Today I’m able to combine reading months once again. Books 5 & 6 of my #20BooksofSummer21 hosted by Cathy also let me take part in Spanish & Portuguese Literature Month hosted by Stu, and Paris in July hosted by Thyme for Tea. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on them.
Nada by Carmen Laforet
Translated by Edith Grossman
I’m so glad to have discovered this fine first novel lurking on my shelves – it’s been there for some years! It was published in 1945 when its author was just 23 and had to be approved by the post Spanish Civil War Francoist censors. Laforet went on to publish a handful of other novels and stories, dying in 2004. Nada was first translated into English by Edith Grossman in 2007.
Echoing Laforet’s own experience, Nada tells the story of Andrea, who leaves her village to go to university in Barcelona, staying with relatives. Andrea, though, is an orphan, brought up in a convent and received a government-paid university place. As the novel begins, she arrives in Barcelona by train at midnight – she’d had to catch a later train, and there was no-one waiting for her, so she takes a horse-drawn carriage to the house in the Calle de Aribau and climbs the stairs slowly up to her relatives’ flat.
In front of the door to the flat I was overcome by a sudden fear of waking those people, my relatives who were, after all, strangers to me, and I hesitated for a white before I gave the bell a timid ring that no one responded to. My heart began to beat faster, and I rang the bell again. I heard a quavering voice:
Shuffling feet and clumsy hands sliding bolts open.
Then it all seemed like a nightmare.
The old woman who opens the door is her grandmother, who mistakes her for someone called Gloria. Then she is faced with her Uncle Juan, of skeletal appearance in the dimness; a disagreeable woman in black with a dog who turns out to be the maid Antonia; Gloria, Juan’s wife who whispers in her ear, ‘Are you scared?’; and finally her Aunt Angustias. They make up a bed on the divan in the living room for her, surrounded by excess furniture in this house which has ‘the stink of cat.’ It’s a miracle that she slept.
After that rude welcome, Andrea soon comes to realise that her relatives are all mad and damaged, Juan is a wife-beater and would-be artist, Gloria is a gambler, Angustias is a martinet who wants to be a nun; she rules Andrea’s life with a rod of iron. And then there’s Uncle Román who has all the vices, but seems more fun and intelligent than the others. He lives in the attic, where Andrea will visit to smoke occasionally – until they fall out over Ena, Andrea’s new best friend. Ena has heard of Román and wants to meet him, Román wants to meet her too – but not for the right reasons. Ena, who comes from a rich family, already has a steady boyfriend, the lovesick Jaime, but he is thrust to the side for now.
Alongside all the family drama and angst of friendship is, Andrea’s penury. She has but a small stipend each month from her parents’ estate, paid by Angustias, and she must hand all of it over for rent and meals. Andrea elects to feed herself – which means she doesn’t most of the time – she buys bread and then enjoys herself with a new group of friends who are all arty and Bohemian. She is gradually able to detach herself from her awful family and make her own way in the world.
Andrea is an interesting protagonist, a country girl with no fear of the city; she’s not afraid to walk its streets, even the port and the more dodgy ones at night. She is slightly androgynous too, having more than a crush on Ena, although Ena doesn’t recognise it as anything but friendship. In Laforet’s post-war Barcelona, people tend to keep themselves to themselves. Relationships are clandestine. This cocooning claustrophobia has obviously affected Andrea’s relatives’ mental health. While Laforet doesn’t criticise the regime directly, the book had to pass the censors after all, there are slight undercurrents. Grossman’s translation is obviously masterful – you can’t tell it’s there. This is a powerful story of a girl becoming a woman, I highly recommend it. (10/10)
Source: Own copy. Vintage paperback, 224 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
Three to Kill by Jean-Patrick Manchette
Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
I discovered Manchette last year when I read his novel Fatale (reviewed here); it was 91 pages of the blackest noir and I was looking forward to reading more by him. His 1976 novella Three to Kill is mainly set in Paris, and concerns a travelling salesman, Georges Gerfaut, who is due to go on holiday to the Charentes with his wife and kids. This novella begins with what we realise as we turn the page is a flash-forward to Georges, not entirely sober, driving on the Paris ring road listening to jazz – then we’re told that he has killed two people in the past year.
Georges had stopped to help a dying motorist who had had a crash, taking him to hospital and abandoning him there, not waiting for the police. Turns out the man he helped was an old villain, and there are people who can’t take any risk that the dying man said something to his good Samaritan. So a contract is put on Georges head. He goes off on holiday, he keeps seeing two black suited men in a red sports car, but doesn’t think anything of it. He goes to swim in the sea:
Gerfaut had entered the cold water without pleasure, advancing in stages as first his penis and balls, then his belly button, were immersed. At that point he had doubled up and plunged headlong into the drink. He was now swimming in slightly over a meter of ocean mixed with hydrocarbons, empty Gauloise packs, peach pits, orange peel, water from the Gironde River, and a trace amount of urine; (…) There were people at every point of the compass. In Gerfaut’s ambit, the closest were at least three meters away and the most distant some twenty-five meters in any given direction. When the two hit men in shorts approached Gerfaut, he paid no attention. So he was much taken aback, as he touched bottom long enough to catch his breath to be punched matter-of-factly in the solar plexus by the younger of the pair.
Gerfaut somehow survives the attempted drowning, and a game of cat and mouse begins between him and the hitmen. He abandons his wife and kids in Royan and drives back to Paris in a panic, as he tries to work out what’s happening to him.
A classic fish out of water noir, this was another extremely enjoyable novella by Manchette. Gerfaut is a jazz fan, and the text is permeated by classic jazz from the fifties and sixties which certainly gave atmosphere in abundance, which contrasts perfectly with the grittiness of Manchette’s description in the text (Manchette played sax). Manchette’s style is stripped back; it speeds along yet is full of detail. The relative straight-forwardness of the plot, races headlong without deviation to its conclusion. Superbe! (10/10)
Source: Own copy. Serpent’s Tail paperback, 134 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)