Impossible to get out of it

Dear Carmen,

In Nada, tr. Edith Grossman (2007. Original: Nada, 1944), we have a labyrinth of haunted characters confined in a haunting house in a city haunted by the aftermath of a civil war.

A labyrinth is both a trap and sacred path, a rite of passage and the passage itself. We learn that the Minotaur inside is born of the arrogance of man; he is a tool for death, and sacrifices are his only food. Entering a labyrinth with a Minotaur inside is like chasing a void: a beast almost impossible to kill. Your novel Nada borrows its title from this mad chase – this constant cycle of reaching out and grasping into nothing.

We follow a year in the life of a young woman. It’s the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, in the early 1940s, and our narrator, 18-year-old Andrea, has just arrived in Barcelona to attend university. She was raised in a small village after her mother’s death; she got a scholarship to study literature; she plans to live in her grandmother’s flat on the Calle de Aribau; and she is about to have all her bright dreams and childhood memories shattered.

Differently from the sophisticated apartment Andrea pictured in her mind, her grandmother’s house is filthy, dimly lit, and full of relics of the family’s former wealth – a wealth the foggy gilt mirrors seem to be constantly mocking. Along with the house, its inhabitants also seem to be falling apart. Reduced to penury by the civil war, Andrea’s relatives are plagued by rivalry, hunger, madness, and hurt pride.

Andrea’s grandmother is a ghostly figure whose mind seems to be gradually slipping away. The girl’s two uncles, Juan and Roman, hate each other – and both seem to be deeply depressed.

Roman is an idle musician with an obsession to manipulate the people around him. Juan, a failed artist, is constantly beating his wife, Gloria – who, despite deemed a whore by the rest of the family, is the one in fact supporting the entire household. To make matters even more complicated, Gloria had been (and perhaps still is) Roman’s mistress – which only sharpens an old sibling rivalry.

Andrea’s aunt, Angustias (‘Anxieties’), is a repressed, self-righteous prude who has been having an affair with a married man whose wife had been committed to an asylum. Life is not easy for our narrator: Angustias is an authoritarian figure and has a penchant for controlling Andrea’s every move.

We don’t need much more to know that there is something sordid going on. Longing to escape her oppressive life in the small village, Andrea soon realizes that she has been thrown into another form of oppression – a much darker one, because impossible to determine or to give a name to. Everyone spies on each other; everyone lies; everyone keeps silent. Someone will eventually commit suicide. The most truthful inhabitant of the house is the parrot, constantly screaming obscenities.

It’s pretty much a grotesque circus family confined in a house of horrors. Even the bathroom “seemed like a witches’ house. The stained walls had traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair. Everywhere the scaling walls opened their toothless mouths, 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.”

The house is a character by itself: it is constantly mirroring back to its inhabitants their moral and physical decay; the house keeps them in captivity, by locking them inside their resentments; and it ends up bringing to the surface all the things they would prefer had been locked away long ago.

The book’s dark, violent, grotesque setting reminds me of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847): the house at the Calle de Aribau, like Emily’s eponymous house, is a haunting and haunted place, run through by family feuds, domestic cruelty, and frustrated desire. “Treachery and violence are spears pointed at both ends; they wound those who resort to them worse than their enemies”, Brontë seems to be alerting your characters as much as hers.

Much of the sense of unreality and unease that permeates your book comes from the contraposition of grotesque horror and madness with a clear, understated writing style. You seem to be grasping towards ancient foundational myths – Cain and Abel, the fall from grace and loss of innocence, the Minotaur, a revengeful God: all lie buried within your short, direct sentences.

“Nada me han enseñado los años /siempre caigo en los mismos errores /otra vez a brindar con extraños / y a llorar por los mismos dolores”

 

Much like we cannot quite escape our foundational myths, Andrea is thrown into a maze of personal dramas she does not quite understand and cannot escape from; she is constantly hungry, and her mind is slipping; she longs for life, and yet she cannot help but feel the meaninglessness of it all. “You are — your life, and nothing else”, Sartre seems to be buzzing in her ears. But, right now, her life is a maze of ferocity and frustrated desires – and nothing else.

The collapse of Andrea’s family also mirrors Spain’s social collapse in the aftermath of the Civil War: a country shattered by poverty and fratricidal disputes; morally debased by violence and fascism; muted by narrow-mindedness, religious intolerance, and dictatorship. This is as claustrophobic an atmosphere as the one in the Calle de Aribau. And this is an atmosphere where people have lost their old points of reference, and, much like your characters, strive to define themselves in the face of social disorder and moral chaos.

Plagued by hunger, loneliness, lies, and mental burn-out, Andrea is eventually caught in the maze of the family’s illusions and traumas. The reality in her asylum-like home becomes increasingly distorted. Each character seems to be locked in his own illusion, withdrawn into a private world with little room for escape – much like the members of the Wingfield family in Tennessee Williams’ autobiographical play The Glass Menagerie (1945): “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion“, says Tom in his opening soliloquy.

Like Williams, or Williams’ characters, you give us disguised truth. Not because you clothed autobiographical events in a novel (which you did), but rather because truth is a thing your characters constantly hide from one another. Like the inhabitants of The Glass Menagerie, the inhabitants of the house in the Calle de Aribau seem unable to overcome their difficulty in accepting (or even relating to) reality.

This also reminds me of Iris Murdoch’s characters, locked in confinement, doomed to collapse into solipsism, and finally pushed by tragedy to “experience again (…) that indefinitely extended requirement that one human being makes upon another”.

The closed doors behind which the inhabitants of the house at the Calle the Aribau (and the ones in The Glass Menagerie) are locked are much more immaterial (and thereby stronger) than the actual house doors. “Hell is—other people!”, wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in Huis Clos (1944), “As for me, I am mean: that means that I need the suffering of others to exist. A flame. A flame in their hearts. When I am all alone, I am extinguished.” (tr. Paul Bowles, 1958)

Reality, like their house, is a cramped, morbid place they need and, at the same time, are longing to escape from. Should Andrea, like Williams’ Tom, strive to leave her family’s house? We don’t even know whether this would mean true escape for her. “When I left, I had learnt nothing (…) I took nothing with me. At least, that’s what I thought then“, she says. We get a sense that something still pursues her: to escape is to take one’s freedom seriously; and, by doing so, to be, in an inescapable way, forever a fugitive – going from nothing to nothing, spinning around a void.

Yours truly,

J.


Francisco de Goya, ‘El caballo raptor’ (The Horse Abductor), 1816

“Some creatures are born to live, others to work, others to watch life. I had a small, miserable role as spectator. Impossible to get out of it. Impossible to free myself. A dreadful grief was the only reality for me then.” ― Carmen Laforet, Nada

*

“Who can understand the thousand threads that join people’s souls and the significance of their words? Not the girl I was then.”- Carmen Laforet, Nada

*

“So much light, so much burning thirst of asphalt and stone seemed to choke me.  I walked as if I were travelling over the deserted road of my own life.  Looking at the shadows of people who fled my side, unable to grasp them.  Constantly, irremediably, chewing on solitude” – Carmen Laforet, Nada


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