One of my reading goals for this year is to read one book written in Spanish by an Iberian-American author, for every book I read in English. I’ve been pretty bad at keeping up with reading in Spanish and I figure why not start something new? So where to start? I decided to start with a list of award winners from several of Spain’s publishing firms. I figure why not start with the best? Well due to the limitations of my library system, the newest winners aren’t available, yet they had the winner from the 1943 Nadal Prize, Nada by Carmen Laforet. Go figure.
Those of you familiar with the plays of Tennessee Williams know that the families that are displayed in his works are CRAZY! They are close-knit, have love-hate relationships with one another, are abusive, and cling to the idea they are better bred than they really are. Well Laforet seems to be the Spanish equivalent. The protagonist, Andrea, is an orphan and has been living in/being schooled at a convent in central Spain. She wins a scholarship to the university in Barcelona, along with a stipend, and decides to move to the city and stay with her mother’s family. She remembers the family having some wealth. Yet when she arrives, she finds things sunk into poverty and all out Cops-material chaos.
Her grandmother is in all out denial that she’s wealthy and all her children are successful. Her uncle, Roman, was a successful musician but who’s happy to play with everyone’s minds and basically give Lokhi a run for his money. The next uncle, Juan, is abusive to his wife and seems to only know how to shout and swear whenever he’s spoken to. Juan’s wife, Gloria, tries to hold every one together, mostly for her own purposes, but with good intentions. Then there’s the creepy, spinster aunt, Angustias, who plays the martyr even while she’s taking out her frustrations out on Andrea. In fact, Angustias decides the only to escape is to join a convent. Sounds like a good plan to me.
Ultimately Andrea has to come to terms that her dreams of living in somewhat wealth and a cosmopolitan setting are not going to come true. And she’s starting to learn that her poverty excludes her from the friends she can make. It’s hard to watch but she’s a fighter and it doesn’t get to saccharine. She does make a friend with Ena, somewhat wealthy, but who doesn’t care about wealth. Ena is Andrea’s lifeline. Her family is normal, as normal as families can be, and Andrea finally establishes a place where she feels she can grow and be nurtured.
There’s more that connects Andrea and Ena, but that would be revealing major plot points. What I will say is that, just like with Williams’ works, while it’s crazy and your mind is screaming to get away from the chaos, Laforet makes you feel for Andrea and even for some of the secondary characters. Somehow it’s a world we don’t want to leave even while we know we can’t stay. And maybe that’s where the brilliance is, because isn’t that what Williams’ and Laforet’s characters are trying to do? Maintain their families and yet find a place that is healthy for them. And really, when it comes down to it, depending on the level of crazies in your family, don’t we all struggle with that as we transition to adults? We want to be our own person and yet we still love and care for those at home. Who knew becoming an adult was going to be such an ordeal!