Nada (literally ‘Nothing’) tells the story of an orphan girl named Andrea who is sent to post-civil war Barcelona to live with her grandmother, aunt and uncles while she studies at the university.
Andrea gets a weird vibe upon arrival. She soon realizes her family members are all off their rockers in one way or another, and she finds herself fighting to stay sane and appear normal to her college friends while her home life devolves into violence, betrayal and chaos.
While there’s plenty of action and plot intrigue, in many ways it’s a psychological novel about people’s pasts and how the events of their lives shape their psyches. It’s also about the fortitude needed to keep damaged people from further damaging you. The words that come to mind when I think of Nada are “gothic” and “foreboding” and “tragic.”
A challenging story unlocked over time
I’ve read Nada in Spanish at least five times. I first encountered it my junior year in Professor Bieder‘s literature class, and at that point it was the most challenging book I had ever read in Spanish. My well-worn copy is completely marked up in pencil; I felt like I had to look up nearly every other word. In fact, I nearly gave up on it, I found it so tough.
But after I studied abroad in Madrid, I gave the book another shot. I found that the linguistic leap I’d made in those six months away somehow unlocked the book for me, and instead of struggling, for the first time I could read through it and understand the story. Throughout the years, each time I return it I gain even more appreciation for the fluidity of the prose. As I get older I also gain more of an appreciation for the complexity of the relationships in the book.
For a long time I felt a bit pretentious telling people my favorite book was Nada, and no, it wasn’t available in English. Honestly, I was sad that there wasn’t an English version because I wanted to recommend it to my friends, and say “Read what this twenty-three-year-old woman created! Listen to the rhythm of the words! See how she explores Andrea’s interior world.”
I wanted to ask them, “Who do you think is the worst person in this book? What you think about Ena?” (For the record, I am not a fan of Ena.)
Edith Grossman to the rescue!
So imagine my excitement upon learning that not only had Nada finally made it into English, but the translation was by the masterful Edith Grossman. When I saw her name on it, I purchased it immediately, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Her tone is perfect: she capture the novel’s quiet horror, and maintains Laforet’s winding and flowing imagery in a natural, elegant way that I hadn’t thought possible in English.
Maybe I should be embarrassed to say this, especially in light of the fact I’ve read Nada so many times, but Grossman’s English translation opened up the story to me at a higher level than I’d previously been able to grasp. I was surprised to discover how much nuance I had missed while reading it in my second language all these years.
In fact, I remember at one point holding the original version side by side with the translation to cross reference, because I had read some detail in the English version that I didn’t remember. I would think, Is that really in the original? But sure enough, it always was; I had just blown right past it without noticing.
I’m telling you, it’s a must read
There is something to be said for how quickly we can gobble up something in our native language. For me, the act of reading in English has become so automatic that only the pleasure of the story remains.
Yet in our second language, I’d imagine most of us are still exerting an active effort, even if we are truly reading and absorbing in Spanish and aren’t “translating in our heads.”
I can’t recommend this book highly enough, and if I could track her down, I’d send Edith Grossman a fan letter. (Or maybe not, because she might find that creepy.)
Bottom line: read this book, or file it away as a gift idea for the book lover in your life. Still not sold? The New York Times has an excellent review here.
If your Spanish isn’t strong, start with Grossman’s English translation first so you will know whether the story interests you. Then make it a goal to one day read it in Spanish. You’ll be glad you did.
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