A good book is like a good trip, both literally and metaphorically speaking. It makes you absent-minded (did Jesus really marry Mary Magdalene, and if he did, is all the other stuff in the Da Vinci Code true, too?!), blank-eyed (Jon Snow is dead and me with him!), emotional (Bridge, you’re not the only gordita out there trying to get a boyfriend!), psyched-out (Anastasia, a butt plug, seriously?!) and unresponsive (stop touching me – Katniss is about to eat the poisonous berries!).
If you possess an imaginative mind prone to daydreaming, books can be a great release from the dull and draining world out there, a door to a secret garden only you may enter (and I dare anyone to disturb me there!).
The Western writers’ inspiration and creativity having been milked dry over the last decade, one has to turn to other waters, and Latin America is a rich pond to fish. Though most people don’t have a clue regarding its literature, the continent has produced some of the most original and quirkiest literary pieces of all time, some of them globally famous. Allende, Marques, Llosa, Coelho – ringing any bells?
Made up of 13 countries, South America has 5 winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. And though this kind of authors are usually pretty hard to read, there are exceptions to the rule – the books I chose for this post are books that deserved to be carried around South America in my overloaded frame pack for the whole 2 years I worked there.
They say that to know a country, you need to read its literature. I say that from reading foreign literature, you learn one thing – that the people at the other end of the world might look different but are just like the people you come from – pretty eccentric. Just read their books.
South America is famous for magical realism, a literary style combining the reality of daily life with the paranormal. Made famous by Latin American writers like Allende or Marques, this style describes supernatural events in a simple, rational way as a normal part of the world. The first encounter I had with it blew my mind – it was like seeing Machu Picchu for the first time. I was out of words.
I mean what other books feel like it’s perfectly all right that people can play Chopin without opening the piano lid, that old peasants can re-route a plague of ants by talking to them, that the favorite hour for ghosts to appear at a family dinner is 8 o’clock, that mermaid-like girls with green hair and yellow eyes, the most beautiful creatures born on Earth since ‘the times of original sin’, can be delivered by humans?
Looks like the most anarchic place is the world inside you.
The House of the Spirits
The perfect book to explore South American literature is The House of the Spirits (La Casa de los Espíritus), written by Isabel Allende, a prolific writer of over 20 novels and still publishing. The House of the Spirits, her debut and masterpiece, is one of the classics of the 20th century.
Translated into over 20 languages, it tells the story of the Truena family, a well-to-do family living during the turbulent times of post-colonial Chile from the early 20th century up to the 1973 Pinochet military coup.
With a vividly described plot, developed characters and a strong historical context that pulls you right in, it follows step by step the dramatic destinies of four Truena generations, populated with captivating, strong, clairvoyant, obstinate or patriarchal characters. Set against the backdrop of the conflict between the conservative and the reformist, generations of bastard children, forbidden love across social classes and a coup d’état climax, the novel could be read as a family saga, historical fiction, love story or a political drama for the many layers it has. It will make you want to go and learn more about Chile.
If craving more of Allende’s writing, try Of Love and Shadows, Daughter of Fortune, Zorro, or Island beneath the Sea, all absorbing novels showing through their distinct geographical, historical and cultural settings the scope of Allende’s work (the Gold Rush era of San Francisco, the 1800’s Spanish California, the early 1900’s slavery Haiti).
There is a downside to reading Allende’s books, though – they make you realize that not everyone can be a writer, that it really is a special gift (that coming from someone who’s written two unsuccessful novels herself!).
One Hundred Years of Solitude
The man considered the icon of magical realism is Gabriel García Márquez, the giant of Latin American literature.
Born in Colombia and known affectionately as Gabo, Gabriel García Márquez took 18 months of daily writing to finish 1,300 pages of his manuscript One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Años de Soledad), his magnum opus. This highest-selling Spanish book, after the bible, sold out in a week, and got him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Worldwide, it sold over 50 million copies and has been translated into over 40 languages.
So, what do we have here? A long, epic saga containing hundreds and hundreds of pages of plain text, hardly any dialogue, endless paragraphs and names that all sound the same – a big NO in every ‘how to write a successful novel’ manual.
Yet, like a moth to the light, you’re attracted to tales of plagues of insomnia, ghosts that grow old, priests who levitate when they drink hot chocolate, women who ascend into heaven while doing the laundry, rains that last 4 years, 11 weeks and 2 days; nothing out of ordinary in Macondo, an imaginary village in the early 20th century Columbia where the plot is set.
How is that possible? The answer is in Márquez’s exquisite writing, rich language, meticulous descriptions, unbridled imagination and above all, in subtle irony underlining it all; a must-read for all with brains larger than those of their caveman ancestors.
Just open up the book and read the first chapter. Coming to Macondo are gypsies, bringing with them one of the latest world’s inventions, the magnet. The whole village stares in disbelief as they demonstrate its magical properties. José Arcadio Buendía, the patriarch of Macondo, quickly grasps the magnet’s wider applications and organizes an expedition to pull gold from the earth with it. An expedition that has to be abandoned when all that is unearthed is a 15th-century armor, containing a calcified skeleton.
The novel has become so popular that many local restaurants, bars and clubs in South America carry the name of Macondo. In the book, the mythical Macondo was founded by José Arcadio Buendía, and one hundred years passed between that and the day the village was blown off the face of Earth by a storm. One hundred years during which unfold the lives of seven Buendía generations and their miracles, obsessions, incest, adulteries, rebellions, discoveries and punishments.
One of the best writers of all times, Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014, leaving behind other famous novels like Chronicle of a Death Foretold or Love in the Time of Cholera, as well as several short story collections and numerous non-fiction works.
