From the magic realism of the tropics to the ‘gritty city’, Latin American literature is as rich and beguiling as the region itself
A sense of place often has a political edge in Latin American writing. Even magic realism – which takes fantastic liberties with the contours of cities and pueblos, jungles and rivers – is rooted in the living, breathing, dying and warring world of its characters. Over five centuries, Hispanic authors have loaned from and contested European ideas about their world, adapting imported traditions (from naturalism to crime fiction to stream-of-consciousness) and reworking them to bring to life the vibrancy and vicissitudes of their youthful continent. The best novels are as alluring and stimulating as the most atmospheric places. To choose just 10 was only possible by imagining I was packing for a long road trip with limited baggage. I would take these, a comfortable hammock and a sturdy pillow.
Doña Bárbara by Rómulo Gallegos
In literature, before the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 70s there was a fashion for “regionalist” writing – books that treated their setting almost as a character. Venezuela’s steamy llanos (plains) are the backdrop to this 1929 novel about a strong woman in a world of rough ranchers and cowboys. Gallegos details every tremble of palm frond, every ripple of skulking alligator. The novel, somewhat forgotten but a classic, inspired many of the later magic realists. In 1948 its author became president in what is widely regarded as Venezuela’s first legitimate election. Some critics have said the character of Doña Bárbara anticipated Eva Perón, while Hugo Chávez was wont to call George W Bush “Señor Peligro”, or “Mr Danger”, after the novel’s imperialist villain.
Tierra del Fuego by Sylvia Iparraguirre
This accomplished historical novel, published in 1998, retells the story of the abduction of Jemmy Button and three other indigenous Fuegians by Captain Robert Fitzroy of HMS Beagle. The story moves from the large island at the southern tip of Argentina (and South America) to England – where an attempt is made to civilise Button – and, finally, to the Falkland Islands. Iparraguirre’s portrait of London is convincingly Dickensian, but even more stirring are the “dark forests” and rocky shores of Tierra del Fuego, the lonely home of the “oldest winter in the world”.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
The Colombian city of Cartagena, once a major Spanish garrison and key port of Spain’s Caribbean fleet, is now often swamped by cruise ship passengers and, in the modern parlance, is possibly Latin America’s most Instagrammable location. Love in the Time of Cholera, published in 1985, taps this romanticism in its story of a late-requited love, its fictional location evoking Cartagena’s pastel-painted facades, as well as sections of the nearby city of Barranquilla on the Magdalena River. With its aromatic mangos, riverboats and loquacious parrot, it’s an archetypal South American tale, but it’s also highly inventive, laced with delicious irony while riffing on multiple literary genres.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
The Chilean author’s extraordinary 1982 debut novel sweeps across three generations of the Valle-Trueba family in an unnamed country (blatantly Chile), and tempers its political sloganeering and supernatural flights with keen psychological observations. The story of class struggles is still relevant and Clara (who possesses paranormal powers), Blanca and Alba Trueba – the mother, daughter and granddaughter who preside over the titular house – are always engaging company, as they flit between the sprawl of Santiago and surrounding agricultural heartland.
Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez
This is a raw, rude, angry novel. Its main character, Pedro Juan, is a slightly nasty, very funny, self-confessed scumbag, who scratches a living flogging knock-off lobsters and fixing sewage pipes – probably without washing his hands between jobs. He has the sexual appetite of a penned-in young bull, and loves to divulge his colourful, rum-soaked seductions on the rooftop in the company of working women. The novel’s local colour is not the standard Cuban cliche of vintage cars and salsa, but the hurricane-damaged reality of ruinous old mansions where the lifts stopped working decades ago and the staircases are deathtraps. The novel, first published in 1998, remains largely unavailable in Cuba, though it wasn’t formally banned.
The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa
In prose as tangled as a tropical rainforest, this intricate, ambitious 1966 novel by the Peruvian Nobel laureate tells a story of tinpot politicos, prostitutes, soldiers, cops, nuns, priests, river pilots, rubber merchants, gold prospectors and other outback characters – indigenous, mestizo and white – in a great arc of plots and subplots that link the remote riverine city of Iquitos with the coastal desert of north-west Peru. The green house of the title is the Amazon, as well as a brothel outside the city of Piura. It’s not an easy read – Vargas Llosa was a “high modernist” in his early works – but if you let the long, impressionistic sentences wrap themselves around you, you’ll enjoy the journey.
The Purple Land by WH Hudson
Admired by Ernest Hemingway for its depictions of local scenery, this English-language novel, published in 1885 (the original title was The Purple Land that England Lost), narrates a Victorian expat’s South American fantasy (Hudson was born in Argentina to US settlers of English and Irish origin). Richard Lamb is an Englishman who marries a young Argentinian woman without her father’s permission before crossing the river to Uruguay, where he gets mixed up with some messy gaucho wars – and some messy local women. Full of action and drama, it captures the historical tumult of the Río de la Plata region during the mid-19th century and works as a kind of allegory of civilisation and barbarism. Hudson, a fine naturalist and superb ornithologist, brings the landscape of estancias and rolling plains, rheas and deer, cattle and horses fully to life. Jorge Luis Borges likened the book to Homer’s Odyssey for its “elemental” power.
Captains of the Sands by Jorge Amado
The six “Bahian Novels” of Brazil’s best-known writer mix a kind of social realism with elements of fable, but are free of the sentimentalism and exoticism of his later works. This story, the final work in the cycle published in 1937, follows the pursuits of a gang of homeless orphans and urchins around the cobbled squares and slums of Salvador, a “city black and old”. While rich in local colour – no one knows a city like a street kid – the novel, as Colm Tóibín writes in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, “is not written for tourists; it is written to give substance to shadows, to recreate the underlife of the city, to offer the dispossessed and reviled an inner life.”
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
I loved Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat – about the last days of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo – but for a more upbeat and contemporary mental trip to the country , it’s got to be one of Junot Díaz’s books. This 2012 collection of inter-linked stories works as a loose kind of novel, with the chief character, Yunior de las Casas, divulging his many infidelities from his late teens well into adulthood, on trips “home” as well as in his adopted New Jersey. The joys and pains of the immigrant experience and Latino family life are skilfully wrought in punchy, streetwise prose; through all the stories, “the Island” exerts a powerful pull on body as well as mind.
Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Piñeiro
If you want to visit the Buenos Aires of guidebook cliche, don’t read this. Published in 2005, the novel unfolds in the Cascade Heights Country Club, a gated estate outside the Argentinian capital where wealthy families live like Europeans – while beyond the walls society is riven by crime and poverty, and the economy is tanking. When three men are murdered in mysterious circumstances, the suburban fantasy is punctured. The figurative “widows” of the title are the wives whose husbands spend Thursday nights playing cards and drinking. A great thriller, Thursday Night Widows is also a dark parable about systemic violence and the criminality that underpins keeping up appearances.
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