Nada

(Fiction; Modern Library, 2007)


I first read the opening lines of Nada on a bus from Madrid to Salamanca in 1977. Like the novel’s eighteen-year-old narrator, Andrea, I was en route to study at a medieval Spanish university: “It was the first time I had traveled alone, but I wasn’t frightened; on the contrary, this profound freedom at night seemed like an agreeable and exciting adventure to me.” Spain in the late 1970s was undergoing a vibrant awakening after decades of dictatorship, whereas the 1940s Barcelona encountered by Andrea is an ashen ruin following the catastrophe of the Spanish Civil War. Her relatives’ filthy, once-grand apartment where she boards is the scene of dark secrets, hunger, violence, and shrieks of despair as the family tries and fails to keep up bourgeois appearances. Andrea’s self-regarding detachment from her gothic home provides both the comedy and the truth of the novel: in the wake of war and destruction, youth goes about its private business—enduring an inexpert kiss, squandering a meager allowance, roaming solo through city streets until a classmate dubs her a chica rara, a strange girl.

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