Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Idlewild Discussion on Mental Illness and Spanish Politics


Right smack dab in between reading The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven, I read another book set in war-torn Barcelona for my book club—Carmen Laforet’s Nada. [I’m done with reading about Barcelona for a while now.] Deemed “one of the most important literary works of post-Civil War Spain” and “one of the great novels of twentieth-century Europe,” Nada is the story of an orphan, Andrea, who leaves her small town to attend university in the big, glitzy Barcelona. There, she’s housed by poverty-stricken relatives that she only remembers from much brighter days gone past.

Okay. “Great novel of twentieth-century Europe” is quite the acclaim for this fairly simple story. In fact, it left us wondering from where this praise came—and to what exactly it was being compared. The author wrote this book when she was in her early twenties, and it sometimes suffered from what book club members called “writer’s workshop syndrome.” As in, that sentence sounds like it came from Creative Writing 101. I can’t say I really noticed that throughout; I think I took this book at face value and didn’t analyze it too much. I didn’t love it, didn’t hate it. I didn’t think it remarkable, but didn’t think it had anything too worthy of criticism.

Mario Vargas Llosa penned the book’s introduction, and somewhere in there, he described this story as one that is plagued with sadness throughout (not his exact words, just to that effect). So naturally, I entered this believing, “Oh god, 270 pages of depression. Can’t wait.” But in actuality, I didn’t read it that way at all. I’ll give you a bit of background to explain why.

When Andrea arrives at her new home, she joins a family that is suffering from a lack of funds. In a nutshell, there’s no money and conditions are dismal at best. And then you have the family itself. There’s grandmother, the matriarch, who is old and feeble but always trying to take care of others. Her two sons who, post-war, have wandered off the path of ever being productive members of society; now they’re just violent or sullen or confused, but grandma will never deem them anything except her “wonderful boys.” You have Gloria, one brother’s wife, who has some awkward relationship with the other brother but constantly suffers at the violent hand of her husband (though, of course, grandma still thinks she’s great). And then there’s one of grandma’s daughters, who is possessive and manipulating and more than a little bit nuts. Actually, they are all nuts. I think that, really, in the most serious way, the entire family is suffering from various mental illnesses.

So you see how that dismal setting can foster an overall tone of despair. What gives light to the story, though, is Andrea. After reading the intro and the setting into which she had entered, I was afraid Andrea was going to end up mentally and emotionally weak, almost manipulated to a point of submission. That’s not the case at all, though. Andrea is a strong character, and through her telling of the story, you get the feeling she’s telling it with a bit of an eye roll and a tone that says, “My god, look at these crazy people I had to put up with.” I actually read this story with a bit of humor. Much of that tone may come from the perspective—that Andrea’s character is “looking back” on this part of her life, though that also makes you wonder how much is truth and how much is reflective exaggeration.

This story takes place in a post-Civil War Barcelona, which is somewhat described through the characters and their situations, but without a working knowledge of post-war society, it just spawned a lot of questions. Like, were these extremes we saw just norms of the time? The poverty, the domestic violence, the gap between rich and poor—were these all understood by readers at the time, making this just a story rather than a statement about a particular moment? So many characters are stuck in the past, or rather, defined by the past. But to them, it’s recent; it’s just life. To us, it’s a reflection of a much broader history—social, economic, and political.

Despite this being a longer-than-usual post, it was actually our shortest book club discussion on record. It just felt rather straightforward. Not bad. Just simple. So like I said before, “great novel” may be somewhat of an overstatement, at least from our perspective.

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