10 Most Famous Books by South American Writers
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Although most people associate Latin American literature with Magical Realism, we have many other popular genres in the region. Our literature is not as well-known as its counterparts produced in richer parts of the world, because, as with everything else, power/money and international recognition work hand in hand. However, many Latin American writers, either because of their originality (Marquez), sophistication of ideas (Borges), or sheer capacity to resonate with most people’s innermost needs and wish for self-awareness (Coelho) have managed to break through the clutter and become international best-sellers. Here are 10 of the best examples of the regional literature:
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Marquez (Colombia)
The quintessential example of Magical Realism in literature, this 1967 novel narrates the story of seven generations of the Buendía family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founded the fictitious city of Macondo in Colombia. Macondo is a fitting metaphor for the harsh reality of Latin America as a whole and its ingrained underdevelopment. The characters of the story are trapped by a reality that keeps repeating itself, like images in a mirror, the material the city was made of in José Arcardio’s imagination. The reader is advised to refer to the family tree designed in the introductory pages of the story to be able to keep track of the huge amount of characters, all of them with very similar names. The novel is considered by many Marquez’s masterpiece, having been translated into 37 languages and selling more than 30 million copies all over the world since its publication.
Rayuela (Hopscotch), by Julio Cortázar (Argentina)
Written in Paris and published in Spanish in 1963, this experimental and revolutionary novel has been called a counternovel by the author himself. The text is heavily influenced by the likes of James Joyce in its use of stream of consciousness, and by Surrealism and the French cinema’s New Wave. In the introduction, Cortázar suggests two possible ways of reading his book: either progressively from chapters 1 to 56 or by following a “table or instructions” designed by the author, which allows the reader to hopscotch through all the 155 chapters of the novel. Cortázar also invites the reader to find and decide on his own path through the book, if he wishes to. The translation of the novel into English by Gregory Rabasssa has been praised by the author himself.
Canto General, by Pablo Neruda (Chile)
"Canto General" ("General Song") was first published in Mexico in 1950 by Chilean author Pablo Neruda, considered by Gabriel García Marquez the greatest poet of the XX century. Canto General, the poet’s masterpiece, is an epic, consisting of 15 sections, 231 poems, and more than 15,000 lines. The poems are supposed to be a summary of the whole history of the Americas as told from the local perspective.
Love in the time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Marquez (Colombia)
“Age has no reality except in the physical world. The essence of a human being is resistant to the passage of time. Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom. Think of love as a state of grace, not the means to anything, but the alpha and omega. An end in itself.”
The quote above comes from the novel Love in the Time of Cholera, written by Nobel prize-winning writer Gabriel García Marquez, and it’s a fitting summary of its main theme: the love of Firmino Ariza for Fermina Daza. They first fall in love in their youth, but her father opposes the relationship, and sends Fermina away to another city. They carry on their romance through a steady exchange of letters, until the moment Fermina realizes she doesn’t really love Firmino: it had all been a fantasy. She agrees to fulfill her father’s wish by marrying into wealth and security, in the figure of the medical doctor Dr Juvenal Urbino, who fights the cholera in the region and whose character is used in the book as metaphor for modernity and progress, as opposed to the romantic and old-fashioned values of Firmino Ariza. Ariza, however, promises he will love Fermina forever and always be faithful to her. He carries on with his life, having many affairs, despite his promise, living a full and gratifying life for 5 decades, but never forgetting Fermina. When Dr Urbino accidentally dies, Ariza gets in touch with Fermina and reaffirms his love for her. She understands that he is a mature man now with all the experience she lacks, having lived a sheltered and conventional life as a wife. She gives him a second chance. Ariza and Fermina are reunited on a boat trip, which is one of the most poetic passages in Latin American literature.
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho (Brazil)
One of the best-selling books in history, The Alchemist has sold more than 65 million copies in 56 languages. This novel is a very simple and direct parable of an Andalusian shepherd named Santiago, who crosses Egypt in quest of his Personal Legend – a concept created by Coelho to mean someone’s dreams and aspirations. The book teaches us that "when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it".
Ficciones, by Jorge Luís Borges (Argentina)
The seventeen tales that compose this rather complex (and short) book take us into the mind of one of the most inventive and cerebral writers of Latin America. The stories reflect Borges’s obsession with mirrors, parallel realities, labyrinths, libraries and fantasy. One of his characters in the book A Weary Man’s Utopia says that “ it’s not reading that matters but the rereading”. This certainly applies to Jorge Luis Borges’s own books, and especially to Ficciones: you will always find something new every time you reread it.
Conversation in the Cathedral, by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)
Published in 1969, this is one of Vargas Llosa’s major works. Santiago, the son of a minister, and Ambrosia, his chauffer, are having a conversation over beers at the Cathedral, a bar, hence the title of the novel. We are in 1950s Peru, under the dictatorship of Manuel Apolinario Odría Amoretti. They are discussing politics, power, corruption and trying to understand the circumstances that turned Peru into such a degraded country. The protagonist Santiago is a student at the National University of San Marcos in Lima and also an activist for the group Cahuide, which fights against the dictatorship. Based on his personal background and experiences, similar to Santiago’s, and confronting members of different social classes, Llosa, through this ingenious narrative, discusses complex issues, such as the construction of identify and the role of citizenship, both in Peru and Latin America.
The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende (Chile)
Borrowing heavily on Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but, to some extent, inferior in literary quality, this novel covers Chile’s history in the XX century over three generations of the family Trueba. The story is told by the family patriarch, Esteban, whose spirit of entrepreneurship, wild sensuality and violent nature lead him to both power and doom. Each generation has a woman protagonist whose name is a connotation of the color white, indicating the purity and heroic qualities of their personalities: Clara, Esteban’s wife; Blanca, his daughter; and Alba, his granddaughter. The House of the Spirits is one of the most beloved books by a Latin American author.
City of God, by Paulo Lins (Brazil)
Paulo Lins worked as a fieldworker for anthropologist Alba Zaluar on a study of the criminal underclass in Rio. Drawing from the knowledge acquired on the job and using his firsthand experience as one of the inhabitants of the City of God, a favela (shanty town) in the western zone of Rio, he wrote one of the most brutal and honest accounts of the usually short and violent lives of the disenfranchised urban poor of Rio de Janeiro and Latin America. The climax of the book is the drug wars that took place in the region in 1982: according to Brazilian newspapers there were more people were killed in these conflicts than in the Malvinas (Falklands) War that took place at the same time. Although there’s an English translation by Alison Entrekin, the book must be read in Portuguese, as only a Brazilian author could capture the colorful Rio slang and the local drug trafficker’s jargon. Unlike the popular movie it originated, City of God is not one story narrated by a single protagonist. It’s composed of a great number of vignettes involving dozens of characters, making up a sobering portrayal of the dark side of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
The Motorcycle Diaries, by Ernesto Che Guevara (Argentina)
According to Wikipedia, this book would be a “ The Capital meets Easy Rider” kind of story. The memoir of Marxist Revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara tells of a trip he took, at age 23, a medical student at the time, with his friend Alberto Granado, a 29-year-old biochemist, to get to know South America. The trip opened his eyes to the poverty and inequalities of the continent. Having been born into an economically privileged family, he ignored the harsh reality of South America. The 8,000 km trip was a wake up call and made him discover his mission in life: to fight for the poor and to try to integrate the continent. A romanticized version of the story has become a popular movie, starring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal and directed by the Brazilian maestro Walter Salles Jr.