An acknowledgment of Western civilization's proclivity for understanding the world in dualistic and hierarchical terms has prompted such critics as Helene Cixous to question how this worldview has affected the West's culture and art. Who can overlook the traditional oppositions of sin and righteousness, justice and injustice, pain and ecstasy, etc.? The dualistic concept of protagonist and antagonist allows readers of literature to formulate ideas about an outcome in terms of "poetic justice" or "tragedy." In some novels, dualities based on struggles between characters are mitigated by a concentration on the development of one character. One such example is the bildungsroman, which describes characters in search of maturity and identity. Some critics imply that the maturation process described in the bildungsroman civilizes the individual, for this process socializes a character and incorporates him or her into a community. A subgenre of the bildungsroman is the kunstlerroman, a novel about artists who, through apprenticeship, are attempting to discover their creative mission within the realm of society. What happens when the artist is not trying to make his or her mission fit society's norms? Susan Smith Nash describes the anti-kunstlerroman as "representing] the life and development of an artist whose performances are relegated to an intensely private sphere, and not meant for an audience." Cuban novelist Zoe Valdes's La Nada Cotidiana (1996) is a type of anti-kunstlerroman. In this work, the female protagonist is on a quest toward self-actualization (as defined by Abraham Maslow), but this self-actualization is only possible through her development as a writer. Valdes plays with the reader's preconceptions of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in order to create a world where each character must find an artistic identity which is important only to the self-fulfillment of the individual.
According to Abraham Maslow in Toward a Psychology of Being, the process of self-actualization is based on gratification of intrinsic needs. However, if Freudian psychology focuses on illness and deviation from the norm, then Maslow's theories deliberate on the bare essentials necessary for a healthy individual. People, therefore, can have one of two motivations: to fulfill their deficiencies, or to grow once their basic needs are met. La Nada Cotidiana takes place in Cuba and focuses on a great number of basic needs which go unmet because of the disastrous economic situation on the island. The search for fulfillment of these needs is a large part of the novel, but ultimately the main character, Patria/Yocandra must overcome the needs she has not fulfilled in order to become self-actualized. Her self-actualization occurs as she sits down to write her own story and becomes the artist that her natural abilities call her to be.
The title of the opening chapter, "Morir por la patria es vivir" ("To die for the homeland is to live"),* is a line taken from Cuba's national anthem, yet it suggests a second meaning as well. "Patria" is not just a word in the anthem but the given name of the main character. Only when Patria loses the name given to her by her parents does she begin to learn to live for herself and start walking on the road to self-fulfillment. Throughout the novel, she strives to satisfy her basic needs, overcome her deficiencies, and grow as an individual and, finally, as an artist.
This chapter takes place in Purgatory, where the character is detained; she communicates first with a Cherub, then with an Angel, and later a personified nothing. In Catholic doctrine, Purgatory is a holding place where individuals await judgment and their final designation to Heaven or Hell, where they will receive their reward or punishment for life's choices. Lee Hardy describes the historical significance of Purgatory when he states, "Upon baptism, an infant starts out with a clean slate, in a state of innocence. Every sin committed thereafter must be dealt with individually. …