Captain Pantoja and the Special Services
Where Márquez uses his irony and sarcasm in a subtle way, Mario Vargas Llosa leaves no doubts as to his intentions.
Year 1959. The heat, mosquitos and the exuberance of the Amazon jungle are so overpowering that the only escape for the soldiers of the Peruvian army stationed in the Amazon River area is to jump anything that crosses their path. Be it young peasant virgins or respectable matrons.
The reports and complaints get so bad, that the recently promoted captain Pantaleon Pantoja, a model soldier, is put in charge of organizing a special mission of secret ‘visitors,’ a prostitution service for the military.
This is the basic premise of Captain Pantoja and the Special Services (Pantaleón y las Visitadoras), one of the most popular comedic novels of the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Born 85 years ago in Arequipa, the second-largest city in Peru, Mario Vargas Llosa represents one of the country’s leading writers and prominent public figures of his generation.
And as such, regrettably, he decided to run for Peruvian President in 1990, but luckily for us, he lost.
Because what would we be without his unparalleled humor and scathing satire?
Despite his reluctance, Captain Pantoja gets down to work and soon, he’s got the whole enterprise up and running. A born organizer with an obsession for perfection, he has his superiors posted with reports, evaluations and charts of such explicitness that we learn that the average intercourse lasts 4 minutes, the record one being 2 minutes and 22 seconds, and that if erotic magazines are distributed among the soldiers while they wait in line, 2-3 minutes can be saved.
(Isn’t there always room for improvement?)
When the heat, mosquitos and the sensual exuberance of the Peruvian Amazon get to Pantoja, too, and when his ‘visitors’ get attacked by local villagers eager to enjoy the services as well, the mission has to be aborted.
Based on a true story, the novel and its satire make for easier reading than most other Latin American novels, even though Llosa likes to use the technique of interlacing dialogues, that is of two conversations happening at different times.
Since writing about the Peruvian army seems to be his favorite pastime, The Time of the Hero (la Ciudad y los Perros), Llosa’s first novel, is also set in a military environment, this time among young cadets in a military academy.
When the novel was first published, the dramatic events described in it caused such a scandal and public attention, that even the Peruvian army’s generals couldn’t stay impassive. Calling Llosa a ‘degenerate mind’ and accusing him of being paid by Ecuador to undermine the prestige of the Peruvian army, rumors are the book was publicly burnt in military yards.
(You know you did something right with attention like that!)
Both novels have been adapted to successful Spanish-speaking movies.
Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon
Brazil …. Who doesn’t get excited about carnivals, women, food …
… and sugar cane harvests, patrons, kept women, cacao kings, Candoble ceremonies, conflicts solved by gunfire, husbands defending their honor by killing an adulterous wife and her lover. All that and more can be found in Jorge Amado’s novels largely set in the 1920’s epoch. A Nobel Prize nominee, Jorge Amado was the first Brazilian writer to achieve international success – his works have appeared in over 40 languages.
Growing up on a cocoa plantation in the state of Bahia in 1920’s when rural Brazil was transforming from a post-colonial land into a modern nation, was what formed Amado as a writer and became a recurring topic in his novels.
That and women, important protagonists in his works – “her color of burnt cinnamon, her perfume of cloves. Her heat, her abandonment, that warmth of her breasts, that bonfire of legs.” Amado’s depictions of sexual encounters in his best novel Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (Gabriela, Cravo e Canela) was so scandalous at the time that for several years, he couldn’t show up in the town where the story was set.
Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon develops several storylines at once – one is of a small town on the coast of Brazil confronting the changes of the early 20th century, one is of a love story between Nacib, a respectable bar owner of Arab origin, and a mulatto woman Gabriela, a young migrant worker fleeing the drought of northern provinces. Their romance is not a typical one – where most happy-ending love stories end (in a marriage), this one starts; not everyone is made to be somebody’s Mrs.
Amado’s other famous novel, Dona Flor and her two Husbands (Dona Flor e seus dois Maridos), tells the story of a woman who lives bigamously with two men – the ghost of her dead lover, a gambler, womanizer and wifebeater but an unparalleled lover while alive, and her new husband, a nice, responsible, honest man but a zombie in bed.
Amado’s books might not be a fast and easy read but they’re funny and entertaining. And you can always try some of Dona Flor’s recipes from the book or watch movies the two novels have been adapted to.
‘When you want something, the whole universe will conspire to help you achieve it.’
This famous phrase was written by Paulo Coelho in his masterpiece The Alchemist (O Alquimista). The Alchemist is a poetic story about a young shepherd and his journey to find a treasure he had dreamt of. Written in only 2 weeks, The Alchemist is Coelho’s most famous work and one of the best-selling novels of all times.
To understand why, you have to read the book, not just rely on other people’s opinions (like mine, for example – The Alchemist is one of the most brilliant books ever written on the subject). It won’t take long – the book is small, the narration simple, straightforward and unpretentious.
‘Follow your dream, find your destiny’ is a phrase you must have heard hundreds of times before. What makes it different in this book is the way it is written. You already know the story (it’s as old as time itself), you know there are obstacles to overcome, you know the shepherd will eventually find his treasure, but you don’t know what that treasure is, you don’t know the fears and doubts he has to overcome, his ‘lost and found’ to get there. And the more you read this archetypal story, the more you want to know. Isn’t that the definition of good writing?
Filled with metaphors, fables, allegories and soft humor, and mixing masterfully basic elements from all the major religions, The Alchemist will leave you uplifted, inspired and entertained. And what more can you ask for of art?
P.S.: In his preface, Paul Coelho claims that for 11 years, he had studied alchemy trying in vain to make the Elixir of Life and to transform metals into gold. Looks like in ways he couldn’t envision, he was successful, after all.