It’s all here: magical realism, characters as big as gods, social (in)justice, love and death and the depredations of colonialism. Ten masterpieces from that gorgeous and perennially troubled continent.
1. The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa
Llosa wrote several great novels – Aunt Julia and The Scriptwriter is probably the best-known – but none better than this tale based on a revolutionary community in a backwater of 19th Century Brazil. Prostitutes, beggars and bandits build a town called Canudos – their Utopia – and find themselves besieged by government armies.
2. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector
Lispector’s final work is a luminous novella about a slum-dwelling typist from the northeast of Brazil, who dreams of being as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe. As always with Lispector, the stuff in the margins is what counts: whimsical observations about God and the universe and writing, aphorisms, and memories that flicker as briefly and brightly as shooting stars.
3. The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes
From his deathbed, the tycoon Artemio Cruz recounts his breathtaking journey through modern Mexican history, from his heroic stand in the Mexican Revolution through to his relentless and ruthless climb up society’s ladder. As the narrative jumps around in time and perspective, the novel becomes an unforgettable, kaleidoscopic portrait of a man and a nation.
4. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
A literary blockbuster that began life as a letter to Allende’s dying 100-year-old grandfather. This multi-generational saga, full of romance, desire, political upheaval, and a delightful dose of magical realism, is a love song to Latin America.
5. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Bolaño was a dyslexic poet-vagabond who died at fifty after traipsing around Chile, Mexico, France and Spain. He was also the heir of Borges and García Márquez in terms of richly imagined characters and labyrinthine tall tales. This, his first full-length novel, is a dazzling tragicomedy – a quest story that satirizes the writing life even as it memorializes it.
6. The President by Miguel Ángel Asturias
This 1946 novel brilliantly exposes the corrosive effects of a Latin American dictatorship. Set in an unnamed country that strongly resembles Asturias’s Guatemala, The President uses bizarre dream sequences and black humor to satirize the oppressive, murderous regime. If a Hieronymous Bosch painting could be turned into a lyrical, haunting novel, this would be it.
7. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
The joyous masterpiece that broke open literature. Full of color, riotous humor, vivid characters, and the sheer richness of García Márquez’s setting – a town called Macondo – the novel is lauded for its astonishing inventiveness. But its author always insisted the so-called magical realism was just reality for Colombians.
8. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado
A superb novel by a Brazilian master about a beautiful, innocent girl thrust into a society on the cusp of modernity. Perhaps Gabriela is Brazil itself. Like García Márquez with Colombia, Amado renders the northeast of his country so real, so tangible, so full of sound and smell and taste that you almost touch it as you read.
9. Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano
How to describe Memory of Fire? This trilogy is a history book, extended prose poem and novel rolled into one. Perhaps it’s enough to say that it’s a masterpiece that captures the history of the Americas in all their gory glory. As a dissection of greed, racism, and conquest, it is unmatched – a Biblical epic bathed in blood.
10. Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante
A Cuban treat. A dazzling tour de force of puns, wordplay, lists, wild humor, and postmodern excess. Cabrera Infante borrows from Joyce, Sterne, Robbe-Grillet, Cortázar and numerous others, but the work has a life of its own, recalling 1950s Havana with its high jinks and jazz. This is one long, tall mojito of a novel.
*A version of this blog post appeared in Bookwitty in June 2016.