One thing we’re not terribly good at as a nation is reading books written by anyone who isn’t English or American.
An excellent place to start, if you’re looking for a jaunt outside English literature, is the Man Booker International shortlist which comes out every year.
However, I do want to draw particular attention to fiction from Latin America, which is my absolute favourite region for producing superb stories which are refreshingly different from your traditional English/US style.
I am horribly biased in this because I studied Spanish at university and had an extra-long reading list with lots of Spanish and South American literature. I also specialised in 20th-century Latin American fiction because I liked it so much.
Why’s it so good?
Latin American fiction, like fiction from any region, is heavily influenced by its historical circumstances and Latin American contemporary history is packed to the rafters with intrigue and tragedy.
Whilst during the last century the continent has suffered a great number of terribly sad periods across pretty much every country, the result is a literary output with incredible emotional depth. Many books are woven with great sadness, even if it isn’t obviously a main theme of the story.
Literature was often used as a tool of political resistance, meaning almost everything has a secondary meaning. There is a whole body of literature which is inspired by the theme of dictatorship, as many countries in the region were ruled by dictators during the last century. The period is marked by a great deal of bloodshed, from the Chilean coup which brought Pinochet to power to the gruesome Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.
Latin America is also the cradle of magic realism, possibly my favourite genre of all time. Magic realism is influenced by the traditional beliefs of the region dating from pre-colonial times, and reflects traditions like voodoo, folk legend and magic. They are all presented as being part of a normal reality, with the result that the story seems to exist partly in our world but with one foot in another, magical realm.
Finally, there is a huge amount of what I am loathe to call “women’s fiction”, of really exceptional quality, which was written in 20th century Latin America.
I hate the term “women’s fiction” because it is so restrictive and seems to put women writers into a sad, under-representative little box. I’ll use it here only because the literature written by women from this region and this time period is pretty unique, often mining the perspective of female victims of regime violence and oppression, and the solidarity and resistance posed in response.
If you like the sound of Latin American literature, here are a (very) few examples to get you started. There are excellent translations available of all of them.
‘Fictions’ by Jorge Luis Borges
This set of mind-blowing short stories will change the way you look at everything – and I’m not exaggerating. Most stories are only a couple of pages long and are heavily invested in magic, the surreal and the highest reaches of human intellect. One example is the Library of Babel, which tells us about an infinite library containing every possible book, and therefore (if you look hard enough), your own life story. There are also some unique detective and adventure stories, as well as meditations on fiction and writing.
‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel García Marquez
The granddaddy of magic realism, García Marquez has an endearing and often cheerful writing style which belies the great tragedies his works often deal with. One Hundred Years of Solitude is his most famous work, charting the family tree of the Buendía family over the course of many generations. The history of South America is intertwined with their destiny, along with unexpected ascensions to heaven, a few tragic deaths and some unforgettable characters. You will need to refer to the family tree found at the front of most editions as García Marquez insisted on giving many of the characters some variation of the name of the patriarch, José Buendía – and after a few generations, you will be confused.
‘The House of the Spirits’ by Isabel Allende
On a similar theme, ‘The House of Spirits’ narrates the lives of one family, but the story is much more female-centric than ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. Particularly, some of the women suffer violence at the hands of the state. The family’s sense of self is embodied by the grandmother, Clara, whose spirit lives on after her death advising and supporting the family. There is a bit of sexual violence in this story so do be aware if you are sensitive to topics like this.
‘The Feast of the Goat’ by Mario Vargas Llosa
This expansive novel is set during the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and is about rebel attempts to assassinate the dictator himself. It’ll give you an excellent grounding in the history of the region, whilst also being a compulsively readable thriller. Vargas Llosa himself is quite the character: he ran for president in his home country of Peru in 1990 and won the Nobel prize for literature in 2010.
There are many, many more extraordinary works of Latin American fiction, but for those looking to dip their toes, these examples are a good start.
Any Latin American favourites I haven’t included? Drop me a comment below!
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