Nada, by Carmen Laforet (trans. Edith Grossman)

Tales of Franco, fascism, freedom and a screaming parrot
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Few people have entered literature more dramatically than Carmen Laforet. She was 23 when the unpublished Nada (Nothing) won the 1944 Nadal Prize; it has remained in print in Spain ever since. It still surprises that this powerful, albeit implicit, indictment of Franco's dictatorship got past the censors. At the time, it was seen as a sensationalist novel about violent, mad, abnormal people. Today, when Nada is recognised as one of the few great novels to be written during the dictatorship, its portrayal of a crushed, starving middle-class family in a sordid Barcelona reveals how violent abnormality was the norm of life under fascism.

The 18-year old Andrea arrives in Barcelona in the first year after the Civil War to study at the University and to live with her grandmother, uncles and aunt in a flat on the Calle Aribau. The bright anticipation of Andrea's arrival from the provinces to a new life in a great city is rapidly shattered by her nightmare family and their "stagnant, rotting" flat with its filthy bathroom, where "madness smiled from the bent taps". There are constant shouting matches and physical fights between family members. The dog stinks, the maid is filthy and the parrot screams obscenities.

Among the hysteria, Laforet's voice is calm and clear - and in this contrast lies some of Nada's greatness. There are several registers, though, in this remarkably sophisticated novel. The expressionist portrayal of the terrible flat draws on a strong tradition in Spanish literature of "esperpento" or heightened, grotesque effect. Then, in contrast, she is capable of luscious, lyrical writing when Andrea escapes with her friend Ena to "torrents of light" out in the country.

Nada is neither moralist, nor prolix, unlike most other Spanish literature of the time and before. This is a modern voice, philosophically and stylistically, talking to us in freedom from the darkest hours of the victory of fascism.

Michael Eaude's 'Catalonia: A Cultural History' will be published by Signal in June

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