Question: How many South American authors can you name? As for me, I’ve never been good at that game, despite having read a lot of books – or maybe precisely because I read a lot of books. Things get messy in this head of mine. To help you impress your in-laws at the next family reunion, or rather to provide you with some great reading inspiration, we’ve turned to fellow book lovers and asked them this question: Which are your favourite South American novels?
You’ll see from this list that there’s more to the literature of Latin America than a handful of unforgettable novels. We’re happy to introduce you to legendary Nobel Prize laureates and also lesser-known South American writers; we have fiction, we have some short stories and even a timeless collection of poetry. Let’s start off!
One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez, 1967)
Read by Nina from West Australian Explorer.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel Cien años de soledad is one of Latin America’s most successful novels and has sold millions of copies around the world.
Spanning a hundred years, the novel tells the tale of the fictional town Macondo in Colombia and the rise and fall of its founders, the Buendía family.
At the beginning of the book, Macondo is solitary with no connection to the outside world apart from the visiting gypsies. However, as the novel progresses, Macondo becomes exposed to the outside world and its many influences. Over the course of a hundred years, the town is the scene of natural catastrophes, civil wars, political strikes, and family conflict. True to Marquez’s trademark style, there’s plenty of magical events woven through the story. By the end of the novel, the town largely destroyed and ends when the last Buendía was born with a pig’s tail, as feared by the novel’s dead matriarch Ursula.
While the book is largely the political and historical story of post-colonial Latin America, its wide appeal is because its themes are universal. The book is full of compassion, conflict, heartbreak and despair that will appeal to every reader.
The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende, 1982)
Read by Anna from Green Mochila.
La casa de los espíritus and I found each other in a hostel we stayed at near the Machu Picchu. Although the first chapter was completely missing, torn out with the cover, I’ve taken it with me, since a dear Chilean friend recommended its author, Isabelle Allende, and this particular book to read.
I quickly noticed that magical realism style I loved so much in One Hundred Years of Solitude, by García Márquez.
The House of the Spirits is a 4-generation story where some of the women in the family have paranormal skills, such as future reading and what happens around it isn’t seen strange in that milieu.
In the book’s setting, we recognise the Chilean countryside and the post-colonial social structure that kept changing during the course of the story. I found particularly interesting to read about those political events through a literary filter because I had learnt about them in history museums in Chile.
I recommend this book for its captivating story line that lives together with an outstanding literary value.
Latin American fiction is famous for the magic realism of its vast epic novels that flow like mountain rivers. When travelling through South America and stopping in the still atmosphere of some secluded pueblo, one gets to the root of many Latin novels. García Márquez (known affectionately as ‘Gabo’ in Colombia) won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. Isabel Allende hasn’t received the Nobel Prize yet although she very much deserves it!
The Slum (Aluísio Azevedo, 1890)
Read by Lee from The Travel Scribes.
If you’ve ever been interested in the brilliantly vibrant country of Brazil, then O cortiço is a must-read affair. One of the original novels that made it onto the international scene, the book is writer Aluísio Azevedo’s love letter to the lower and working classes of Rio de Janeiro.
First published all the way back in 1890, the book explores life on the streets and in the grimy slums of Rio. It’s a fascinating story that technically focuses on two main characters – an immigrant landlord and a tenant – but actually weaves together a number of different, richly described story lines.
While it’s set in a bygone era, some of the descriptions are just as vivid today, as The Slum explores themes of racism, immigration and illicit love. If you like books that are more poetic in style yet pack a realist punch, then this book about Brazil is for you.
The Discreet Hero (Mario Vargas Llosa, 2013)
Read by Claudia from My Adventures Across The World.
In El Héroe Discreto, Vargas Llosa (Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010) tells three parallel stories. One is that of Felicito Yanaque, a man who owns a transportation business in Piura, a large city in the northwest of Peru. The second story is that of Rigoberto, a well educated man who lives and works in Lima for Ismael Carrera, an important businessman, and who also is the main character of the third story.
Ismael, Rigoberto and Felicito cross paths at the end of the book. Ismael and Felicito often face dilemmas and the struggles of daily life – for example, when Felicito’s transportation business flourishes he has to face crime and corruption. Yet, both Felicito and Ismael are positive figures – quite the contrary of their children, who on the other hand show moral shallowness.
This is a very good read, a novel where Vargas Llosa’s optimism transpires. It clearly depicts the difficulty of life in Peru, a fast growing country where layers of bureaucracy and corruption often make life difficult but where people ultimately remain good and attached to high moral values.
Does Mario Vargas Llosa tickle your interest? We also recommend Death in the Andes (1993) and The War of the End of the World (1981).
Captains of the Sands (Jorge Amado, 1937)
Read by Bruna from I Heart Brazil.
Any traveler visiting South America should read Amado’s novel, Capitães da Areia. This is one of the best books about Brazil and a must-read for anyone who wants to get to know some classic South American authors.
Capitães da Areia, or Captains of the Sands, is a book about the daily lives of a group of abandoned, homeless children.
The author shows not only the assaults and violent attitudes of these kids but also their naive aspirations and thoughts, familiar to any child. Amado gives life to a few characters of this group, mostly boys, with distinct personalities.
Still, one realizes after a few pages the characters, who are interestingly named, are a representation of the different social classes, or status if you will. For instance, the “Teacher” enjoyed reading and drawing but was often treated with contempt by wealthier people.
It sounds like a contemporary issue, but the book published in 1937 was censored at the time by the dictatorship. Years later, the book was re-published and even translated into many languages.
Well, reading this book will certainly deepen your understanding of the country’s turbulent soul, and open up your eyes to an urban tragedy, which still ghosts Brazil’s society.
If you want to dive deeper into Jorge Amado, we also recommend Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (1958).
Hopscotch (Julio Cortázar, 1963)
Read by Ignacio from Tango & Rakija.
As its title suggests – Rayuela in the original – the book itself can be perceived as a kind of hopscotch game where you jump from chapter to chapter, not necessarily following the chronological order but rather whichever order you like.
You can read the book from beginning to end as any other book, but also the writer proposes alternative ways to jump through the book and also gives you freedom to create your own jumping game, making your own reading order.
This is an interesting concept because it gives you different perspectives and understanding of the things, with or without having all the information in the right moment. So one book and many different ways to read it; and the moral that you get at the end of the book will also be based on how you read it.
The book is also a great source of “mystic” and off-the-beaten-path travel inspiration. The main story is happening in Paris, giving the reader an amazing virtual tour of the city, mentioning bars, restaurants, bridges and streets that will make you feel like you are there. It also brings you to some other places that you get to learn about.
Did I mention that it’s a very deep and romantic story? Is it happy, is it sad? Hard to say, since the book doesn’t have an exact beginning and end. Some chapters end happily while others have a sad ending. The final result depends on which chapter you choose to read last.
Open Veins of Latin America (Eduardo Galeano, 1971)
Read by Anthony from Green Mochila.
I don’t want to sound dramatic now, but Las venas abiertas de América Latina is THE one book you need to read if you want to understand the continent. Although not a novel because not a work of fiction, we had to add it to this list of important South American books.
Subtitled “Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent”, this essay by Eduardo Galeano, a journalist and author from Uruguay, tells the social and economic history of the Americas in a vivid and passionate way. It’s backed by facts that blew my mind and made me reconsider my understanding of international relations. It doesn’t only analyse the past economic dominance of foreign powers on the region, it also explains what’s at stake in this very day and age.
Don’t get me wrong though: my description of it sounds much more boring than the book itself. Galeano manages to transport his readers and to infuse anger, frustration, hope and beauty, alternately and all at once.
In her foreword, Chilean writer Isabel Allende –who also deserves to appear in this list of favourite South American novels– describes it better than me, as “a mixture of meticulous detail, political conviction, poetic flair, and good storytelling”. If that doesn’t convince you, then what will?
If Eduardo Galeano sounds appealing, we also recommend the Memory of Fire trilogy (1982-1986).
The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho, 1988)
Read by Lee-Ann from Be Free With Lee.
Paulo Coelho is an incredible South American author producing some of the best novels I have ever read. O Alquimista is one of his earlier works and a novel I enjoy rereading time and time again because of its thought-provoking passages.
The Alchemist is a book about self-discovery, travel and fulfilling your destiny among other important life messages. The story is about a young shepherd called Santiago and his journey to find treasure from his reoccurring dream. The story follows him on his journey from Spain to Egypt and his adventures, mishaps and lessons he learns along the way.
I recommend anyone read this book for an easy and thought provoking read on following your destiny, enhancing your sense of adventure and learning to listen to omens as well as being aware of hidden messages in life.
One of my favourite quotes from the book is: “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” This book makes me believe I can achieve my dreams and reinforces the idea that anything is possible if I just believe in it.
Inés of My Soul (Isabel Allende, 2006)
Read by Lannie from Lannie’s Food & Travel.
For those who love historical fiction, Inés del alma mía is a captivating story about a woman who would go on to help conquer Chile and found the city of Santiago in the mid-1500s. The book is based on the true-life story of Inés Suárez, a Spanish conquistadora, and told through a letter to her adopted daughter.
Although details are fictionalized, the main points of the story are true. Born in Spain, Inés travels to the New World in search of her husband (and a little freedom and adventure). She is a strong historical figure who is often overlooked in the contemporary telling of Chilean history.
I was originally drawn to this book, as I had read several other books by Isabel Allende, which I’ve always enjoyed. What makes this book memorable are the recurring themes of adventure, freedom, love and strength of character – all bundled up in a strong conquistadora, who travelled thousands of miles to make her mark in this world.
Beautifully told, wonderful story.
If Isabel Allende is your kind of dope, we also recommend Eva Luna (1987).
Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez, 1985)
Read by Elisa from World in Paris.
El amor en los tiempos del cólera by the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez is one of my favorite books set in South America.
The novel talks about Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, two teenagers who fall passionately in love. Fermina’s father prefers somebody wealthier for his daughter and he sends her away with some parents to make her forget Florentino. Fermina turns into a beautiful young woman and her love for Florentino fades away.
Eventually she chooses to marry the wealthy, well-born doctor Juvenal Urbino. Florentino is devastated but he cannot stop loving her and he decides to wait more than 50 years until he can win her heart again.
Gabriel García Márquez does not mention specifically where the novel is set. But whoever travels to Cartagena de Indias will recognize some of the main settings in the book, like El Portal de los Dulces, the Cathedral or some of the streets of Cartagena.
Budapest (Chico Buarque, 2003)
Read by Anthony from Green Mochila.
José Costa is a talented ghost-writer who writes bestsellers for others. He lives in Rio de Janeiro with Vanda, who is expecting a baby. On his way back from a ghost-writers conference in Turkey, his plane stops for a night in Budapest, Hungary.
José, main character and narrator of Budapeste, is passionate about languages, their words and their sounds. This passion is probably the reason he abdicates his own fame to the recognition of others, repressing his own ego in some sort of silent pride. In Budapest, he falls deeply in love with the mysterious Hungarian language, especially through the lips of the beautiful Kriszta.
Learning a new language triggers a vertiginous change in José; he becomes Zsoze, moves in with Kriszta, asserts himself and starts writing verses in Hungarian. He reinvents himself, creating a mirror version of his character and his work, rewriting his own life.
This novel hit me in more than one way. A wannabe writer myself, in love with a girl from Budapest and learning Hungarian at the time, it was the very first book I read in Portuguese. Although I probably missed a few subtleties because of that, ‘Budapest’ impressed me with its essential topic and its poetic narrative. It ranks among the few South American novels I will definitely re-read.
The Invention of Morel (Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1940)
Read by Sarah from Sarah’s Sojourns.
When thinking of Argentinian writers, the most well known is Jorge Luis Borges. My partner is a huge fan of his and thus I’ve had the opportunity to read a lot of his work. However, La invención de Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares was described by Borges as “a masterpiece of plotting” and is admired by quite a few other famous South American authors and so I just had to read this book that they all admired so much.
This book is magical and the writing is amazing. It’s a joy to read in English and I can only imagine how beautiful it would be to read in the original Spanish. The plot is a romantic mystery featuring a fugitive on a strange island and to say any more than that would risk spoiling it. It has incredible detail and masterful use of language. I was glued to the pages, lost completely in the story until I finished it.
The novella is only 100 pages so it’s an excellent choice if you don’t have much time. If it leaves you wanting more, I also recommend his collection of short stories “A Russian Doll and Other Stories”.
100 Love Sonnets (Pablo Neruda, 1959)
Read by Taryn from Chaos In A Book.
Hi, I’m Taryn, a blogger from Cape Town, South Africa. I have never left my country… But I have travelled to many places through the pages of books.
People would argue that travelling is rooted in seeing the sights, immersing yourself in the culture or getting lost in the experience. And while these are legitimate, it is not the only thing that creates those unforgettable moments. In my opinion it is the emotions that colours your memory of those moments that would last forever. So… Today, I offer to you Pablo Neruda’s Cien sonetos de amor.
I first encountered Pablo’s work in the movie Patch Adams. This lead me to investigate further and I found that this poetry collection is written in dedication to Pablo’s wife, Matilde. The poems deal with love and joy and longing and desire. It definitely takes you on a journey and also cemented my love for poetry with this beautiful piece of work:
What is love?
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
I could share so many more of these. But rather I urge you to take up the book called 100 love sonnets and start with Pablo’s letter to his wife, before delving into the delights offered to you. So you see… Chile, my friends, is vibrant and beautiful and scenic and passionate.
The savage Detectives (Roberto Bolaño, 1998)
Read by Ronan.
This novel was published in Spanish in 1998 and the English translation only saw the light in 2007.
Los detectives salvajes is quite a long book, divided into three different parts. The book is based on the story of a group of young writers from Mexico City called the Visceral Realists.
Eventually, some of the members of the Visceral Realists drive through the Desert of Sonora to try and find a mythical poet called Cesárea Tinajero.
As often with Bolaño, the structure isn’t linear at all, which might make the reading uneasy. For instance, the second part is based on interviews of people from many different continents, who have all known Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, two members of the Visceral Realists. The interviews run from 1976 to 1996. The fist part of the book takes place in 1975 and the last one in 1976.
Though the reading can be challenging it’s worth the effort : Bolaño is a very good (and very educated) writer. Anyone who’s interested in contemporary literature should read this book.
And you, what’s YOUR favourite South American book? Any recommendation that’s not on the list?
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