There is immense beauty and variety in Latin American Literature, for those willing to take the plunge.
One of my favourite tennis bloggers describes a short incident that followed her reading about the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When she expressed her surprise and sorrow with an “Aww, no” in office, a colleague who happened to be in the vicinity responded with compassion and concern. In a bid to lighten the atmosphere (“it’s not like the Nobel-Prize-winning author was a friend of mine”), the blogger said: “Truth be told, until this moment I wasn’t aware he was still alive.”
“Well, truth be told, until this moment, I’d never been aware of him at all… Who is he?”, replied her colleague.
Just like the blogger, I did not know that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was still alive, nor was I friends with him. But as often happens in life, learning about his death led to an outburst of memories and nostalgia.
Having grown up on a staple of English literature and Indian writing in English, I discovered Marquez quite late in my life – somewhere in my 20’s. I picked up 100 Years Of Solitude on a whim on a lazy Saturday afternoon . By this time, my reading habits had turned promiscuous – I’d find it difficult to attach myself to a single book at a time. But I remember staying up all night to finish Marquez, and gushing about him to everyone I met for the next one year.
I will miss Marquez and his surreal prose, and am grateful to him not just for his own books, but also for introducing me to the delightful world of Latin American writers. Theirs is a world that draws inspiration from centuries of oral and written history, that is rooted in the often-times cruel reality of their lives, but is interspersed with a heavy dose of science and philosophy disguised as “magic”. Theirs is an imagination so intense and vivid that even the best English (and Indian) writers pale in comparison.
Here then is a list of Latin American writers not named Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who would make it to the roll of 100 Authors To Read Before You Die. A word of caution – if you can’t bear to read a book that doesn’t end with happily ever after, then these authors are not for you.
This list is by no means exhaustive – we’d love to hear your suggestions on other writers of Latin American origin that we should delve into!
Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina):
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is credited with bringing ‘magical realism” into fiction, but it was Borges who first experimented with this genre. Equally fluent in Spanish, English & French, he had an extraordinary understanding of literature in these languages – yet he liked to say that “I have only my perplexities to offer you”.
Borge’s work spanned a vast literary canvas, from poetry to short stories, essays, translations and screenplays. To get a feel of Borge’s intellectual prowess, we suggest you listen to the six lectures on poetry and literature that he delivered at Harvard University in the fall/spring of 1967/ 68. Borges was completely blind by this time and did not know Braille, yet here he was – quoting authors and reciting poems from memory, elucidating on the beauty and simplicity of poetry , all delivered with warmth and a pinch of humour.
If you enjoy the lectures, it’s time to try out Borge’s prose – a great starting point is Labyrinths, a collection of ficciones (short stories) and essays that showcase his imagination and intellect in full flight.
Clarice Lispector (Brazil):
Clarice Lispector is often hailed as the successor to Franz Kafka and Virgina Woolf, so you know what to expect from her writing. Her angst was a manifestation of her roots – born in modern day Ukraine, she spent her first year accompanying her persecuted Jewish family into Romania and then Brazil. Her initial work focused on the tumultuous inner life of young women at a time when no one cared for women protagonists in Latin America, leading to her first work of fiction (Near To The Wild Heart) being dubbed as the “the greatest novel a woman has ever written in the Portuguese language”.
If you are like us and can only take small doses of Mrs. Dalloway-ish conversations with self, we suggest you test Lispector with her last novella, The Hour Of The Star. In a macabre twist, Lispector settles upon the suave Rodrigo S.M. to narrate the tale of Macabéa – an ugly, undernourished, poverty stricken girl living in the slums of Rio who is blissfully oblivious to her wretchedness, till she gets run over by a Mercedes and dies. By means of her tormented “hero” and liberated “anti-heroine”, Lispector manages to flip long held notions of affection, identity and destitution.
Roberto Bolano (Chile):
Roberto Bolano attained cult like status after the posthumous publication of 2666, with the venerable New York Times describing him as “the most significant Latin American literary voice of his generation”. Although he gained fame for his prose – most notably 2666 & Savage Detectives – he started his literary career as poet and turned to fiction only in the 1990’s, primarily to secure the financial future of his family.
Bolano’s protagonists are often young poets or scholars who spend their days debating literature, making love and speculating about the existence of a mythical literary legend. In The Savage Detectives, our favourite work by Bolano, he takes this theme a step further, sending two “visceral realists” on a quest spanning two decades across Latin America & Europe. Politics is never far from the surface in any notable work of Latin American fiction, but Bolano manages to conceal the political in the humdrum of birth, life and death, while mocking his reader to understand his true intent – is he celebrating the existence of literature as a counterpoint to the squalid hopelessness of each new day, or is he mocking its escapism?
If the craft of a writer is to conjure a lurid universe of fact, fiction and fantasy, then few can top Bolano. His prose is like a cup of perfectly brewed coffee – to be enjoyed in tiny mouthfuls of breathless pleasure and contemplation.
Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru):
We aren’t among those who believe that all great writing needs to be political in nature. But in Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s case, his anger and political stridency lend his writing a distinct edge. Never one for withholding his opinions (he once ran unsuccessfully for the Presidency of Peru), Llosa’s strong anti-authoritarianism has informed the best of his works – which are often based upon events from his life.
For such an angry writer, he is also remarkably funny, even if the humour is often as dark as molasses. His genre-hopping output ranges from murder mysteries to magic realist fables to a re-telling of Madame Bovary to a fictional description of the last day of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. But if you want to dip your toes in this Nobel Laureate’s output, we’d recommend Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Part autobiographical telling of his own romance with his first wife (who wrote a book to counter this one once the relation soured!), and part hysterical description of the production of a radio soap-opera, this book is post-modernist farce done just right.
Read Llosa’s moving Nobel Prize Lecture here.
Isabel Allende (Chile):
Perhaps the most commercially successful Latin American author, and certainly the most well recognized in the Western world after Marquez, Isabel Allende was born into a political family – her father, who was the Chilean ambassador to Peru at the time of her birth, was a first cousin of Salvador Allende, Chile’s ruler in the pre-Pinochet days. Allende started her career as a print and television journalist, and was nudged into fiction by none other than the great Pablo Neruda during the course of an interview.
Allende’s work is often centred around women and blends the real with the fantastical, leading to obvious comparisons with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. So as a companion to Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, we suggest you read Allende’s The House Of Spirits, a brilliant saga of three generations of Trueba women and an allegory of the political history of 20th century Chile.
Pablo Neruda (Chile):
We will not attempt to provide a biography of Pablo Neruda, but we are in vociferous agreement with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s declaration that Neruda is “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”.
If there is only one poet that you end up reading in your life, it has to be Neruda. To acquaint yourself with the sublime majesty of his magic, we suggest you start with Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. And remember to thank us as you order the rest of his works on Flipkart.
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Jorge Luis Borges image courtesy: Openculture
Gabriel Garcia Marquez Books image courtesy: Rachel Gallea