffers from the flaws of a Bildungsroman. Despite the stylistic tautness, its emotion is worn on its sleeve. Andrea's craving for affection is palpable: "hunger, sadness and the power of my youth brought me to a swoon of feeling, a physical need for tenderness as avid and dusty as scorched earth with a presentiment of the storm".

As this yearning is in constant tension with the brutality in Andrea's life, so the beauty of the prose heightens the ugliness of the world she inhabits. Immediately upon entering the house, Andrea feels dirty: even the bathroom "seemed like a witches' house", with "stained walls" and a "grimy porcelain tub". Nada is a compelling portrait of a young woman "left alone in the midst of the filthiness of things", trying not to allow the dirt to corrode her, trying to prevent the madness of her environment from encroaching upon her own mental well-being. Against her best efforts, she admits, "I began to see strange things, like someone intoxicated".

Laforet published three other novels, travel books, short stories and novellas. In 1944, the manuscript of Nada won her the first Nadal prize, and it is this debut that has endured best. The novel is not "completely closed and beautiful, like a circle", as Andrea describes other novels - she arrives at the house yearning for "life in its plenitude, joy, deep interests, love", and leaves with none of these things - yet entrapment and incompletion are tinged by a sense of freedom and hope from still being alive at all.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery