Happy Holidays! The 12 Days of LT scavenger hunt is going on. Can you solve the clues?
This site uses cookies to deliver our services, improve performance, for analytics, and (if not signed in) for advertising. By using LibraryThing you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your use of the site and services is subject to these policies and terms.
  • LibraryThing
  • Book discussions
  • Your LibraryThing
  • Join to start using.

October - December 2013: South American Literature

Reading Globally

Join LibraryThing to post.

This topic is currently marked as "dormant"—the last message is more than 90 days old. You can revive it by posting a reply.

Edited: Sep 11, 2013, 3:44pm Top

Welcome to the fourth quarter of 2013 and South America, with co-leaders StevenTX and SassyLassy. This quarter will look at the countries of the Reading Globally divisions South America I and South America II.

South America is an incredibly diverse continent, politically, linguistically, culturally and physically, with something for everyone. Its political divisions range from Brazil, with about half the continent's population, to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, a disputed overseas territory of the UK, also claimed by Argentina, with no permanent residents.

A continent with over four hundred million people produces lots of writers, mostly published in the official languages of the various countries: Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch and English. Work is being done to publish in some of the indigenous languages. If you read Portuguese or Spanish, you're in for a treat, but as the language of Reading Globally is English, we have concentrated on books available in English translation. There's still lots to read and all suggestions are welcome.

There are some thematic similarities across the continent. Early South American authors were strongly influenced by writers of the colonial powers, so for example there was a nineteenth century Romantic movement in South America corresponding to the European one . This was followed by a move to deeper concerns about social and political realities, as in Europe. However, the abolition of slavery and independence movements were South American themes that crept in during the nineteenth century as nationalist movements developed. The twentieth century was an era of guerilla war in many South American countries, and these struggles, along with the corresponding struggles between landlord and peasant, are pervasive themes, often disguised as magic realism to evade censure or worse. Today, lawlessness and narcoterrorism are emerging themes.

Some Background Reading

Simon Bolivar
- El Libertador: Writings of Simon Bolivar first person accounts of Bolivia, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela

Eduardo Galeano (see post 15 below)
his three volume Memory of Fire look at South America includes
- Genesis
- Faces and Masks
- Century of the Wind

Ernesto Che Guevara
- The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey around South America

Alfredo Toro Hardy
- The World Turned Upside Down: The Complex Partnership between China and Latin America 2013

Efrain Kristal ed
- The Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel

Suzanne Jill Levine
- The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction

Raymond Leslie Williams
- The Postmodern Novel in Latin America: Politics of Culture and the Crisis of Truth

Maps, maps, maps

A very old map of South America

An 1826 map of South America showing historical political divisions

Left: South America today, Right: a physical map of South America

Lastly, a note on Spanish naming conventions

Spanish often uses two family names, the paternal and the maternal. Looking at Hector Abad Faciolince, Abad is his first or paternal family name; Faciolince is his second or maternal family name. Sometimes when searching for these authors, the second family name is dropped and the search would be for Hector Abad.

Edited: Sep 10, 2013, 2:02pm Top

BRAZIL, population 201 million, official language Portuguese

You could think of Brazil as the keystone of South America. It is so large it borders on all the other countries except Chile and Ecuador. Half the population of South America lives here.

Brazil will be in the international spotlight for the next while for a variety of reasons: it hosts next year's FIFA World Cup, it hosts the Summer Olympics in 2016, and from a literary standpoint, it is the guest of honour at this years's Frankfurt Book Fair. With any luck, that event should help to correct the 2007 complaint in The Guardian decrying the lack of English translations of current Brazilian literature.

Despite the lack of current literature in translation, Brazil does have a wealth of older literature. The Brazilian Academy of Letters was founded in 1896. This was a turbulent time, just after two enormous events; the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the establishment of a military republic. The big three of nineteenth century Brazilian literature are Macedo, Machado and Alencar. All three wrote on the themes of independence from Portugal, won in 1822, and the abolition of slavery.

By the 1930s, hard times inspired writers to look at political and social concerns more critically, with one of the themes being the struggle between landlords and peasants. One of the most famous novels from this era is Graciliano Ramos's Barren Lives. Ramos will be the featured author at this year's Parati International Festival of Literature.

The Brazilian modernist movement of the 1940s sought to move to less formal, more representative language, as seen in the work of Adonias Filho.

Increasing political repression by the military starting in the 1950s and 1960s, led to a return to the themes of the '30s, but now criticism had to be disguised. Torture of the military regime's political opponents was sanctioned and in force from 1964-1985. Some authors turned to magic realism in an attempt to avoid persecution.

More recent authors have explored the migration of the rural poor to the cities, a movement that has made Brazil 87% urban. One such author is Antonio Torres.

What does the future hold? Granta has devoted an entire edition to younger Brazilian authors:

Background Brazil, books
The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross: Witchcraft, Slavery, and Popular Religion in Colonial Brazil by Laura de Mello de Souza, documents the merging of European witchcraft beliefs with Amerindian and African beliefs to form a new set of cultural beliefs in the colony that many Portuguese believed was a purgatorial exile
Chapters in Brazil's Colonial History 1500-1800 by João Capistrano de Abreu, 1853-1908, published 1907
The Amazon: Land without History by Euclides da Cunha, 1866-1909, journal of a trip through this region in 1905
Child of the Dark: The Diary of Maria Carolina de Jesus, the diary of a mother of three in the streets of São Paulo
Torture in Brazil: A Shocking Report on the Pervasive Use of Torture by Brazilian Military Governments 1964- 1979, Secretly Prepared by the Archdiocese of São Paulo

Background Brazil, film
Torture in Brazil by Saul Landau and Haskell Wexler, a 1971 American documentary of first hand interviews with seventy political prisoners released from Brazilian prisons to Chile

Brazilian writers

Joaquim Manuel de Macedo 1820-1882
- one of the 3 big nineteenth century authors
- unfortunately, nothing seems to be currently available in English

José de Alencar 1829-1877, member of the Romantic movement
- Iracema, 1865, deals with the nineteenth century tensions over European relationships with indigenous peoples

Manuel Antonio de Almeida 1831-1861
- Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant 1852

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis 1839-1908, Susan Sontag called him the greatest South American writer
- The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, 1881
- Quincas borba/ Philospher of Dog?, 1891
- Dom Casmurro, 1900, the OUP calls this "one of the unrecognized classics of the turn of the century"
- Esau and Jacob, 1904, the story of twin brothers in love with the same woman
- The Alienist, a physician opens the first asylum in Brazil, but who is really crazy?
- The Wager, a man returns to Brazil after many years abroad and doesn't recognize it
- The Devil's Church and Other Stories, is a move from his earlier work to social satire

Aluisio Azevedo 1857- 1913
- Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant, 1852

Graciliano Ramos 1892-1953, featured writer at this year's FLIP
- Barren Lives, a novel of the plight of the homeless

Jorge Amado 1912-2001
- Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, called by Sartre the best example of a folk novel
- Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, one of the best known Brazilian novels
- Tent of Miracles
- Tieta

Adonias Filho 1915-1990
- Memories of Lazarus, 1952, a novel of the Bahia area and what it does to its inhabitants

Moacyr Scliar, b 1937, now lives in NYC
- The Centaur in the Garden, a fabulist story of a centaur born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Brazil's Rio Grande do Sul, called by the National Yiddish Book Centre one of the 100 greatest works of modern Jewish literature
- Max and the Cats
- Kafka's Leopards
- The Gods of Racquel
- The War in Bom Fim
- also in Tropical Synagogues: Short Stories by Jewish Latin American Writers, ed. Ilan Stevens

Antonio Torres b. 1940, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres of France, winner of the Machado de Assis prize from the Brazilian Academy of Letters for his life's work
- The Land, another novel of the Bahia region
- Blues for a Lost Childhood

Caio Fernando Abreu 1948-1996
- Whatever Happened to Dulce Veiga? A B-Novel, 1990
-Dulce disappeared twenty years ago on the eve of her first big show and now a down and out journalist is tracking her through the bowels of São Paulo

Rodrigo de Souza Leão 1965-2008
- All Dogs are Blue, a novel about life in an insane asylum, a place where the author actually died

Edited: Sep 10, 2013, 7:51pm Top

COLOMBIA, population 45.75 million, official language Spanish

Colombia is a paradox for outsiders: the second most biodiverse country in the world, full of natural resources, and yet one plagued by guerilla war from factions such as FARC, and by narcoterrorists who work outside any recognized structure. Balance trade in oil, emeralds, cut flowers, coffee and plastic against cocaine productions and an exceptionally high number of forced disappearances, and you have a picture of constant turmoil.

Even the geography is a problem. One of the recurring intergovernmental disputes in South America is over national borders. Until 1830, Colombia, along with Ecuador and Venezuela formed the nation of Gran Colombia. Then Ecuador and Colombia seceded. In the twentieth century another chunk was hewn off to create Panama and advance American interests. Today, many Colombians leave on their own due to national turmoil, with Ecuador and Venezuela as their most likely destinations.

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Colombia has a rich literary tradition. You could probably spend this entire South American quarter just reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia's best known writer. While that would certainly be worthwhile, there are many other Colombian writers to discover.

The 19802 Nobel Prize citation for Garcia Marquez read ..."for all his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent's life and conflict". Magical realism has become almost synonymous with Garcia Marquez, while other writers have other concerns.

The 1940s and 1950s saw the rise of the Nadaismo or nothingist movement in response to the violence in society. Its surrealist component is exemplified by the work of Gonzalo Arango. Political violence in contemporary society became a major them for writers such as Evelio Rosero, Hector Abad Faciolince and Mario Mendoza.

Contemporary Colombian writers are sometimes lavelled as members of the McCondo movement, a short form for McDonald's, Mac products and condos. These writers deal with themes of war, emigration and narcoterrorism; a long way from magic realism, even further from the nineteenth century romantics.

San Pedro Claver Church, Cartagena, from the Guardian World Literature Tour: Colombia

Background Colombia, books

- Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life by Gerald Martin
- The Cambridge Introduction to Gabriel Garcia Marquez by Gerald Martin
- Bandits, Peasants, and Politics: The Case of "La Violencia" in Colombia by Gonzalo Sanchez and Donny Meertens, 2001
- Of Beasts and Beauty: Gender, Race and Identity in Colombia by Michael Stanfield, 2013

Jorge Isaacs
- Maria, his only novel but regarded as one of the best nineteenth century South American novels

Marta Traba, 1923-1983, art critic and novelist
- Mothers and Shadows, a novel of the disappeared

Alvaro Mutis, b. 1923
- The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll

Fernando Vallejo, b.1942, now living in Mexico
- Our Lady of the Assassins

Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazabal b.1945
- Bazaar of the Idiots inverts the lives of saints and sinners

Hector Abad Faciolince, b.1958
- Oblivion: A Memoir, a tribute to his father, murdered by Colombian paramilitaries
- The Joy of Being Awake
- Recipes for Sad Women

Evelio Rosero, b. 1958, poet, playwright, novelist, writer of children's books, winner of the 2006 Primio Nacional de Literatura for "a life in letters"
- The Armies, a novel about what happens to a village victimized by successive warring factions
- Good Offices, satirizes the Catholic Church
- The Burning Man

Jorge Franco
- Paradise Travel

Juan Gabriel Vasquez, b. 1973
- The Informers, 2004
- The Secret History of Costaguana, 2007, the NYT calls it "a post modern revenge story", with the object being Joseph Conrad
- The Sound of Things Falling, 2013

Eduardo Garcia Aguilar
- Boulevard of Heroes, "a voyage into the soul of Latin America's radical old time activists"
- Luminous Cities
- The Triumphant Voyage

James Canon
- Tales from the Town of Widows and Chronicles from the Land of Men, what happens when all the men are kidnapped and what happens when they return four years later

Colombia: Nobel Prize for Literature, 1982

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, b. 1928, brought up by his grandparents, so his upbringing hearkened back to an earlier era

fiction sampler:
- No One Writes to the Colonel, 1961
- One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967
- The Autumn of the Patriarch, 1975
- Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 1981
- Love in the Time of Cholera, 1983
- Memories of My Melancholy Whores, 2004

- The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, 1970, a journalistic expose

Edited: Sep 11, 2013, 2:47pm Top

ECUADOR, population 15.44 million, official language Spanish

Ecuador seems to be a land of untranslated poets. There's certainly a wealth of inspiration to be found there. The land mass was part of the northern Inca empire until 1533, when the Incas were defeated by the Spanish. It's split among Amazon rainforest in the Oriente region, Andean highland Sierra, and the Pacific coastal region. The Galapagos Archipelago also belongs to modern day Ecuador. This biodiversity led to Ecuador becoming the first country to recognize ecosystem rights in the constitution of 2008.

Travellers can experience some of this diversity on this rebuilt railway featuring steam trains, the most difficult in the world, reopened this summer, running from Quito in the Highlands, travelling through the Valley of Volcanoes, to Quayaquil on the coast in four days.

The capital, Quito, was named a UNESCO world heritage site for having the best preserved city centre in Latin America. This is a gargoyle depicting one of the native animals on the Quito Basilica, a nineteenth century building:

Ecuador is by no means idyllic though. It is politically unstable with an average government life span of twenty months. The armed forces are an important political force. Peru has invaded Ecuador and there have been several border wars, the last one resolved as recently as 1999. The resource and agriculture based economy leads to boom and bust cycles. While many Ecuadorians emigrate seeking better economic opportunities, Ecuador receives the most refugees of any South American country, the vast majority of whom are from Colombia.

Background Ecuador, books
The Ecuador Reader: History, Culture, Politics, eds. Carlos de la Torre, Steve Striffer, Robin Kirk

Ecuador writers

Juan Leon Mera 1832-1894, wrote in the romantic style
- Cumanda, 1879, a novel of Indian revolts in the jungle, a missionary and his son

Juan Montalvo 1832-1889
- Moral Geometry
- The Chapters that Cervantes Forgot
- The Perpetual Dictatorship

Luis Martinez
- To the Coast, 1904

Fernando Chavez, the first Ecuadorian writer to take a serious look at indigenous peoples
- Silver and Bronze, 1927

Jorge Icaza Coronel 1906-1978, realist poet and playwright
- Hausipungo (The Villagers), 1934 novel about the plight of the poor and indigenous peoples which can be viewed as a polemic or as a realistic portrayal, depending on the reader's point of view
- classic in its country

Alfredo Pareja Diezcanseco 1908-1993
- writer with a strong concern for social conditions

Salomon Iscicovici 1924-1998
- born in Romania and emigrated to Ecuador after being liberated from Gross Rosen concentration camp
- Man of Ashes, 1990, there is a dispute as to whether this is fiction or authobiography

Abdon Ubidia b1944
- Wolves' Dreams, a suspense novel about five men marginalized by the end of the oil boom, who plan a bank robbery

Fanny Carrion de Fierro
- Where Light was Born: A Personal Anthology of Selected Poems edited by Fanny Carrion de Fierro

Karina Galvez, b 1964, now lives in the USA
- Karina Galvez: Poetry and Songs

Ernesto Quinonez, b1969, now lives in the USA
- Bodega Dreams, 2000, according to Book Depository, this combines the gritty rhythms of Junot Diaz with the noir genius of Walter Mosley
- Chango's Fire, 2004

Ecuador Anthologies
Tapestry of the Sun: An Anthology of Ecuadorian Poetry, bilingual edition in English and Spanish, edited by Alexis Levitin and Fernando Iturburu

Fire from the Andes: Short Fiction by Women from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, edited by Susan Benner
- concerned with the theme of social justice

Edited: Sep 11, 2013, 8:22am Top

FRENCH GUIANA population 240,000, official language French

French Guiana is not actually a country, rather it is an overseas region of France, electing representatives and senators to the Parlement in Paris. Unlike European France, however, it has a substantial Creole population at 30%. The Creole of French Guiana is related to and mutually intelligible with that of Haiti.

Historically, the French were largely unsuccessful in establishing permanent settlements in this region, so they made it a penal colony, sending prisoners to both mainland and island prisons. Starting in 1854, convicts were made to stay on in French Guiana after their release for a period equalling the length of their prison sentence. Alfred Dreyfus was imprisoned on the notorious Devil's Island, while Henri Charrière was a prisoner on the mainland, not on the island as his novel Papillon suggests.

Given the history and low population, there are few published writers.

Background French Guiana, books

Women and Slavery in the French Antilles 1635 - 1848 by Bernard Moitt
Beyond Papillon: The French Overseas Penal Colonies 1854-1952 by Stephen Toth, 2008

French Guiana, writers

René Jadfard 1899-1947
Léon-Gontran Damas 1912-1978 a leading poet of the Negritude movement
- Black Label and Other Poems (in French)
Georges Othily b.1944
Lotus Vingadassamy-Engel, author and expert on the Indian diaspora in South America


Left: A prison hulk in Toulon harbour
Right: The hut on Devil's Island where the wrongfully convicted Dreyfus spent part of his imprisonment

Edited: Sep 11, 2013, 12:56pm Top

GUYANA population 740,000, official language English

Although it is on the mainland of South America, culturally, Guyana is considered part of the Caribbean. Originally a Dutch possession, it passed to Britain, being renamed British Guiana in the process. The country achieved independence in 1966 and is now known as Guyana. As a holdover from colonial times, Guyana is engated in border disputes with neighbouring Venezuela and Suriname, and in marine boundary disputes with Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago.

Guyana is one of South America's poorest countries, with approximately one third of its population below the poverty line. Many middle class and educated Guyanese emigrate, leading to problems with the delivery of education and healthcare.

Things are not all doom and gloom though. There are large areas of unspoiled rainforest, and in 2012 Norway gave Guyana $45 million as a reward for its efforts in rainforest protection.


Guyana background
These books are published by the Hakluyt Society:
Sir Walter Raleigh's Discoverie of Guiana ed Joyce Lorimer
The Guiana Travels of Robert Schomburgk 1835-1844 Volumes I and II

Guyana modern writers

E R Braithwaite b. 1920, moved to England during WWII when he was an RAF pilot
- To Sir with Love, 1959, probably the best known book from Guyana
- Reluctant Neighbours 1972
- Honorary White 1975

Wilson Harris b. 1921, moved to England in 1959
-post colonial critic with a stong emphasis on themes relating to colonized peoples, often employs magic realism
- The Guyana Quartet includes Palace of the Peacock 1960, The Far Journey of Oudin 1961, The Whole Armour 1962 and The Secret Ladder 1963
- The Carnival Trilogy includes Carnival 1985, The Infinite Rehearsal 1987 and The Four Banks of the River of Space 1990
- Jonestown 1996 is a novel about Jim Jones and the mass suicide of his followers in Guyana
- The Dark Jester 2001
- Mask of the Beggar 2003
- The Ghost of Memory 2006 a novel about a South American man accidentally shot when mistaken for a terrorist, who then falls through time until he meets Christopher Columbus in an art gallery

Martin Carter 1927-1997 was imprisoned by the British for his role in the Guyanese independence movement
- Poems of Resistance from 1954 British Guiana
- University of Hunger: Collected Poems and Selected Prose ed Gemma Robinson, 2006

Cyril Dabydeen b. 1945, now lives in Ottawa
- Drums of My Flesh 2007

John Agard b. 1949 is a poet and writer for children, who moved to England in 1977

Oonya Kempadoo b. 1966, nominated twice for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Awards, now lives in Grenada
- Buxton Spice 1998
- Tide Running 2001

Janice Ross in the US since 1980, writes about damaged women
- Jumping Ship 2013
- Damaged Girls I and II

Edited: Sep 10, 2013, 7:31pm Top

PERU population 29.85 million, official languages Spanish, Quecha, Aymara

"The fight is long and tough, but together we can make it"

So said Jose Carlos Mariategui, a Peruvian Marxist writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, but expressing an idea that recurs again and again in Peruvian novels, poetry and essays.

Home of the Incas and other Andean civilizations, the area was conquered by the Spanish in 1533, winning back its independence in 1821. Successive governments were unable or unwilling to do anything to relieve the endemic poverty, malnutrition and poor health of the peasant classes. Today, these problems are compounded by urban air pollution in Lima and other cities, and by water pollution from sewage and mining. Natural forces such as earthquakes and changing weather patterns cause more problems, particularly in agriculture. Peru still disputes its borders with Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia. In the nineteenth century, Japanese and Chinese workers were brought in for the coastal plantations. Their influence is still felt. Alberto Fujimori was elected president in 1990, defeating the author Mario Vargas Llosa. Today China is the largest recipient of Peruvian exports..

In the 1960s, a Maoist branch of the Communist Party of Peru, the Sondero Luminoso or Shining Path was established. It chose to boycott the 1980 elections rather than participate, and burned ballot boxes as a statement of its stance. The atrocities committed on both sides in the ensuing guerilla was is one of the more harrowing themes in Peruvian literature. A poster boycotting the elections:

By far the best known Peruvian author is Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Prize winner for literature. Very few other Peruvian writers have name recognition in the English speaking world.

Background Peru, books by Peruvians

Peruvian Traditions by Ricardo Palma 1838-1919
- Palma was head of the National Library in Lima and so had unlimited access to source documents

Free Pages and Hard Times by Manuel Gonzalez Prada 1844-1918, another director of the National Library, an anarchist and reformer who wanted the workers to take over from his own aristocratic class

Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality and Heroic and Creative Meaning of Socialism: Selected Essays of Jose Carlos Mariategui by Jose Carlos Mariategui 1844-1930
- Mariategui's efforts to apply a Marxist framework to Peru were so influential that he is still being read and published today

Background Peru, books by outsiders

Reports on the Discovery of Peru, ed Clements Markham, a 2010 Cambridge University Press reprint on the 1872 Hakluyt Society volume of four eyewitness accounts of the Spanish conquest of Peri

Lost City of the Incas: The Story of Machu Pichu and its Builders by Hiram Bingham
- first person account by the man who "discovered" Machu Pichu in 1911, along with Vilcos and Vilcabamba

Peru: writers

Clorinda Matto de Turner 1852-1909, a major nineteenth century literary figure in Peru, editor, professor, writer, exile
- Torn from the Nest, 1889, the story of a European man and an indigenous woman that was critical of the clergy
- Herencia (Heredity)

Cesar Vallejo 1892-1928
- Cesar Vallejo: The Complete Poetry a bilingual edition in English and Spanish

Martin Adan 1908-1985
- The Cardboard House a stream of consciousness, anticolonial, nationalist novel

Ciro Alegria, 1909-1969, one of the few indigenous novelists in South American translated to English
- Broad and Alien is the World

Jose Maria Arguedas 1911-1969, a member of the "Indigenista" movement, writing in Spanish and Quecha
- he committed suicide
- Deep Rivers
- Yawar Fiesta: Bloody Fiesta
- The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quecha people

Alfredo Bryce Echenique b. 1939
- A World for Julius, 1970, an upper class Peruvian boy identifies more with his family's help than with his family
- Tarzan's Tonsillitis, 1998

Alonso Cueto b. 1954
- The Blue Hour, 2012

Jaime Bayly b.1965, a prolific modern writer and screenwriter with few books in English translation
- The Sentimental Bastard

Santiago Roncagliolo, b.1975, picked as one of Granta's best young novelists in Spanish Granta Issue 113
- moved to Spain in 2000
- Red April won Spain's Alfaguara Prize
- Hi, This is Conchita and Other Stories, four short stories that take place on the phone

Peru: Nobel Prize for Literature, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa b. 1936

The citation for this Nobel Prize read '...for his cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat"


- The Time of the Hero, 1963, a social satire of the military establishment that was publicly burned in Peru
- The Green House, 1965, a story of brothel life
- Conversation in the Cathedral, 1969, a novel of political repression in 1950s Peru
- Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, 1973
- Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, 1977- Death in the Andes, 1996, a novel of the guerilla war
- The War of the End of the World, 1981, about a nineteenth century standoff between the Brazilian army and a millenarian cult
- The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, 1983
- Who Killed Palomino Molero?. 1986
- The Storyteller, 1989
- The Feast of the Goat, 2000, novel of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic
- The Bad Girl, 2006, a variation on Madame Bovary
- The Dream of the Celt, 2010, treatment of the Roger Casement case

- doctoral thesis on Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Miserables
- A Fish in the Water, 1993, memoirs
- Letters to a Young Novelist
- The Way to Paradise, a 2003 study of Flora Tristan and Paul Gaugin

Edited: Sep 12, 2013, 10:30am Top

SURINAME population 557,000 official language Dutch

"...he shed tears and weeping he entered Surinam" Candide, 1759

Suriname was a notorious country in seafaring days, catching the attention of Europeans. With a seacoast on the Caribbean, it saw lots of questionable trade and privateering. Voltaire's Candide was swindled by a Dutch sea captain there. Approximately seventy-five years earlier, Aphra Behn, who reportedly spent time in Suriname, published Oroonoko, the story of an African prince, the ideal noble savage, sold as a slave in Suriname.

Candide entering Suriname

Despite its Dutch history, today the ethnically largest group at 37% is made up of people with roots in northern India. Other significant populations are Creoles at 31% and Javanese at 13%. The largest religious group is Hindu.

Corruption in still a problem in Suriname. The current elected President, Desiré Bouterse, received immunity from prosecution for human rights violations committed during his time as a former military dictator of the country, when he allegedly ordered the killing of fifteen of his political opponents. He has also been convicted of drug trafficking in absentia by the Netherlands in 1999. Unfortunately, the country still has highly questionable trafficking practices in people, drugs and arms.

Surinam, writers

Cynthia McLeod b. Cynthia Ferrier 1936, daughter of the first President of Suriname
- The Free Negress Elisabeth a novel of Elisabeth Samson, a historical free black woman who wanted to marry a white man in colonial Suriname
- The Cost of Sugar

Clark Accord 1961 - 2011
- The Queen of Paramaribo available in Spanish, German, Dutch and Finnish, a novel about Maxi Linder, Suriname's most famous prostitute
- Between Apoera and Oreala, 2005, a love story
- Bingol, 2007, a novel of a compulsive gambler

Suriname anthology

Creole Dream: Anthology of Creole Literature in Surinam, ed J Voorhoeve and Ursy Lichtveld

Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname is a UNESCO world heritage site. Here is one of its buildings:

The Neve Shalom synagogue in Paramaribo. The floor is sand, one of only five such synagogue floors in the world, four in the Caribbean and one in Amsterdam, all Sephardic.

Edited: Sep 11, 2013, 4:09pm Top

VENEZUELA population 29.1 million, official language Spanish with at least 30 indigenous languages

Spain colonized the approximately one million inhabitants of the area that is now Venezuela in 1522 and ruled it for almost three hundred years. Venezuela gained independence from Spain in 1811. The full name of the country is the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, giving credit to the liberator. A succession of military dictatorships interspersed with elected presidents governed the country until 1958. Since then, its leaders have been democratically elected.

Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves. This has been both a blessing and a curse, making the economy dependent upon the rise and fall of international oil supplies and prices.

Poverty is an enormous problem in Venezuela. Combine that problem with a highly urbanized population and civil unrest is always a possibility. Those who helped to elect Hugo Chavez hoped to alleviate income inequality. In return, he brought the poverty rate down from about 50% in 1999 to 27% in 2011, but at a huge cost to infrastructure, neglected for years. Many of the current domestic problems such as blackouts and industrial disasters are related to this neglected infrastructure, although the authorities often blame them on mystery saboteurs. Inflation is currently running at about 45% a year, so the future doesn't look particularly smooth.

Few Venezuelan authors have had their work translated, not even Arturo Uslar Pietri, the two time winner of the National Prize for Literature. Contemporary author Guillermo Parra even complains that few Venezuelan books are to be found in other parts of South America.

Oil ecology:

Natural ecology:

Venezuela, background
- Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle by Rafael Uzcatequi looks at the Chavez era from a leftist perspective
- The Two Lefts: Chavez, Venezuela and Contemporary Left Wing Politics by Teodoro Petkoff

Venezuela, authors

Andres Bello 1781-1865, Venezuela's first major writer, compared to Thomas Jefferson
- Selected Writings of Andres Bello

Romulo Gallegos 1884-1969, first democratically elected President
- Dona Barbara, 1929, one of the first magic realist books about a woman rumoured to be a witch

Teresa de la Parra 1889-1936
- Iphigenia (The Diary of a Young Woman Who Wrote because She Was Bored) 1924, the story of a young woman who went back to a chaperoned life in Caracas after a free life in Paris
- Mama Blanca's Memoirs

Ana Enriqueta Teran b. 1918
- The Poetess Counts to 100 and Bows Out: Selected Poems

Aquiles Nazca 1920-1976
- A Small Nativity, a retelling of the Christmas story with pictures using symbols and animals of the Americas

Salvador Garmendia 1928-2001
- Memories of Altagracia, a story of rural life as seen by a child and the changes in his view as he grows up

Eugenio Montejo 1938-2008, poetry featured in the film 21 Grams
- The Trees: Selected Poems 1967-2004

Alicia Freilich b. 1939
- Claper, 1987, the story of a first generation eastern European Jewish immigrant and his new world daughter

Alberto Barrera Tyszka b. 1960, has been compared to Ian McEwan
- The Sickness, the story of a sick father and his hypochondriac son

Edited: Sep 11, 2013, 8:20pm Top

ARGENTINA, population 41.6 million, official language Spanish


Argentina had only a sparse native population prior to the arrival of the Spanish, and the latter were relatively slow in colonizing the region. Though its name derives from the Latin word for silver, Argentina has no significant deposits of precious metals, so there was nothing to attract the conquistadores. A settlement was established at the location of modern Buenos Aires in 1536, but it was abandoned in 1542. A permanent settlement wasn’t established until 1580. Immigration was slow, mostly coming overland from Peru, Paraguay and Chile rather than directly from Spain.

The movement for independence from Spain in southern South America originated in Argentina with José de San Martin as its leader and national hero. Argentina declared its independence in 1816, and San Martin went on to help liberate all of the neighboring colonies. After a period of dictatorships, war, civil wars, and secessionist movements, Argentina settled down to a stable democratic government in the second half of the 19th century. Its combination of political freedom, economic opportunity and temperate climate triggered a wave of European immigration that lasted well into the 20th century. By the 1920s Argentina had become one of the world’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan nations.

Triggered by the worldwide Great Depression, a period of military coups, corrupt government and fraudulent elections lasted from 1930 until the 1940s. At times Argentina teetered on the brink of fascism, and became economically and socially isolated from the rest of the world. After World War II, a new leader emerged, Juan Perón. His policies of support for the poor and working classes, economic independence, and political isolationism gained Perón immense popular support in spite of his autocratic and sometimes brutal tactics. But runaway inflation cost Perón his popular support, and in 1955 he was deposed.

Argentina’s history from 1955 to 1983 was chiefly a period of military dictatorship, though there were periods of leftist rule and the brief return to power of Juan Perón. The last phase of dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983, was particularly brutal and is known as the “Dirty War.” An estimated 30,000 people were “disappeared” by the military regime. It came to an end after Argentina’s attempt to enforce its claims of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands led to its military defeat by the United Kingdom. Constitutional rule returned in 1983 and has continued to this day, though not without periods of unrest due to economic difficulties.

Argentina is now the richest per capita country in South America by some measures, second to Chile in others. Prosperity and a strong sense of cultural independence have led to an especially rich literary scene. The names listed below are just a representative sampling of the dozens of Argentine writers whose work has earned worldwide attention.


Argentine Writers

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888) was President of Argentina as well as one of the country’s leading intellectuals and educators. Under the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas, Sarmiento spent several years in exile in Chile. While in exile he wrote the book Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845 as Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie), ostensibly a biography of Juan Facundo Quiroga, a violent gaucho leader known as the “Tiger of the Plains,” but actually an attack on Facundo’s political ally, Juan Manuel de Rosas. Presented as fact, the book draws so heavily on the author’s imagination that it is usually classed as historical fiction.

José Hernandez (1834-1886) was a man of modest, rural origins who spent his life campaigning for the independence and preservation of Argentina’s gauchos, whose lifestyle resembled that of the American cowboy. His long poem Martín Fierro (first published in two parts, 1872 and 1879) is considered Argentina’s national epic. It is unusual as such in that the protagonist is an anti-hero, a deserter and later a robber, with no special qualities except a relentless desire to be his own man.

W. H. Hudson (1841-1922), though of British ancestry and writing in English, is considered by Argentines to belong to their national literature where he is known as Guillermo Enrique Hudson. He spent the first 30 years of his life on the Argentine frontier studying the natural world and native customs. Most of his works are travel narratives and zoological studies, but he is best known for his exotic 1904 novel Green Mansions, a romance set in the jungles of Venezuela.

Emilio Lascano Tegui (1887-1966) grew up in Buenos Aires and became a political radical with a passion for poetry. He would startle and amuse his audiences by breaking into verse in the middle of a speech. In his 20s he traveled and studied in Europe, where he made the acquaintance of such figures as Pablo Picasso and the surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire. He was something of an eccentric Bohemian, styling himself a viscount, but eventually settled down to a diplomatic career that included a posting as Argentine consul in Los Angeles. His novel On Elegance While Sleeping (1925 as De la elegancia mientras se duerme) is the surreal and macabre tale of a syphilitic French soldier who falls in love with a goat.

Juan Filloy (1894-2000, yes, he lived to 105!) was a prolific writer but largely unknown during his lifetime because he never sought a readership. Born to illiterate parents, he became a lawyer and served as a judge. He had a playful passion for words, composing over 6000 palindromes. He was fluent in seven languages and wrote dozens of novels, most or all of which have titles seven letters long. His only work in English translation is Op Oloop (1934), a novel about a Finnish statistician whose clockwork life becomes unraveled when he misses and appointment due to a traffic delay.

Jorge-Luis Borges (1899-1986) is the most influential of all Argentine writers. He was born to a highly literate middle-class family and grew up reading Spanish and English with equal fluency. He spent several years of his youth in various European cities and was influenced by such literary schools as Futurism and Surrealism. Back in Argentina, he pursued a career in journalism while writing fiction. In 1939, after recovering from a severe illness, he developed his own unique voice, writing short stories that are fanciful constructs, often whimsical but sometimes terrifying, which draw the reader into a labyrinth of ideas that challenge their perception of reality. Of his several collections of stories, Ficciones (1944) is the best known.

Roberto Arlt (1900-1942) was the son of immigrants and grew up speaking German at home. Arlt had a difficult childhood under an oppressive father and was expelled from school at age eight, working various odd jobs while becoming self-taught. He started writing fiction while working as an investigative journalist, and his novels reflect his harsh upbringing as well as the dark side life he saw in his investigations. His novel The Seven Madmen follows the escapades of a down-and-out inventor through the seamy side of 1920s Buenos Aires.

Ernesto Sabato (1911-2011) was, in his early years, both an MIT-trained physicist and a politically active communist. He abandoned both in disillusionment and, in the 1940s, began a full-time career as a writer. His novel The Tunnel (1948 as El túnel) draws subtly on the concepts of quantum physics to produce a haunting portrait of a man obsessed with destroying that which he loves.

Adolfo Bioy-Casares (1914-1999) was the only son of a wealthy family and was able to devote his entire life to literature. He was a lifelong resident of Buenos Aires and a close friend and collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges. His short novel The Invention of Morel (1940 as La invención de Morel) is a fanciful examination of the nature of illusion and reality that draws on H. G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Julio Cortázar (1914-1984) was a key figure in Latin American literature. He was French on his mother’s side and was actually born in Belgium, not moving to Argentina until age 5. Raised in a suburb of Buenos Aires, he became school teacher at age 18 and eventually a professor of French literature, despite never having obtained a university degree himself. In 1951 he moved to France in opposition to the regime of Juan Perón and remained there the rest of his life. Cortázar’s most celebrated novel is Hopscotch (1966 as Rayuela), an autobiographical stream-of-consciousness novel which the reader can read in different versions by following alternative sequences of numbered chapters. But Cortázar is best known for his short fiction such as the title story of Blow-up and Other Stories (1968 as Ceremonias).

Manuel Puig (1932-1990), a native of Buenos Aires, turned to writing novels only after a failed career as a screenwriter for movies and television. A political leftist, Puig went into self-exile in Mexico in 1973 and remained there until his death. Yet his writings are often less political and more light-hearted than those of his contemporaries, and are filled with references to popular culture. His most serious and most widely read novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976 as El beso de la mujer araña), is told almost entirely in the form of a dialogue between two prisoners: a gay man and a political activist.

Tomás Eloy Martínez (1934-2010) earned a degree in literature and worked most of his life as a journalist, at times in exile Venezuela and Mexico. In 1969, while working as a reporter in Paris, Martínez interviewed former president Juan Perón, then living in exile in Madrid. These interviews formed the basis for Martínez’s 1995 novel Santa Evita, a reflection on the life of Eva Perón described as “hallucinatory.”

Abel Posse (b. 1934) was born to an aristocratic family. He began writing as a teenager, and after taking a law degree pursued parallel careers in letters and diplomacy. He served in a variety of posts under successive Argentine regimes, culminating in his appointment as ambassador to Spain from 2002 to 2004. During this time he also published fourteen novels, including Dogs of Paradise (1983 as Los Perros del Paraiso), a farcical retelling of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.

Juan-José Saer (1937-2005) was the child of Syrian immigrants. He grew up and was educated in Santa Fe Province, an agricultural region that would be central to most of his writing even though Saer spent most of his adult life living and teaching in France. His works often deal with the theme of self-exile. The Witness is an historical novel set in the 16th century about a 15-year-old cabin boy who voyages to the New World and is the sole survivor of an attack by cannibals.

Luisa Valenzuela (b. 1938) grew up in Buenos Aires in a cultured household where writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Ernesto Sabato were regular visitors. She started a career in journalism and traveled extensively before receiving, in 1969, a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Iowa. Valenzuela lived in New York during the years of Argentina’s military dictatorship, returning to Buenos Aires in 1989. In her novels she explores the political world of the junta either directly, as in The Lizard’s Tail, or metaphorically, as in He Who Searches. Her novels and stories also develop themes of sexuality and gender relationships.

Ricardo Piglia (b. 1941) is one of Latin America’s most accomplished writers of crime fiction as well as being a scholar of South American literature. He is currently Emeritus Professor of Spanish American Literature at Princeton University. His detective novels such as The Absent City are also reflections upon Argentine history and the effects of dictatorship.

Osvaldo Soriano (1943-1997) turned to parodic fiction when his articles were rejected as too left-wing by the newspaper which had employed him. During the rule of the military junta, Soriano lived in Europe, returning to Buenos Aires in 1984 where he worked as a screenwriter as well as a novelist. His most important work is Funny Dirty Little War, a look at the farcical basis for the regime behind Argentina’s “Dirty War.” There is a sequel titled Winter Quarters.

Cesar Aira (b. 1949) is a lifelong resident of Buenos Aires and an extremely prolific novelist, translator and critic, publishing at a sustained rate of two books per year. He describes his method of writing as a “flight forward,” in which he never reviews or revises what he has written but resorts instead to flights of fancy and linguistic gymnastics to keep the narrative going. In The Hare a 19th century English naturalist goes in search of a legendary flying hare, but is instead drafted by the Mapuche Indians into the search for their missing chief.

Liliana Bodoc (b. 1958) is a writer and teacher from central Argentina. She is the author of The Days of the Deer, a best-selling historical fantasy that portrays the Spanish conquest of Argentina. It is the first book in a series called “Saga of the Borderlands.”

Alicia Borinsky is a native of Buenos Aires but was educated in the U.S. and is currently the head of the Spanish Section at Boston University. She writes in Spanish, however, and has set most of her works in Buenos Aires. In novels such as Dreams of the Abandoned Seducer she takes a playful, postmodernist look at modern urban life and culture. Mean Women is a fictional portrait of powerful Hispanic women such as Eva Perón and Imelda Marcos.


Contemporary Argentinean Women Writers: A Critical Anthology (1998) edited by Gustavo Fares and Eliana C. Hermann.

Secret Weavers: Stories of the Fantastic by Women Writers of Argentina and Chile (1991) edited by Marjorie Agosín

The Silver Candelabra & Other Stories: A Century of Jewish Argentine Literature (1997) edited by Rita Mazzetti Gardiol.

The Xul Reader: An Anthology of Argentine Poetry 1980-1996 (1997) edited by Ernesto Livon Grosman.

Edited: Sep 11, 2013, 7:47pm Top

BOLIVIA, population 10.0 million, official languages Spanish and 36 native languages of which the most widely spoken are Quecha (28%) and Aymara (18%)


Bolivia has always been a land of great ethnic diversity. A century before the arrival of the Spanish, the Aymara were the dominant group, though not the most numerous, ruling an empire from their capital Tiwanaku near Lake Titicaca. Then late in the 15th century the Incas came, extending their Andean empire south from Peru. In 1524 the Spanish arrived by way of Panama and the Pacific. The overextended Inca Empire fell quickly, as the invaders took advantage of the latent hostility between the Incas and the Aymara and other subject nations.

Bolivia (known at the time as Upper Peru) was a rich source of silver for the conquistadores, and for a time the city of Potosí was largest city in the western hemisphere. But Spain’s brutal exploitation of the Indian population led to a series of native revolts in the late 18th century. A Spanish army of 1200 men was defeated, and the capital of La Paz was put under siege for more than three months. Finally, in 1783 the Spanish Crown succeeded in suppressing the revolt and executed thousands of Indians and people of mixed race in reprisal.

At the time of the wars for independence, Bolivia was a land of mixed loyalties. It became a battleground between royalist forces from Peru and revolutionaries from Argentina. It remained mostly under royalist control, however, until 1825 when the forces of Simón Bolívar obtained a final victory over the Spanish. Upper Peru was renamed Bolivia in Bolívar’s honor. Bolivia had a promising start as a progressive, well-governed state, but its success went to the head of its president, Andrés de Santa Cruz, who declared Bolivia to be the successor state to the Inca Empire. Bolivia’s neighbors banded together for a pre-emptive war. By 1904 Bolivia had been stripped of much of its valuable territory and had become a landlocked nation.

For the first half of the 20th century, Bolivia was governed by an elite class of landowners while the large Indian population lived in severe poverty. In 1952, however, a revolutionary party seized power. Suffrage was made universal, the great estates were divided amongst the peasantry, and key industries were nationalized. Despite overwhelming public support, the liberal government was overthrown in 1964 by a CIA-backed military junta. Che Guevara joined Bolivians attempting to restore the revolutionary government, but was killed there in 1967. Civilian rule was finally restored in 1982, but for years Bolivia was plagued by a succession of weak and corrupt governments.

Bolivia is now South America’s poorest country. A majority of the population is classed as Native American and only 60% of the people are native speakers of Spanish, the official language. With its educational and economic disadvantages and turbulent political history, it is not surprising that Bolivia has produced very few writers of international repute.


Bolivian Writers

Javier del Granado (1913-1996) was born to wealth and privilege but wrote poems about the pleasures of rural life and the traditions of Bolivia's native cultures. Eighteen of his poems were published in English in 1991 as Ballads and Sonnets of Javier del Granado, though this collection is no longer in print.

Jaime Saénz (1921-1986) spent almost his entire life in La Paz, and his surreal poetry reflects the darkness and decay of modern urban life. His collections in English translation include The Night (1984) and Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saénz (2002).

Juan de Recacoechea (b. 1935) lived for a decade in Europe working in the television industry before returning to Bolivia to become a novelist specializing in hard-boiled crime fiction. His novel American Visa, about a Bolivian man so desperate to get to the U.S. that resorts to crime, won international recognition. Andean Express is a murder mystery set on an epic railroad journey similar to Agatha Christie's Orient Express.

Jesús Urzagasti (1941-2013), a journalist, poet and novelist, came from a rural background in the Gran Chaco area of southern Bolivia. His novel In the Land of Silence has been translated into English. Its protagonist is a journalist and poet who is trapped in Bolivia’s recurring political violence. The story is narrated in three voices representing the journalist’s three alter egos.

Edmundo Paz Soldán (b. 1967) is a Bolivian educated in the United States at Alabama and Berkeley. He is currently Professor of Spanish Literature at Cornell. He writes academically in both Spanish and English and has published a dozen novels in Spanish, two of which are available in English translation. In A Matter of Desire (2001) a professor in upstate New York has a forbidden romance with one of his students, then returns to Bolivia to uncover the secrets of his family's past. Turing's Delirium (2003), set in a near-future Bolivia, is described as a hybrid of cyberpunk and political thriller.


Andean Journeys: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Bolivian Poetry edited by Ronald Haladyna.

The Fat Man from La Paz: Contemporary Fiction from Bolivia edited by Rosario Santos. A collection of twenty short stories.

Fire from the Andes: Short Fiction by Women from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru edited by Susan E. Benner.

Oblivion and Stone: A Collection of Contemporary Bolivian Poetry and Fiction edited by Sandra Reyes.

Edited: Sep 11, 2013, 8:19pm Top

CHILE, population 17.4 million, official language Spanish


The Araucanian people who lived in the mineral-rich northern deserts of what is now Chile had only recently been conquered by the Incas when the Spaniards arrived in 1537. To the south, in the central valleys, the Mapuche had successfully repelled the Incas. Despite being decimated by European diseases, the Mapuche would put up a stiff resistance against the Spanish and were never completely conquered by them. Attracted to central Chile by its rich agricultural lands, the Spanish founded the capital of Santiago in 1541. For two centuries Chile remained a fairly poor colony, wracked by ongoing conflict with the Mapuche, and used chiefly to produce food for the Viceroyalty of Peru to the north.

Having begun to prosper only in the last decades of the 18th century, Chile was sharply divided on the question of independence from Spain. Even among those in favor of independence there were intense rivalries and ideological divisions. Chile first shook off Spanish rule in 1810, but a civil war between rival factions opened the country to re-conquest by Madrid in 1814. The pro-Independence forces prevailed again in 1818 and established a republic, but the last royalist forces weren’t defeated for another ten years.

Though there were periods of autocratic rule, Chile enjoyed a century of relative peace, stability and progress, at least by South American standards. Chile abolished slavery in 1823, decades ahead of most American nations. Political power remained in the hands of wealthy landowners, however, until the early 1920s when the growing urban classes managed to elect a reformist president. No sooner was a package of reforms passed by Congress than a military coup overthrew the elected government in 1924. Civilian rule returned in 1932 with liberals and conservatives alternating in power and both pushing economic and social reforms.

Under the conservative government elected in 1964 change wasn’t coming as fast as promised, so in 1970 the Chileans elected Marxist Salvador Allende as the head of a coalition of left-wing parties. Part of Allende’s platform included the nationalizing of U.S. interests in Chile’s copper mines. The CIA became actively involved, opposing Allende’s election and attempting to sabotage his regime by funding opposition groups. The initial results of Allende’s reforms were highly favorable, with strong economic growth and shrinking unemployment. Runaway inflation set in, however, and a black market economy developed. Allende’s growing ties to the KGB fueled opposition internally and abroad, and Western governments and institutions worked openly to destabilize Chile’s economy. In 1973 a military coup overthrew the government and Allende committed suicide.

From 1973 to 1990 Chile was ruled by a military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet. The regime privatized and deregulated Chile’s economy and succeeded in bringing inflation under control. But it did so by brutally suppressing opposition and curtailing civil freedoms. Tens of thousands were killed, imprisoned or tortured, and as many went into self-exile, including many of Chile’s artists and intellectuals. In 1980 a new constitution was established that allowed for a gradual return to democracy, and in 1989 Pinochet was finally voted out of power. Since 1990 Chile has enjoyed a stable democratic government.

Chile is on a par with Argentina economically. In measures of public health and education it leads South America and surpasses a number of European nations. Chileans call their country the “Land of Poets,” and a Chilean poet was the first Latin American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.


Chilean Writers

Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) was the first Latin American, and so far the only Latin American woman, to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her real name was Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. She was raised in poverty by her mother in a small Andean village and supported her family in her teenage years by working as a seamstress and a teacher’s assistant. Mistral published her first poems at age fifteen, and ten years later received national recognition in a literary contest. She rose rapidly in prominence as both a writer and educator despite her own lack of formal education. Her poems, which are published in a variety of collections, deal with themes of nature, love, and national identity. Loss and grief are also common themes, as Mistral several times suffered the loss of a loved one due to accidental death or suicide.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was the pen name of Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. He chose “Neruda” in honor of the Czech poet Jan Neruda. He was a politically active member of Chile’s communist party, spent years in exile when the party was outlawed, and was later nominated for president, but gave his support instead to fellow Marxist Salvador Allende. Neruda is especially known for his love poetry, which can be found in collections such as Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1971.

María Luisa Bombal (1910-1980) came from a privileged background and was educated in Paris where she moved among Europe's literary elite. Upon her return to Chile, however, she entered an unhappy marriage that resulted in a failed suicide attempt. Upon her recovery she fled to Argentina where Pablo Neruda, then consul in Buenos Aires, took her under his wing. She later lived in the United States, returning to Chile in 1971. She was an early pioneer of Magical Realism. Her novel House of Mist is the story of a young bride unhappily married to a cold-hearted Chilean landowner. The five stories in New Islands: And Other Stories each portray a woman struggling to fit the role society expects of her.

José Donoso (1925-1996) spent his life in Chile except for a period of voluntary exile during the Pinochet regime. His dark, surreal novels explore themes of identity and sexuality in a disintegrating society. The Obscene Bird of Night is about a hideously deformed aristocrat who is made to believe he is normal by being surrounded by persons with the same deformity.

Óscar Hahn (b. 1938) started writing poetry as a child. He received his university education in the United States and was a member of the International Writers' Program at the University of Iowa. Shortly after returning to Chile in 1973 he was arrested by the military government and imprisoned. The following year he returned to the U.S. as a permanent resident. His volumes of poetry include The Art of Dying (1977), Stolen Verses and Other Poems (1995), and Ashes in Love (2009).

Antonio Skármeta (b. 1940) is of Croatian ancestry. During the Pinochet regime he left Chile, eventually settling in Berlin. Later he served for several years as Chile’s ambassador to Germany. He is active in film and television as well as literature. His most celebrated novel, The Postman (1985 as Ardiente paciencia) tells the touching story of a shy young postman who attempts to woo his beloved with the poetry of Pablo Neruda.

Isabel Allende (b. 1942) is perhaps the most widely read Spanish-language author today. She is a cousin of former president Salvador Allende and spent much of her life in exile but was never directly involved in politics. She now resides in California and has become an American citizen. Her initial career was in journalism and television, but she became a novelist on the advice of Pablo Neruda whom she interviewed. Her first novel, The House of the Spirits (1982 as La casa de los espíritus) remains her most important to date. It is a family saga set in post-colonial Chile and incorporates elements of magical realism.

Ariel Dorfman (b. 1942) was born in Argentina of Ukrainian ancestry but became a Chilean citizen in 1967 and has since divided his time between Chile and the United States. He is currently a professor at Duke University. Much of Dorfman’s writing deals with dictatorship and its aftermath, including his award-winning play Death and the Maiden. His novels include The Nanny and the Iceberg, (1999 as La Nana y el Iceberg), a bizarre story in which sexual prowess is a metaphor for political power.

Diamela Eltit (b. 1949) was one of the few writers to remain in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. She framed her protest against that regime in more ambiguous and abstract forms, representing dance, for example, as a metaphor for freedom and repressed desire as a symbol of political repression. Eltit currently teaches creative writing at New York University. Her novels include The Fourth World (1988 as El cuarto mundo) in which a pair of twins converses and competes while still in the womb.

Luis Sepúlveda (b. 1949) was a member of Salvador Allende’s administration, then was jailed for more than two years by the Pinochet regime. After being released to house arrest, Sepúlveda went underground, then into exile, fleeing through much of South America. He later volunteered in the Nicaraguan revolution and served as a crewmember on a Greenpeace ship. His novels are strongly influenced by German romanticism and include The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (1989 as Un Viejo que leía novelas de amor), the poignant tale of a villager in the Ecuadoran jungle watching the world change around him.

Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) was Chilean by birth, though he spent virtually all of his adult life in Mexico and Spain. He is the author of a number of novels, several of them published posthumously. The Savage Detectives is a complex, partly autobiographical novel told in multiple voices but never that of the principal characters, two poets on a sort of global road trip in search of themselves.

Alberto Fuguet (b. 1964) is a Chilean-born novelist, journalist and filmmaker who now lives in California. He writes in Spanish. His works in translation include Bad Vibes (1992) and The Movies of My Life (2002), both portraying a young protagonist caught between the hollow appeal of American consumerism and the realities of Chile's military dictatorship.


The Alteration of Silence: Recent Chilean Poetry (2013) edited by Galo Ghigliatto and William Allegrezza

Chilean Poets: A New Anthology (2011) edited by Jorge Etcheverry.

Secret Weavers: Stories of the Fantastic by Women Writers of Argentina and Chile (1991) edited by Marjorie Agosín

What Is Secret: Short Stories by Chilean Women (1995) edited by Marjorie Agosín

Edited: Sep 11, 2013, 9:32am Top

FALKLAND ISLANDS, population 2,932, official language English


Known in Latin America as the Malvinas, the Falkland Islands were uninhabited when they were first discovered by Europeans. Though there is some evidence that the Portuguese knew of the islands, the earliest documented sighting was by the English explorer John Davis in 1592. The name “Falkland” wasn’t acquired until almost a century later when another English captain visited the islands and named them in honor of the English nobleman who had financed his expedition.

The first colony was established by the French in 1764 who called the archipelago the Îles Malouines, naming them after the French port of Saint-Malo. It is from this name that the Spanish designation Malvinas is derived. Two years later the British established a settlement elsewhere in the islands. Soon afterwards the Spanish claimed the Falklands, and a period of claims, counter-claims, settlements and withdrawals resulted in there being no permanent inhabitants on the islands, but with Spain and Britain both claiming ownership. After winning its independence from Spain, Argentina laid claim to the islands as well.

The British re-colonized the islands in the 1830s and 40s, and those colonists are the basis of the island’s current population. In the 1960s and 70s, however, the islands became increasingly linked to Argentina economically, which led to renewed Argentine interest in asserting its claims there. From 1975 relations between Argentina and the United Kingdom began to sour. In 1982 Argentine special forces invaded and occupied the Falklands. The U.K. responded with force, and in a short war recovered the islands two months later. Argentina’s humiliating defeat was one factor in the fall of its ruling military junta and the return of democracy there in 1983.

The Falkland Islands remains a British Overseas Territory with a population of fewer than 3,000. The chief industry is sheep farming. Argentina has not relinquished its claim to the islands, however, so the U.K. maintains a military presence as well.


Ernest H. Spencer, a Falklander retired and now living in England, is the only writer whose name is associated with the Falklands. His work has not been published, but here is an extract found online of his poem titled “Motherland”:

“Hail Falklands Motherland!
So wild and yet so free
Hail nature’s shining strand
Of pearls set in the sea.”

Edited: Sep 11, 2013, 9:33am Top

PARAGUAY, population 6.6 million, official languages Spanish and Guarani


The Guarani, a semi-nomadic people, were the original inhabitants of Paraguay, and the Guarani language is today an official language of the country along with Spanish. Paraguay was one of the first regions of South America to be permanently settled by the Spanish. The first explorers entered the region in 1516 and founded a settlement there in 1526. That settlement was abandoned, but in 1537 a new community named Asunción was established. Asunción is today the capital of Paraguay and one of the oldest cities in the Americas.

In 1588 the Spanish church and crown granted the Jesuits an unusual degree of autonomy over Paraguay. The Society organized the Guarani population into a number of communal settlements known as reducciones. Over the next 200 years these communities grew in wealth, power and cultural accomplishments until they were seen as a threat by the Spanish colonists. After a series of raids and armed conflicts between royalist forces on one side and Jesuit-led Guaranis on the other, the Spanish king expelled the Jesuits from Paraguay and disbanded the reducciones.

Paraguay achieved its independence from Spain in 1811. At that time its boundaries were much more extensive than they are today. A disastrous war against the combined forces of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina in the mid-19th century stripped Paraguay of much of its territory. The landlocked nation has remained relatively impoverished and underdeveloped since that time. Paraguay has also suffered from a succession of brutal dictatorships and civil wars, culminating in the regime of Alfredo Stroessner who ruled the country from 1954 to 1989. Since 1989 Paraguay’s political history has been contentious but largely democratic with much greater freedoms and respect for human rights.


Paraguayan Writers

Augusto Roa Bastos (1917-2005) left Paraguay for exile in Argentina in 1947, then France in 1976. He did most of his writing in exile, returning to Paraguay in 1989. He developed his own version of magical realism by incorporating Guarani words and myths into his writing. His most notable work is the novel I, the Supreme (1974, Yo el supremo), a fictionalized account of Paraguay’s first dictator, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who ruled the newly-formed country from 1814 to 1840. The novel is considered a direct condemnation of Alfredo Stroessner, who was ruling Paraguay at the time, but also a study of the phenomenon of Latin-American dictatorship in general. It is a complex, symbolic work with multiple lines of narration.

Nestor Amarilla (b. 1980) was born in humble circumstances in rural Paraguay but received a university education in the United States. Since returning to Paraguay he has worked in theater and television as actor, producer, director and playwright. His plays include Saved by a Poem: Fecha Feliz, a depiction of the harsh realities of rural life under dictatorship in the 1970s.


Beyond the Rivers: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Paraguayan Poetry, edited by Charles R. Carlisle.

Exotic Territory: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Paraguayan Poetry, edited by Ronald Haladyna.

Edited: Sep 11, 2013, 8:28pm Top

URUGUAY, population 3.3 million, official language Spanish


A nomadic tribe called the Charrúa were the only native inhabitants in present-day Uruguay when Spanish explorers first arrived in 1516. The Charrúas successfully repelled the first attempts at colonization, and Uruguay remained largely unsettled by Europeans for the rest of the century. The first permanent settlement wasn’t founded until 1624. The capital of Montevideo was first established as a Portuguese settlement in the 1680s. In 1724 the Spanish drove out the Portuguese as part of a general effort to limit the encroachment from neighboring Brazil.

In 1811 Uruguayans in league with the northern provinces of Argentina successfully revolted against Spanish rule. But the Portuguese, alarmed by the presence of anti-colonial forces so close to Brazil, invaded the league and annexed Uruguay to Brazil. The war with Argentine forces continued, however, and resulted in a treaty in 1828 which created the modern state of Uruguay. In 1831 the last resisting Charrúa people were massacred, leaving Uruguay with a population almost entirely of pure European extraction.

Uruguay was almost immediately plunged into a civil war between liberal and conservative factions. The 13-year conflict drew considerable world-wide attention and resulted in the intervention of European adventurers including Giuseppe Garibaldi. The liberals finally prevailed in 1852. Progressive government and economic opportunity brought a wave of immigration from Europe in the second half of the 19th century, principally from Italy and Spain. Montevideo became, like nearby Buenos Aires, a cosmopolitan city with strong cultural ties to Europe.

The country became briefly the focus of world attention in 1939 during the first months of World War II when the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee took refuge in the neutral harbor of Montevideo. Cornered there by the Royal Navy, the ship's captain evacuated and scuttled his ship in the harbor.

Uruguay’s prosperity began to fade in the mid-20th century as world demand for its agricultural products steadily declined. With poverty on the rise, urban guerilla groups began active resistance to the government. This led, in 1972, to the declaration of a state of emergency and the establishment of a dictatorship. Uruguay’s military rulers imprisoned and tortured their opponents, and many of the country’s intellectuals went into exile abroad. Uruguay’s dictatorship was not as brutal or bloody, however, as contemporary regimes in Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay. After massive public demonstrations, the military agreed to a return to civilian rule in 1985.

Uruguay’s democratic government has weathered a number of economic crises since 1985. Living standards are well above Latin American averages. In recent years Uruguay has become a global pioneer in such social issues as gay rights and the legalization of marijuana.


Uruguayan Writers

Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937) was born in Uruguay, but his favorite habitat was the jungles of Misiones Province, Argentina. A man of wide interests, his literary endeavors were inspired by the poems and short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. His darkest stories have been collected in The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories (1925) and The Exiles and Other Stories (1926).

Delmira Agustini (1886-1914) was the daughter of affluent Italian immigrants. She began writing poetry at age 10. Her love poetry used exotic imagery and a degree of eroticism rare for that time and place. Her life was cut tragically short when her estranged husband shot Agustini in the head, then killed himself. There is speculation that it was a suicide pact rather than a murder/suicide. Her poetry has been published in a bilingual edition: Selected Poetry of Delmira Agustini: Poetics of Eros

Juan-Carlos Onetti (1909-1994) held a variety of jobs before publishing his first novel at the age of 30. He worked as a journalist, living from 1943 to 1955 in Argentina, and served at one time as director of Montevideo’s municipal libraries. In 1974 he was arrested by the military dictatorship and imprisoned for six months in a mental institution. Upon his release, Onetti went into exile in Spain where he remained until his death. His novels and short stories typically focus on urban decay and despair. Many are set in the fictional city of Santa Maria, including his most famous work, The Shipyard. It is the Kafkaesque story of an aging man who returns from exile to manage a dilapidated shipyard but is constantly faced with the absurdity of the enterprise.

Carlos Martínez Moreno (1917-1986) had worked as a reporter in Montevideo for several years before winning a short story contest in 1944. He continued to work as a journalist while writing fiction until 1978 when his home was bombed by a right-wing terror squad. He fled Uruguay, first to Spain, and then to Mexico where he remained until his death. His novel El Infierno (1988 and published in English translation under a shortened form of its Spanish title El color que el infierno me escondiera) depicts the uprising of urban guerillas in Montevideo which led up to the 1972 military coup.

Eduardo Galeano (b. 1940) began his career as a journalist in the 1960s, regularly expressing his leftist politics and a passion for football (soccer). In 1973 Galeano was arrested by the military junta, then sent into exile, first to Argentina, and then (when that country fell to a rightist regime) to Spain. He returned to Uruguay in 1985. His writings are a mixture of fiction, non-fiction, and unclassifiable works. Among the last is his grand trilogy Memory of Fire, a history of the Americas—focusing on Latin America—told in the form of miniature vignettes shifting constantly from scene to scene across the hemisphere. An earlier work of his, Open Veins of Latin America, examines the same history with a more analytical approach. The book received worldwide attention three years ago when the late President Hugo Chavez gave a copy of it to President Barack Obama during a summit meeting.

Cristina Peri-Rossi (b. 1941) was born in Montevideo, the daughter of Italian immigrants. She studied literature in Uruguay and had begun her writing career when the dictatorship came to power in 1972. Peri-Rossi went into exile in Spain and began writing against the Uruguayan government. The Spanish government under Franco expelled her for this, so she lived in Paris until Franco’s death when she moved to Barcelona and took Spanish citizenship. She writes both verse and prose from a feminist and leftist perspective. The Ship of Fools (1984) is considered her most significant prose work. It is a broad satire of modern society through the eyes of a traveler who is always the outsider.

Carolina De Robertis was born to an Uruguayan family in England and makes her permanent home in California, but has spent time in Uruguay and has made South America the setting for her novels. She writes in English and Spanish and is an activist for LGBT causes and women's rights. She has published two works of historical fiction focusing on women: The Invisible Mountain (2009), set in Uruguay, and Perla (2012), set in Argentina.


Hotel Lautreamont: Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay (2011) edited by Kent Johnson and Roberto Echevarren.

Sep 11, 2013, 5:28pm Top

Wow! Wow! Wow! This is totally fabulous. Thanks, SassyLassy and Steven, for this tremendous introduction to South America and its literature.

I will add this thread to the home page and post a note on the message board, and let's all start thinking about what we're going to read.

Sep 11, 2013, 6:44pm Top

Here are books from my TBR, some of which, I hope to read for this theme read. Of course, I will peruse the suggestions above for additional ideas, particularly from countries not already represented on my TBR . . .

Open Door by Iosi Havilio
The Hare and/or The Seamstress and the Wind and/or How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira
The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal
Scars by Juan Jose Saer
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar

The Alienist and/or The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Machado de Assis
Also, nonfiction, Backlands: The Canudos Campaign by Euclides da Cunha (the story on which Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World was based)
Showdown and/or Home Is the Sailor and/or Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado

The Obscene Bird of Night and/or A House in the Country by Jose Donoso

I, the Supreme by Augusto Antonio Roa Bastos

Deep Rivers by Jose Maria Arguedas
Chronicle of San Gabriel by Julio Ramon Ribeyro
Books by Mario Vargas Llosa I haven't already read: The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, The Bad Girl, The Way to Paradise, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and his memoir, A Fish in the Water

Edited: Sep 12, 2013, 8:02am Top

The posts above are just beautiful. I feel I must participate in this challenge, and I'm sorry it doesn't start until October.

Everyone who does this challenge must read Labyrinths or Ficciones by Jorges Luis Borges. Fantastic stories.

Here's a list of female authors from Latin American countries, to be expanded. I can only recommend the bolded works, this isn't meant to be all inclusive, and I apologize if they turn out to have moved somewhere else.

Alejandra Pizarnik (Poetry, short works)
Alicia Borinsky (mentioned above)
Alicia Steimberg (Musicians & Watchmakers, The Rainforest)
Ana Maria Shua (Death as a Side Effect, Microfictions, Patient, The Book of Memories)
Angelica Gorodischer (Kalpa Imperial, Trafalgar)
Claudia Pineiro (Thursday Night Windows, All Yours, Crack in the Wall, A)
Juana Manuela Gorriti (Dreams and Realities)
Liliana Bodoc (Mentioned above)
Liliana Heker (The End of the Story, The Stolen Party: And Other Stories)
Luisa Valenzuela (mentioned above)
Silvina Ocampo (Leopoldina's Dream, The Topless Tower)

Clarice Lispector (The Hour of the Star, The Passion According to G.H., Near to the Wild Heart, Family Ties, The Apple in the Dark)
Helena Parente Cunha (Woman Between Mirrors)
Lygia Fagundes Telles (Girl in the Photograph, Meninas, As)
Nelida Pinon (The Republic of Dreams, Voices of the Desert, Caetana's Sweet Song)

Gabriela Mistral (mentioned above)
Diamela Eltit (mentioned above)
Isabel Allende (The House of Sprits, mentioned above)
Maria Luisa Bombal (New Islands and Other Stories, mentioned above)

Laura Restrepo (Delirium, The Dark Bride, Isle of Passion)
Fanny Buitrago (Senora Honeycomb)
Marta Traba (mentioned above)

Alicia Yanez Cossio (Bruna and Her Sisters in the Sleeping City, The Potbellied Virgin)
Fanny Carrion de Fierro (mentioned above)
Karina Galvez (mentioned above)

Grace Nichols (The Fat Black Woman's Poems, Whoa, Baby, Whoa!, I Is a Long Memoried Woman)
Janice Ross (mentioned above)

Clorinda Matto de Turner (mentioned above)
Gabriella De Ferrari (A Cloud on Sand)
Marie Arana (Cellophane, Lima Nights)

Cynthia McLeod (mentioned above)

Delmira Agustini (mentioned above)
Carolina De Robertis (mentioned above)
Cristina Peri-Rossi (mentioned above)
Marosa Di Giorgio (The History of Violets)
Teresa Porzecanski (Sun Inventions and Perfumes of Carthage)

Alicia Freilich (mentioned above)
Ana Enriqueta Teran (mentioned above)
Ana Teresa Torres (Dona Ines vs. Oblivion)
Teresa de la Parra (mentioned above)

Sep 11, 2013, 10:47pm Top

Rebecca, thanks for mentioning this thread on the message board. That's quite a TBR you have. I think I would like to read Backlands, as I thought The War of the End of the World was wonderful.

Anoplophora, welcome. You're certainly going to be busy if the Anoplophora is your area of study! Thanks for your detailed list --- all additions and suggestions are welcome. You certainly don't have to wait until October to start reading, just jump in.

Sep 11, 2013, 10:52pm Top

Oooh!! Lovely thread.

I am looking forward to the quarter. My plan is to concentrate on Colombia. I want to read more Garcia Marquez. Also, I just read The Sound of things Falling as an early reviewer, and really recommend it. I am going to try to find some of Vaquez's earlier work as well. And maybe also Laura Restrepo

Sep 12, 2013, 7:37am Top

Anopiophora, what a great list of works by women writers -- I'll have to peruse that too.

SassyLassy, I sometimes worry about the size of my TBR. Some of those books have been on it since the 70s or 80s. Obviously, I won't read all of these now, and may try to concentrate on the more obscure (after all, I know I'll always read MVL). It is thanks to LT and my system of tagging by country of the author that I could even know I have some of these books -- now, of course, I have to find them on my shelves!

Edited: Sep 12, 2013, 10:51am Top

Those are preparing to read some of these titles may like to have a look at (or join) the South American Fiction group: http://www.librarything.com/groups/southamericanfictio. The group often goes through periods of inactivity, so I am sure that it would benefit from your comments, insights and lively discussion too. Enjoy!

Sep 12, 2013, 11:35am Top

João Guimarães Rosa's Grande Sertão: Veredas (translated as "The Devil to Pay in the Backlands") is a classic Brazilian novel that I did not see above.

By the way, the animal that appears in the image from Quito's Basílica del Voto Nacional (#4) is a Tamandua or Lesser Anteater. Quito must be the only place that has such a gargoyle. As I remember, the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (Church of the Society of Jesus) is the name of the amazing baroque church that was constructed by a workforce largely made up of indigenous people whose treetrunk and liana lookalike columns give the feeling of entering a forest. There are many details of local fauna and flora. It is a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site.

Edited: Sep 12, 2013, 11:45am Top

Thanks so much for this link, it looks like a great group. I see you live in Caracas, so you will be able to provide more of a sense of immediacy to your comments than many of us. Looking forward to your contributions.

ETA >23 chrisharpe: we crossposted, so I missed you comment. I had a great time looking at pictures of Quito and its architecture. The railway really inspired me too. There is a travel article in The Guardian on Ecuador and the thought of the trip from Quito to Quayaquil has been added to my dreams of the Trans Siberian Railway and the Orient Express, as well as the train across Norway to the coast.

Sep 12, 2013, 11:51am Top

#23 - I've seen The Devil to Pay in the Backlands on many "greatest book" lists and have long had it on my wishlist, but the English translation is long out of print, and used copies sell for $300 or more. I wish someone would come out with a new edition of it.

Sep 12, 2013, 1:49pm Top

That does look like an interesting group -- thanks!

Sep 12, 2013, 3:22pm Top

Sorry, for any cross-posting, SassyLassy - on a slow connection at present.

João C. Barretto's "Latin American Fiction in Translation: A Bibliography" may also be useful - PDF here: http://www.ccsf.edu/Library/latambib.pdf.

Sep 12, 2013, 7:12pm Top

What a wonderful introduction! The amount of work both of you did is amazing. I have done so little reading in this area that your research will be of great help. I have read two books by Daniel Alarcon, Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I also read Love in the Time of Cholera a very long time ago, but I remember it as a wonderful read. I'll begin getting ready for this read by researching the some of the books you've listed above.

Edited: Sep 12, 2013, 10:37pm Top

Thank you for the research and the lovely pictures!

A couple more titles by South American women authors on my tbr list that I did not see mentioned above:
Breakthrough by Mercedes Valdivieso
The Impenetrable Madam X by Griselda Gambaro

Technically not written by a South American, but might be an interesting resource:
Magic Eyes: Scenes from an Andean Childhood by Wendy Ewald

Sep 13, 2013, 1:16am Top

Let me add my congratulations on your exemplary introduction, SassyLassy and StevenTX. This has clearly taken a lot of work to compile and I can see that you have gone out of your way to provide something much more refreshing than the typical view of the dominant media. Fascinating! Somehow I was not aware that this South America read was going on, but now I'm enthused by your introduction to pick something! Thank you!

Edited: Sep 17, 2013, 2:11pm Top

I recommend both Rolena Adorno's Colonial Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction and Roberto González Echevarría's Modern Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction. Together, they give a broad and thoughtful overview of the region's literature from Columbus to the present.

González Echevarría's been one of the most influential critics of the past few decades, and he also wrote the introduction for the 2003 University of California Press translation of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism. It's hard to overstate the importance of the "Civilización y barbarie" paradigm, and Sarmiento's book is also seen as establishing the genre of the dictator novel, even though it's not a novel per se, but a sprawling exposition of the Argentine reality during the reign of Juan Manuel de Rosas. Many, myself included, find Facundo to be a bit of a slog, and a lot of people read the first four chapters, including the one where he basically creates the paradigm for the character of the gaucho, and call it a day. I think if you can access this translation at your local library, it's really worth checking out, perhaps for the introduction alone.

Also, the so-called "Telluric Narratives," or Novelas de la tierra, are worth returning to. I think it's fair to say that they were somewhat forgotten, or looked down upon, after Carlos Fuentes shat on them at the beginning of La nueva novela hispanoamericana (1969). His beef was that, in their obsession with describing the Latin American land ("they were swallowed up by the jungle!"), they represented a necessary but obsolete, almost "pre-modern" phase in the region's literary history. While that may have been true at the time, I think that they've aged rather well. I recently re-read José Eustaquio Riviera's La vorágine (Fuentes refers directly to this book in his comment about jungles devouring novels), and enjoyed it rather more than some of the "Boom" novels I'd read in recent years. Anyway, my point is that books like Rómulo Gallegos' Doña Bárbara and Ricardo Güiraldes' Don Segundo Sombra are well worth your time. Doña Bárbara is working rather clearly with Sarmiento's dichotomy, so it would be a good read alongside Facundo.

Moving backwards in time, some of the 19th century classics would be fun to read in comparison with 19th century European and North American literature. The categories--Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism--aren't easily mappable onto the continent's literature, and it is problematic to speak of European influence in many cases for a number of reasons ... anyway, I'd suggest reading these books alongside Doris Sommer's Foundational Fictions, which provides an explanation of how nation-building and fiction-writing went hand-in-hand in Latin America. Here are some suggestions:

Sab could be thought of, roughly, as a Hispano-Cuban Uncle Tom's Cabin. Its joint consideration of race and gender issues is quite compelling, and the author, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, occupies an interesting sort of joint position in Cuban and Spanish literary history.

María honestly bores the crap out of me, but if you don't drown in Efraín's tears before you get a hundred pages in, you should find plenty of interesting stuff, especially if you like Romantic literature. It's also, that I can think of, the first continental bestseller in terms of Latin American novels.

Aves sin nido (Torn from the Nest), by the Peruvian author Clorinda Matto de Turner, represents an important turning point in Latin American indigenista literature, in that it passes from the romanticization of the indigenous peoples in books like José de Alençar's Iracema, to a concern with social justice. From there, if you're interested in literature from the Andean nations that focuses on these issues, you could continue on to Jorge Icaza's Huasipungo, and then move on to the Peruvian José María Argüedas, without question one of the most important authors of 20th century Latin America.

Anyway, I just think that going back to the "pre-Boom" classics of Latin American literature is worth the effort, because there's a lot of great books that were, in a way, condemned by the Boom authors as representing an "immature" stage in the region's literature. Now, in 2013, that judgment carries far less weight, although their reasons for making it are understandable.

All the books I've mentioned should be available in translation, although it might be hard to find Rivera's The Vortex, as I believe it's been out of print for some time.

One final note: if you're into poetry and literary criticism, Josefina Ludmer's The Gaucho Genre is awesome!

Edited: Sep 23, 2013, 5:49am Top

Thanks to Steven and Sassy for providing superb background information and author recommendations, and to everyone else for their additional information.

I have over two dozen works of South American literature in my TBR pile. I'd like to read three or four books a month for the next three months from this list:

   Adolfo Bioy Casares, Asleep in the Sun; The Invention of Morel
   Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones
   Julio Cortázar, Blow-Up and Other Stories; Hopscotch
   Juan Filloy, Op Oloop
   Ernesto Sábato, The Tunnel
   Juan José Saer, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington

   Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Quincas Borba
   Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, Anonymous Celebrity; Teeth Under the Sun

   Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
   Roberto Bolaño, The Third Reich
   José Donoso, Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe; The Lizard's Tale
   Diamela Eltit, E. Luminata
   Alejandro Zambra, Ways of Going Home

   Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (I haven't read this yet!)
   Evelio Rosero, Good Offices

   Ernesto Quiñonez, Chango's Fire

   Oonya Kempadoo, All Decent Animals

   Mario Vargas Llosa, The Green House; Captain Pantoja and the Special Service; The Way to Paradise; The Bad Girl; The Dream of the Celt

   Juan Carlos Onetti, Let the Wind Speak

   Alberto Barrera Tyszka, The Sickness

Sep 22, 2013, 8:47pm Top

You haven't read 100 Years of Solitude?? Shocking. You are in for a treat, IMO. I think that you will also like House of the Spirits. I re-read it recently, and it held up well, even though I have been disappointed with Allende's more recent works.

Sep 23, 2013, 7:37am Top

Nice list, Darryl. I reread One Hundred Years of Solitude a few years ago, having read it back in the 70s, after reading the first (and so far only?) volume of Garcia Marquez's autobiography, Living To Tell the Tale. I also reread Love in the Time of Cholera, which I liked better.

Sep 23, 2013, 9:11am Top

Sad news: the Colombian author Álvaro Mutis died yesterday.

The Guardian: Álvaro Mutis Jaramillo, Colombian writer and poet, dies aged 90

Edited: Sep 28, 2013, 5:45pm Top

I finished Mean Women by Alicia Borinsky, which was more a stream of images and scenes strung together than a story with a beginning and an end. The repeated symbols tie the book together. A published review describe it as "horrifying yet humorous," but as always happens for me, I only get the horror and none of the humor. The Spanish title is "Mina Cruel" but I don't understand enough Spanish to know how that sounds, or if represents the book better than "Mean Women".

Five stars, fantastic book.

"Can we come out of our lethargy and do the same? Forget about our bunions, the gas bill, this itching and then come up with an expression of eternity so that the whole neighborhood can know, join in, and make the tragedy greater?"
"Something of this atmosphere oozes out and pools between the toes."
"She floated for eight hours on the river of tears and later was absorbed by the earth and then turned into a sharp blade of yellow grass that even the caterpillars refused to creep over."

Edited: Sep 28, 2013, 6:58pm Top

Great great work by SassyLassy and StevenTX--whatever happened though to the great Chilean poet Nicanor Parra who gave to this world anti-poetry. By the way he will be 100 years old next September and last I knew he was still going strong. Maybe the most irreverent Latin American writer of all time and a big hero to Roberto Bolano--well and to me too. I'll also mention a pretty good Argentine Mempo Giardinelli.

Oct 2, 2013, 4:30pm Top

Back after over two weeks without a computer. I found some books from South America on my travels and managed to read two from that area; reviews to follow once I get back to normal life.

Thanks to everyone for the additional suggestions. I suspect some are more difficult to find than others.

>31 msjohns615: Comparing some of the nineteenth century classics to European classics from the same era is something I'm looking forward to, as that is a favourite era of mine.

doc, that's quite a TBR you have there. If you have that many on this area, I can only imagine that total! I just started The Green House today. Looking forward to your thoughts on it and some of those other books. Thanks for the sad update about Mutis and thanks for the link. Ninety is pretty impressive, as is the one hundred mentioned by lriley.

>36 anoplph0ra: Certainly sounds like an interesting book. I'll look for that one.

>37 lriley: I think we could do a whole year on South American poets. I knew there were a lot of them, but had no idea just how many until I started working on this quarter. Unfortunately, not many of them seem to have been translated into English, although I did see quite a few translations into French and Italian.

Oct 2, 2013, 7:31pm Top

>38 SassyLassy:
I started The Green House a couple months ago, but I gave up on it because I had no idea what was going on. Too many people to remember, too many plots. I'll be really interested on your opinion, I might have to give it another try.

Oct 2, 2013, 7:46pm Top

#39--one thing I often do when reading a book with multiple plot lines and tons of characters is take a sheet of paper and start writing names down whether characters--places-interrelationships--enmities. Break them down into lists. It helps me anyway to keep track of even obscure people, events and places in the book. That sheet of paper can also serve as a book marker.

#38--Parra has had several works translated into english. A lot of his work is topical to current event but also Chilean history--he has a wonderfully ribald streak. He loves to play the nasty self-centered old coot or the demented religious crank when discoursing on these things. Not only was he Bolano's favorite poet--he's mine as well--Zbigniew Herbert comes in second.

Oct 3, 2013, 3:50pm Top

lriley: yeah, Parra is irresistible, and he got a very major "consecration" last year when he won the Cervantes Prize.

The Cervantes Prize Wikipedia page is actually another really good resource for those interested in Hispanic literatures. It was invented the year after Franco's death (again, according to Wikipedia), and is something akin to a Nobel Prize in Literature for writers who write in Spanish.

I also neglected to mention one extremely important category in Latin American literature: Modernismo. Many scholars will remind you in that the use of the word modernism as an aesthetic category, in the way we often used it now, originated with Rubén Darío and company. Sometimes it seems like they do that just to recognize that they're "hip" to the literatures of Latin America. Anyway, when people talk about aesthetic modernism, they are using a term that's more or less of Latin American origin (correct me if I'm wrong, these disputes over words and their origins are always tricky).

I'm not really up to date on any particularly recommendable English language translations of modernista poetry. Darío is obviously central. His Azul is often thought of as the beginning of the movement. Anyone with an interest in Latin America's cultures and literatures should also read José Martí's famous crónicas posthaste. A classic modernista novel that's been translated into English is José Asunción Silva's De sobremesa (In English as After-Dinner Conversation: The Diary of a Decadent. Delmira Agustini, the Uruguayan poet, is also well worth our time.

Oct 3, 2013, 4:57pm Top

32 -
Captain Pantoja and the Special Service is such a wonderful book. I don't think a book has made me laugh so hard since then.

Oct 4, 2013, 12:21am Top

Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano (Uruguayan)
A trilogy consisting of:
  - Genesis (1982)
  - Faces and Masks (1984)
  - Century of the Wind (1986)
English translation by Cedric Belfrage 1988


Eduardo Galeano best describes the nature and scope of this work in his own words:

"It is not an anthology, but a literary creation, based on solid documentation but moving with complete freedom. The author does not know to what literary form the book belongs: narrative, essay, epic poem, chronicle, testimony . . . Perhaps it belongs to all or none. The author relates what has happened, the history of America, and above all, the history of Latin America; and he has sought to do it in such a way that the reader should feel that what has happened happens again when the author tells it."

Though published in three installments, Memory of Fire is a single continuous work and should be read as such. It consists of over 1000 vignettes, most about a half page in length. The earliest ones relate the various creation myths of the Native American peoples, from Tierra del Fuego to the Bering Strait. From that we jump to 1492 and the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Each vignette is given a year and a location, and it is footnoted to show the source. They are in chronological order from 1492 to 1984, but the locations jump from place to place. The perspective is sometimes that of a conquistador, a churchman or a political leader, but more often we see history through the eyes of the Indians, the peasants, the guerrilla fighters, and the slum dwellers. Occasionally the narrative jumps across oceans for a bit of context: the Gutenberg Bible, the invention of the electric light, or the stardom of Marilyn Monroe.

Galeano's sympathies are clearly with the downtrodden and the disenfranchised: the Indians, the slaves, the poor, and women. With only a few breaks, the book is a chronicle of conquest, oppression, racial prejudice, exploitation and heroic resistance. The villains are Spain, the Catholic Church, Britain, the United States, and corporate capitalism. What would otherwise be a story of unrelenting horror and despair is elevated to the sublime by Galeano's language and humanity. Each vignette is a poem in prose, uplifting in its beauty and nobility even while describing scenes of murder and torture.

There is no attempt on Galeano's part to give a balanced account or to analyze what he describes. Dictators have no virtues; socialist revolutionaries have no vices and are forgiven their failings. When a liberal government fails to live up to its promises, the blame is always placed on foreign or corporate interference. Some may object to this black and white presentation of history, but one might argue that the privileged have had their say for centuries, so it's only fair to give the disenfranchised a turn at the podium. Given the author's emphasis on the cultural heritage of the American Natives, it's surprising that he omits any pre-Columbian history except for the creation myths--perhaps he felt that stories of Inca, Maya and Aztec conquests would weaken the reader's sympathy for them. But I found the biggest weakness in the work was the lack of an index. The stories of some persons and places are often told in vignettes dozens of pages apart, and it would be nice to be able to locate an earlier piece for review.

Memory of Fire is a magnificent and incredibly moving account of Latin American history and culture. It is rich in detail and human interest, but ties together themes from all over the hemisphere to give the reader a sense of context and perspective. This would be an excellent place to begin a study of the history of the Americas.

Oct 4, 2013, 11:57am Top

38. The Green House was definitely hard to follow, but I loved it.

42 I completely agree about Captain Pantoja and the Special Service! I had a smile on my face the whole time I was reading it and I couldn't help thinking about the fun Vargas Llosa must have had writing it.

43. As I remarked on your thread, I've had Memory of Fire on the TBR for years, and really need to get to it.

Oct 4, 2013, 4:36pm Top

What a great book to start off this thread and great review too. Something to refer to again and again as you read, but I agree with you about works like this that don't have an index. It's so useful.

Oct 4, 2013, 10:39pm Top

This thread is off to a great start!

I have finished my first book --Leaf Storm by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I really enjoyed it. It's an early work, and short, but definitely feels like GGM.

Oct 5, 2013, 8:18am Top

As regards Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy it's pretty much a historical synopsis of South and Central American history. I imagine people with strong conservative leanings would find Galeano's views on a lot of things distasteful. The truth is though that brutality by whatever authorities are in power has been a very common occurrence since the Spanish and Portugese started colonizing these areas of the world--as it has been in Africa and Asia and assorted other colonies with the British, French, Belgians and Germans. New creations of aristocracies aping European colonial values giving birth to countless dictatorships--a small number of privileged gaining control of the wealth--the law--the army--the apparatus of government when their colonial masters fade away. The 20th century South American dictatorships abetted in the second half of the century by the CIA were violent in the extreme towards their own people whenever challenged. I'm not sure how you can give a balanced account of Trujillo's reign--or Pinochet's or Somoza's or Videla's. It's one thing to kill your enemies--it's another thing to turn them over to sadists to torture them for pleasure--another thing again to go after innocents related to your enemies. And again it's another thing to disappear dead bodies in the thousands. To throw them out of cargo planes (either dead or alive) into the ocean. All this is a too often occurring part of the South American history.

Edited: Oct 11, 2013, 12:06pm Top


The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa translated from the Spanish by Helen Lane
first published as El Hablador in 1987
crossposted from Club Read 2013

A middle aged Peruvian, possibly a linguist or an ethnographer, possibly an art historian, is on sabbatical in Florence. His aim was to study the works of Dante, Machiavelli and various Renaissance artists. All was going according to plan when one day, passing a small gallery, he spotted an exhibit of photographs titled "Natives of the Amazon Forest".

Entering the display, he was immediately taken back in time, not just three years to when he had last been in the very settlements depicted, but thirty years to his student days in the mid 1950s. At that time his closest friend had been Saul Zuratos, a fellow student. Two things distinguished Saul: his unforgettable appearance and his profound belief that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon should be left in a state of nature, free of contamination by outside influences.

How does one study a culture one can't approach? Should development of Peru's natural resources be halted to accommodate the Amazonian tribes? Where do these tribes fit in a Marxist structure? Questions like these were the stuff of their student discussions. The answers put the narrator and his friend Saul on different paths, so that almost thirty years had now passed since they last met.

This is a multilayered novel with several different threads. There is the main narrator reflecting on his own career, and on Saul and what might have happened to him. There is the tribal storyteller walking from one far flung settlement to the next, keeping alive the beliefs and stories of the Machiguena, "the people who walk". Finally there is Tasurinchi, "the all-powerful, the breather-out of people", living one life after another, telling the stories of his people to the storyteller to tell to the tribe.

Vargas Llosa weaves it all together, from the myths of the Machiguenga and their struggle to remain a distinct people; and the story of Saul, son of a Jewish immigrant, haunted by the spectre of ethnic annihilation. Magically, what emerges is a novel addressing the very roots of identity.


The cosmogony of the Machiguenga as told by Vargas Llosa:
The earth was the centre of the cosmos and there were two regions above it and two below, each one with its own sun, moon, and tangle of rivers. In the highest, Inkite, lived Tasurinchi, the all-powerful, the breather-out of people, and through it, bathing fertile banks with fruit-laden trees, flowed the Meshiareni, or river of immortality, that could be dimly made out from the earth, for it was the Milky Way. Below Inkite floated the weightless region of clouds, or Menkoripatsa, with its transparent river, the Manaironchaari. The earth, Kipacha, was the abode of the Machiguengas, a wandering people. Beneath it was the gloomy region of the dead, almost all of whose surface was covered by the river Kamabiria, plied by the souls of the deceased before taking up their new abode. And last of all, the lowest and most terrible region, that of the Gamaironi, a river of black waters where there were no fish, and of wastelands, where there was nothing to eat, either. This was the domain of Kientibakori, creator of filthy things, the spirit of evil and the chief of a legion of demons, the kamagarinis. The sun of each region was less powerful and less bright than the one above. The sun of Inkite was motionless. The hesitant sun of earth came and went, its survival mythically linked to the conduct of the Machiguengas.

edited to correct touchstone

Oct 11, 2013, 11:09pm Top


The Witness by Juan José Saer
First published 1983 as El Entenado
English translation by Margaret Jull Costa 1990


Some twenty years after the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, a 15-year-old Spanish orphan and wharf rat signs on to a ship as cabin boy, not knowing or caring where the ship is bound. It turns out the vessel is bound westward across the Atlantic, hoping to find a southern passage to the East Indies. Instead they find only primitive, forbidding lands. Going ashore, the sailors are ambushed, and all but the cabin boy are killed.

The cabin boy is taken prisoner, but treated with a strange degree of kindness and deference, even as he watches the Indians butcher and eat his shipmates. He lives among the cannibals for ten years, but it is only sixty years later as he his writing his memoirs that he begins to understand why he was treated the way he was.

The Witness is a meditation upon reality as we perceive it, memory, death, and the role of language in shaping our view of the universe. The novel opens with the narrator's lament that we are but insignificant motes in the vastness of the universe, and our lives but an ephemeral glimmer on the earth. And all we know of our lives are fleeting, fragile memories. Each culture finds its own ways of coping with these harsh truths. In piecing together his memories and what he understood of their language, the former cabin boy gradually begins to form a notion of the Indians' world view, one that is radically different from the Europeans', but with just as much claim to validity.

The Witness is a novel that is both thoughtful and suspenseful, both brutal and lyrical. There are many memorable scenes, many passages worth re-reading, and many ideas worth contemplation.

Oct 26, 2013, 7:01pm Top

And continuing my Garcia Marquez quest:

The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Luis Alejandro Velasco was a Colombian sailor who, in 1955, survived 10 days at sea on a raft after an accident, caused by naval negligence, which killed 8 others. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a young newspaper reporter, and published Velasco’s story in installments to great public interest. I can see why—it’s a gripping story and written in Garcia-Marquez’ beautiful prose.

Oct 27, 2013, 11:15am Top

A Vargas Llosa I hadn't read!

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

Although I'm a big fan of Vargas Llosa, and although this book has been on my shelves for 30 years (I still wrote my name and the date in books back in June 1983), I never read it until now. And what a delightful book it is! Vargas Llosa intersperses semi-autobiographical chapters about the 18-year-old narrator's life and his budding romance with his 32-year-old divorced aunt by marriage with chapters that the reader eventually realizes are episodes in the radio serials written by a Bolivian scriptwriter recently hired by the radio station at which the narrator works.

In the Aunt Julia chapters, the narrator, whose name is Mario but is generally called Marito or Varguesita, wants above all to be a writer; nonetheless, he is somewhat lackadaisically going to law school to please his family, while working as news editor and writer at the radio station and hanging out with his friends. He lives in Lima with his grandparents, as his parents are in the US, and spends a great deal of time with members of his large extended family. And that is how he meets Julia, who has come from Bolivia to Lima to visit her sister, the wife of one of the narrator's uncles, to recover from her divorce and find a new husband. One of the delights of these sections are the narrator's sense of fun, as well as romance and responsibility, and some parts are almost laugh-out-loud funny, especially as this part of the plot builds to its conclusion. I also enjoyed the descriptions of how the radio serials are recorded, and the efforts of the sound effects man in particular. The characters Vargas Llosa creates are wonderful.

The chapters representing the work by the master, and eccentric, Bolivian scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho, are more puzzling. They start off as fairly standard soap opera fare -- romance with a whiff of incest, rape, etc. -- and gradually become weirder and weirder and darker and darker. At one point I was confused because a name seemed to be changed, and gradually (from the narrator's chapters), I learned that the radio listeners were confused by this too, as characters seem to be moving from one serial to another, changing lives, professions, and more, and dying in one serial to be resurrected in another. Through this, the reader sees Pedro Camacho's breakdown before the listeners and the radio station owners start discussing it.

Although both the narrator chapters and the serial chapters move along at a brisk pace, with well drawn characters and well developed plots, there is another aspect to this book, and that is the nature of writing. The narrator frequently discusses stories he is trying to write, and of course is fascinated by how Camacho works, so part of the story is the portrait of the aspiring writer as a young man. And this is probably semi-autobiographical as well. The last chapter, which I felt a little tacked on, reveals what happens when the older author, who has been living in Europe, visits Peru and runs into some of his old friends, some who have risen higher in the world, and some who have fallen. It ties up some loose ends, but I felt the novel could have ended before this.

All in all, this book was a lot of fun.

Oct 27, 2013, 12:02pm Top

Oct 29, 2013, 5:20pm Top


The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
First published in Portuguese 1881
English translation by Gregory Rabassa 1997


The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is a playful, metafictional novel that immediately brings to mind Laurence Sterne's Tristam Shandy. It is "Posthumous" for the simple reason that to write his whole life's story, a man must wait until he is dead so the story is complete. He begins by telling us of his death in his native Brazil, in 1869, at the age of 64--a childless bachelor, so we know ahead of time the fruitless outcome of the love affairs which will dominate his memoirs.

Going back to his beginnings, Brás Cubas describes his ancestry--how he manages to be rich enough never to have to work in his life--and his spoiled childhood. Brás is barely grown before he is squandering a fortune on trinkets for a favorite prostitute. His indulgent father, finally losing patience with him, sends Brás to Europe to finish his education. Returning after having barely eked out a degree, he refuses a career in politics and the marriage his father has arranged to the beautiful Virgília. But then, as soon as Virgília has been wed to someone else, Brás falls madly in love with her.

Brás Cubas, in short, is a no-account dandy whose life is noteworthy only for the trouble he causes those who persistently care for him. His life history would be a dreary novel, except that the novel isn't so much about Brás as about the story itself. The narrator regularly steps back from the narrative to address the reader as audience, accomplice, or adversary. At one point he laments:

"I'm beginning to regret this book. Not that it bores me, I have nothing to do and, really, putting together a few meager chapters for that other world is always a task that distracts me from eternity a little. But the book is tedious, it has the smell of the grave about it; it has a certain cadaveric contraction about it, a serious fault, insignificant to boot because the main defect of the book is you, reader. You're in a hurry to grow old and the book moves slowly. You love direct and continuous narration, a regular and fluid style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble, yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble and fall..."

He describes his book very well. There are chapters with typographical flourishes such as dialogue consisting of nothing but punctuation marks, a chapter with a title and no text, and chapters that are simply brief soliloquies. Sometimes Brás pats himself on the back, saying things like "By God, that's a good way to end a chapter!" At another point he suddenly interrupts himself to go back and clarify something from several chapters earlier, closing with "Good Lord! Do I have to explain everything?"

The result is a delightful little satirical novel with all its moving parts fully exposed and vividly painted so reader and author can have a good laugh at one another.

I should also add for this group's interest that the picture it presents of 19th century Brazil, seen from the perspective of the upper middle class, is remarkably like that of 19th century Europe. If it were not for the occasional mention of slavery, you might easily think it was set in Lisbon, Madrid, Milan or Vienna instead of Rio de Janeiro.

Edited: Nov 1, 2013, 4:37am Top

>>51 rebeccanyc: This makes me want to read Aunt Julia again! I remember I too was laughing out loud reading it, but nothing of the darkerside of the story.

For the first time the theme reads of this group overlap my own world tour. I just read a Brazilian title Isä Belmiron rikos and my review is here.

My next stop will be Suriname with "The Queen of Paramaribo" (Paramaribon kuningatar in Finnish) listed above.

Nov 3, 2013, 10:55am Top


Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Originally published in 1973
Translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine
Reissued by New York Review Books in 2004


Lucio Bordenave lives in a modest home in a small alley, along with his wife Diana, a woman of modest beauty and frequent, unpredictable tempers, and Doña Ceferina, an older relative who serves as the couple's housekeeper but excels at stirring up trouble between them and Diana's cantankerous family. Lucio is also surrounded by meddlesome neighbors who offer less than helpful advice on his troubled marriage, and his only escape is to his room, where he earns a profitable living as a repairer of clocks.

A friend of Diana's, noting her difficult behavior, encourages Lucio to have her committed to a nearby mental institution, as the man is a close friend of the head physician there, who he thinks can help her. Lucio reluctantly does so, but almost immediately regrets his decision. When she is released weeks later she is a changed woman, happy and full of life and love for her husband, but Lucio realizes that something isn't quite right, even though likes the "new" Diana considerably better. He visits the friend who recommended Diana's institutionalization, then returns to the asylum, where he makes a discovery that is shocking to him and a threat to his marriage and to the residents of his community.

Asleep in the Sun is a surreal and allegorical novel, mixed with wry humor, menace and a touch of magical realism. This is normally the type of book that I thoroughly enjoy; however, unlike The Obscene Bird of Night, the brilliant novel by José Donoso, I found myself far less interested in Casares' characters or the plot as a whole. Part of the reason may be that I read the description of the book on its back cover, which negatively influenced my approach to the novel, as other reviewers have said. It was an moderately enjoyable read, albeit a disappointing one, and I may give it another chance in the future to see if I like it better on a second reading.

Nov 3, 2013, 11:43am Top


A House in the Country by José Donoso
Originally published 1978; English translation 1984.

This is a remarkable book, and I hardly know where to begin to talk about it. Starting as a seemingly straightforward tale of the hugely rich and aristocratic Ventura family, consisting of seven sisters and brothers, their spouses, and their 33 surviving children, it quickly becomes convoluted, bizarre, disturbing, comic, perverse, shocking, postmodern, and puzzling. At the same time, Donoso has said that this book was his response to the 1973 coup by Pinochet and that he has even included word-for-word excerpts from both Pinochet and Allende (in this article on the Dalkey Archive website).

The story begins at the Ventura's house in the country, Marulanda, where the parents are preparing to take their huge retinue of servants and go for a day-long excursion to a fabulous woodland glade and waterfall, leaving the cousins, ranging in age from 6 to 16, locked inside the "park" that surrounds the the house and separates it from the grassy plains and native populations outside with hundreds of metal lances tipped with gold and embedded in cement beneath the ground. The servants are not just servants but, led by the huge Majordomo, enforcers of the parents' rule over the children, doling out cruel punishments that leave no marks. And the native people have been conquered by the Venturas' ancestors and now work for them, mining and laminating the gold that is the source of the their wealth. The white people all believe the natives are cannibals, and threaten the children that they will be eaten if they misbehave.

So the stage is set for intrigue and trouble when all the adults leave: all the adults but one. For Uncle Adriano, who married the totally frivolous and somewhat slow-witted Balbina Ventura, and who is the father of 9-year-old Wenceslao, has been enclosed in a straitjacket, drugged, and locked in a tower ever since he "went crazy" because of a truly horrifying and shocking event. (A doctor, he was the only family member to have any relationship with the native people.) Wenceslao is determined to take advantage of the absence of the adults, which it develops has been engineered by a group of the children, to free his father. Other groups of children are engaged in plots of their own, and most of them believe the adults will not return at the end of the day as they have promised. Some of them try to leave.

That's about all I can tell to set the stage, both because I don't want to spoil all the surprises and because there is so much else going on in this novel, or "fable," as the author, who intervenes occasionally to explain what he is doing with the plot and the characters, persists in describing the work. Towards the end, he also notes that the characters are "emblems" and "a-psychological." I am sure I didn't understand everything Donoso was doing in this book, but here are some thoughts.

First of all, there is an artificial feel to a lot of the book. Not only are the characters "emblems" (although Donoso has accomplished quite a feat in making so many characters understandably different, it is extremely helpful that he includes a list of parents, children, and ages at the beginning), but several of them engage in a long-running improvised "play" called La Marquise Est Sortie à Cinq Heures. The "play" allow them to use flowery language, flirt and plot, and remove themselves from the reality of life in the summer house. Further, the house is filled with trompe l'oeil frescoes and wall decorations; the highly liveried servants melt into the walls, and the people on the walls spring to life. There are also revelations about the library and other aspects of the house that are not what they appear to be. Tying in with this, there are people who are blind, or practically blind, or dependent on very strong eyeglasses, and there is a whole network of tunnels beneath the house (for reasons revealed later) in which people have to find their way by feeling the edges.

Then, there is the whole idea of cannibalism. Whether the native people ever were cannibals is never quite clear, but the idea that they "still" are serves the function of keeping the children in place. At the same time, the mothers are always saying things to the little children like "oh, you're so delicious" and "oh, I could just eat you up with kisses." The idea of cannibalism threads its way through the novel.

There is also a theme of holding back nature. The lance "walls" of the park hold back the grasses of the plain, but every year in the fall there are winds that bring what are called "thistledown blizzards" that make it almost impossible to breathe. And many of the tunnels under the house are brimming with the unstoppable growth of wild mushrooms.

The second half of the novel relates to the return of the adults, after what seems to them only a day. Denying the reality that appears before they even reach the house, they dispatch the servants to return to the house and straighten everything out while they return to their homes in the capital until order is restored. This section gets really wild and crazy, with turmoil, fighting, cruelty, bravery, and revelation after revelation; at this point, "reality" becomes even more tenuous than it has already been, and the author returns more often to discuss his choices.

So what to make of this book? I was really impressed by Donoso's ideas and imagination. I was less able to detect the political ideas; although it was possible to see the servants, on their return, as the army, it was a lot less clear who other groups of people might represent. My conclusion is that this is, as Donoso, said, a "response" to the Pinochet coup and crackdown and that he is not trying to make complete analogies. I think I spent too much time trying to figure out who might stand for whom and not enough just experiencing the novel.

Although I've written at length, I've only scratched the surface of this complicated book. If I didn't have so many other books I want to read, I would start it all over again.

Edited: Nov 4, 2013, 7:18am Top


Where There's Love, There's Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo
Originally published 1946; English translation 2013.

This fun novella is both a mystery story and a gentle parody of a mystery story, with poisons, atmospheric events, people who aren't who they seem to me, a dead bird, literary allusions, and lots of subtle humor. It begins as a somewhat pompous and self-satisfied doctor travels to a remote Argentine beach resort, owned by his cousin who, he points out, owes him money so he gets to stay without charge. He encounters a group of other visitors, one of whom is poisoned to death that very night. Soon, everyone is a suspect for one reason or another; a vicious storm that blows sand everywhere starts up; and more mysterious things begin to happen.

Although I enjoyed the mystery, I was more delighted by the writing style of Bioy Casares and Ocampo, and especially liked it when one of the amateur detectives/suspects revealed that his favorite novel was The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo, which I read earlier this year. This was a quick read, and a fun one.

Note: There is a problem with this book that LT staff are trying to solve, in that my copy doesn't link up with the other copies of the book and the Bioy Casares author page doesn't show that I own it. So, above, I have provided an HTML link to the page that shows my copy of the book; if you do a regular touchstone, it goes to a German edition of the book, which is the only one the Bioy Casares author page shows, not all the others. It also isn't letting me save my review on the book page.

Nov 10, 2013, 11:58am Top


The Hare by César Aira
Originally published 1991; English translation 1998; republished 2013.

Aira is known for his novellas -- I've read one and have others on my shelves -- so this book, at 266 pages, is a tome for him. Although I hesitate to generalize from the one other Aira I've read, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, I think the shorter length works better for him, as there were definitely sections that dragged a little. And this book was more dependent on plot which, again probably unfairly generalizing, is not necessarily his strong point. Also, I found his depiction of the Indians a little grating, although I realize that they were partly described through the lens of the late 19th century protagonist and partly symbolic in a philosophical way. Nonetheless, Aira shines in his sly humor, his absurdity, his stunning descriptions of nature, his imagination, his light-hearted philosophical digressions, and his love of language.

The story begins with a somewhat extraneous look at the activities of the Restorer of the Laws, i.e., the dictator, of Argentina. He then gives his blessing, and his best horse, to the English naturalist, Clarke, who is mounting an expedition to the pamaps to look for the extremely rare, and perhaps nonexistent, Legibrereian hare (which, it turns out, may not even be living creature). The rest of the novel covers Clarke's travels through the pampas with Carlos, a 15-year-old would-be artist, and Gauna, a taciturn guide who, it develops, is on a quest of his own. In the course of their travels, they encounter three very different groups of Mapuche Indians, get to know several individuals in each group, get caught up in various plots and "wars" (without generally understanding what they're about), reveal aspects of their pasts (including that both Clarke and Carlos were adopted), and ultimately experience several plot revelations, at least one of which was obvious to me about halfway through the book.

But this is only the plot, and the plot is the least important part of the book. As mentioned, Aira loves philosophical digressions, and some of the ideas he explores in this book are simultaneity, identity and twinhood, transformation, continuity and time, and myth and reality. In a way, the book is all about story-telling: the myths groups live by, how these myths differ from "scientific" and "rational" explanations, the imaginary world versus the real world, the stories we tell others about ourselves and the stories other tell us, and, of course, the story that is this novel. (I do think Aira is playing with the reader at times, especially in the way he somewhat ridiculously ties up a lot of loose ends in the final chapter.) Thinking about a story Gauna told him about why he wanted to come to the pamaps, Clarke muses:

"He had to admit it was a very solid and plausible story, but that was entirely due to the fact that it included all (or nearly all) the details of what had happened in reality; by the same token, there must be other stories that did the same, even though they were completely different. Everything that happened, isolated and observed by an interpretive judgment, or even simply by the imagination, became an element that could be combined with any number of others. Personal invention was responsible for creating the overall structure, for seeing to it that these elements formed unities." p.170

As in the previous novel I read by Aira, there is a lot that is absurd in this book, and it can't be read in a literal way. If it weren't so much fun to read him, and if he weren't such a good writer, I might find this irritating. I think this book was a little bloated, but I enjoyed it, and I will read more Aira.

Nov 14, 2013, 6:30pm Top

Nobody Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This is an early book of short stories and a novella. The stories are set in Macondo, with references to characters we will later meet in One Hundred Years of Solitude. I found all of the stories to be sad and sweet. Garcia Marquez has such a feeling of love for his community, and that permeates all of his work. For the most part, these stories don’t use magical realism, but his writing is magical in itself.

This book focuses on the difficulties that individuals and communities face when living in a corrupt and repressive regime. The title novella is based, apparently, on Garcia Marquez’ own grandfathers experiences. In this story, the Colonel, a lovely, gentle, older man and his wife are slowly starving while they wait for a promised pension, which, of course, never arrives.

Nov 15, 2013, 11:27am Top

Hello banjo; You've just read two of the books in my pile and offered me encouragement to dig them out. I falling sadly behind here.

Nov 15, 2013, 11:36am Top

Just because I'm falling behind, I thought I would put in this review from last year of a book I've now reread twice because it made such a huge impression on me:


Triste's History by Horacio Vazquez Rial, translated from the Spanish by Jo Labanyi
originally published 1987

Cristobal Artola, known by all as Triste, loved by none except his washerwoman mother, was doomed to a Darwinian existence from birth:

...from the start Triste knew he was up against a stone wall whose polished surface made it impossible even to sink his teeth and claws into it, to cut himself on it while hauling himself up just a few inches, to clutch at the trouser legs of those immediately above: from the start he knew he had to adjust to the demands of the mire and learn to live in it with no hope of reward for his pains...

When Triste's mother dies, he is left in a Buenos Aires slum, completely reliant on himself. An initial attempt at life as an underage pool shark ends painfully. However, the attention it garnered provides a new line of work. Triste finds himself working under the direction of Chaves the priest. The work is infrequent, but pays a handsome retainer, well beyond anything he could earn elsewhere.

Slowly but surely the pair are drawn into the world of Peron's Argentina. Over time, as their work becomes more serious, the roles are reversed and Triste finds himself leading the now lapsed Chaves. Their work remains episodic and random, always directed from above. Neither has the knowledge or skills to progress to planning work in an increasingly fragmented and factional world.

Eventually the day comes when the pair must face up to the extent of their involvement and what it has meant for themselves and others. They make plans to leave both their work and Argentina, but if their lives have taught them anything, it is that life does not go as planned.

Vazquez Rial writes in a style that flows one minute and is staccato the the next, perfectly mirroring the rhythm of Triste's life. Conversations are few, brief and direct. The writing is stark and to the point, wasting no emotion on a character who lived free of emotional entanglement himself.

In his introduction, the author says that in writing this book from exile, he learned the history of "the other", who played such a role in his life in Argentina. Triste is a character we do not often see in literature, but an important one in so much of history.

Nov 17, 2013, 12:07pm Top

I found the "The Queen of Paramaribo" by Clark Accord (or Paramaribon kuningatar, no English transaltion seem to be available) from the list above. It was the only Suriname book easily available here. So I had no real expectations but the novel turned out to be surprisingly nice read.

It is a fictionalized biography of a famous prostitute Wilhelmina Angelica Adriana Merian Rijburg alias Maxi Linder (1902-1981). The author explains that the character of Maxi Linder in his novel is build on known facts and anecdotes and that he used the names of other known prostitutes from the era but inventing the characters.

The writing (and translation) was a little clumsy but in every other respect this was an enjoyable read with nice touch of what I'd imagine Suriname was in the past century. Maxi Linder was an interesting and self-contradicting person: seductive, competitive, bad mannered, violent, and very very generous. She charged a high price for her services and became wealthy but she also fed her neighbours in need, provided for the education of their children. A real character!

Structurally The Queen... was more ambitious than an average biographical or "based on real characters" novel. Most of the book is told from the point of view of other people who influenced Maxi or were influenced by her. The chapters are titled with names and tell their mutual story or their encounter. Other unconventional yet functional solution was that the author was not trying to tell everything: several years were often omitted. Things had happened and conditions changed between chapters. This might be disturbing if the book were a real biography but not in this case.

Not really great literature but as I didn't really expect anything, the novel actually was a lot better thatn, um... I expected.

Nov 22, 2013, 7:16am Top

There are two days left to vote for next year's theme reads! If you haven't done so already, please come over to the voting thread and let your voice be counted!

Nov 23, 2013, 7:40am Top

And today is the last day to vote for next year's theme reads! If you haven't done so already, please come to the voting thread and cast your votes!

Nov 23, 2013, 10:00am Top


Maíra by Darcy Ribeiro

This novel by a Brazilian anthropologist was a challenging read for me: at times fascinating and imaginative, at times frustrating and opaque. Ribeiro set himself the task of depicting fictionally the impact of western "civilization" on a remote tribe of Indians, the Mairun, deep in the forested regions of the Amazon. To do so, he mixes sections that tell of the Mairun origin myths and customs with stories told by people as varied as a Mairun who almost became a Roman Catholic priest, the Mairun guide of souls, other Mairuns, various missionaries, a half-Mairun river trader, an investigator, and others, and it was sometimes difficult to keep track of who was who.

The novel begins with the discovery of a dead white woman on the beach by the river, who has apparently died while giving birth to twins. Or was she murdered? By the end of the book, we have some idea of how she got there. She was a troubled young woman, Alma, who ended up on the same small plane as the Mairun man who had given up studying in Rome to be a priest and was returning home: Isías in his Western name, Avá in his Mairun name. As a Mairun, he is destined to become the next chieftain; the old one has just died (although apparently he didn't know this when he decided to leave Rome and return home). Alma ends up accompanying Isías/Avá by canoe down the river first to the monastery/convent where he originally studied as she had thought she would somehow help the nuns there, and then to his village. Needless to say, she is a curiosity there, but eventually she feels very at home; Isías/Avá has more difficulty fitting back in as he has become neither white nor Mairun.

This is the broadest outline of the plot, but the plot is just there to hang the ideas on. A lot of this book is about religion, both Mairun beliefs and Catholic and evangelical Protestant beliefs, and some of this, especially the Catholic material was hard for me to follow, especially since a lot of it was given in Latin and I didn't want to type it all in to Google Translate! The novel's sections are named largely with Christian concepts: Antiphony, Homily, Gospel, and Corpus. I feel I missed a lot of the Christian references and ideas.

On the other hand, the parts about the Mairun life and mythology were the richest and most compelling, and often beautifully written (and often quite earthy too), although occasionally I was very aware that an anthropologist was writing the book! (As far as I can tell, the Mairun are a made-up tribe, but I'm sure Ribeiro took ideas about customs, kinship, and origin myths from indigenous people he had studied.) I was quite taken with the guide of souls, the complex way the Mairun organize their intergroup relationships, and various individuals and their interactions.

Another aspect of the novel is how Isías/Avá attempts to reclaim his Mairun heritage but remains a prisoner in a way of all his years with the priests both in Brazil and in Rome. His struggle is a metaphor for one of the ways the indigenous cultures were destroyed; more overt methods make an appearance later on in the book.

This is a complex and complicated novel, and I don't feel it entirely works. But I am glad I read it, and I'm still thinking about it.

As a side note, I bought this book because I became interested in Aventura: The Vintage Library of Contemporary World literature, after reading Donoso's A House in the Country earlier this month (see this post in my Club Read thread); I had never heard of it before. These books are beautifully designed and printed on very nice paper, but this book at least was marred by careless proofreading (e.g., "wit" for "with").

Nov 24, 2013, 7:12am Top

The results are in! Please go to this post on the voting thread to see them and to comment on the suggestions for next year's theme reads.

Nov 24, 2013, 12:18pm Top

Nonfiction, but I thought I'd post this here anyway -- from Brazil.

Backlands: The Canudos Campaign by Euclides da Cunha

I've wanted to read this book ever since I read The War at the End of the World because Vargas Llosa took the story told here, of the war between the followers of a charismatic religious leader in the backlands of northern Brazil and the army of the relatively young Brazilian republic, as the starting point of his novel. Da Cunha, a journalist who had been in the army himself, was what we now would call "embedded" with the army at the very end of the multi-campaign war; the rest of this lengthy and at times overblown book is the result of his detailed research although, in the fashion of the time (?), none of his sources are credited or footnoted.

For the book is not just about the war; nearly half of it paints a portrait of the backlands, or sertão, from a variety of perspectives: geological, meteorological, botanical, and human. And it is when da Cunha gets into the human makeup of the backlands that he gets into trouble with a modern reader, for da Cunha's "scientific" racism is vile. He ranks the races "evolutionarily" (guess which one is most evolved!) and describes in detail the various mixtures of black, white, and Indian blood, each of which has its own name. I suppose in some ways this "scientific" perspective was a step up from thinking of people of color as animals, and certainly it has to be taken in the context of the time, but it's pretty hard to read. Da Cunha also dabbles in psychology.

On the other hand, the geology and natural history of the region were fascinating: the backlands are incredibly rugged, remote, desolate, and alternately mountainous and desert-like. I did feel that his geological writing cried out for maps, and I've spent a lot of time searching the web, without success, for photos that do justice to the dramatic nature of the mountains da Cunha describes, as well as for photos of the plants. These sections did seem a little endless, especially without illustrations and maps.

The second part of the book covers the Brazilian army's four campaigns against Antonio Conselheiro (the counselor) who, through his preaching, attracted thousands of the poor and outcast (for various reasons) to the town of Canudos and built a religious community there. Da Cunha attempts to figure out Conselheiro's psychology, and he covers some of the reasons the powers-that-be in Brazil were so outraged by what might seem to be a localized cult, including that Brazil had only recently become a republic and had to be constantly on the lookout for monarchist rebellions. He calls the Canudos "rebellion" as "our Vendée," referring to the monarchist challenge to the French revolution. The material on the movements of the different units of the armies arrayed against Canudos also cries out for maps.

Militarily, the Brazilian army committed one mistake after another, including expecting regular army units to know what to do about guerrilla warfare, underestimating the impact of the terrain on their ability to proceed and to avoid their enemy, getting separated from their supply train, not having enough supplies, letting the enemy capture their weapons and ammunition, and on and on. Da Cunha develops a grudging respect for the jagunços, a term used to refer to the inhabitants of the backlands that can also mean "outlaw" or "cowboy," for their courage, determination, and persistence. He largely credits the eventual success of the Brazilian army, after three failed and one faltering attempt to take the town of Canudos, to an officer named de Bittencourt who finally got their supply trains in order and could regularly supply the troops at the front with food and ammunition. Eventually, the army was able to almost encircle Canudos, bomb the buildings with cannon fire which often set fire to them, and starve the remaining jagunços out, although they continued to fight fiercely until the very end. Except for some prisoners that the army had taken earlier, almost entirely women and children, everyone in Canudos died, often horribly. Atrocities were widespread. Conselheiro himself died of dysentery in the last days of the siege; his body was exhumed by the army and there are pictures of it available on the internet.

In his introduction to my edition, Ilan Stavans says that this book is a classic of Brazilian literature and gave Brazilians a sense of themselves as a people. It was something of a slog at times, but I'm glad I read it. It's given me renewed appreciation for what Vargas Llosa accomplished in The War at the End of the World, and may inspire me to reread it.

Edited: Nov 26, 2013, 7:41pm Top

Better late than never, I'm finally joining in this year with a South American read. My pick is A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges.

Now to pick through the thread so far... (All looks fantastic up top by the way - well done Sassy and Steven on a great looking theme read!)

Edited to correct a very sloppy omission of thanks!

Nov 26, 2013, 11:07am Top

Glad you're joining in Polaris. I look forward to your take on Borges, whom no one else has tackled, somewhat to my surprise.

I hope by now you've scrolled down and seen that the intro was a joint affair project with steven; my name just happens to appear first, but thanks!

Nov 26, 2013, 3:27pm Top

I've taken out my decades-old copy of Labyrinths by Borges, and even put it on the shelf on my bedside table, as I thought I could dip into it in the evenings, but so far . . .

Nov 26, 2013, 7:43pm Top

Corrected my post above! Still weaving my way down the thread... More soon I hope.

Nov 27, 2013, 5:04am Top

I've been enjoying the thread without contributing - thank you! I've been reading Clarice Lispector's curious stories from the volume Family Ties. I find them intriguing and quite disorienting: it's hard to know where and when the stories take place and Brazil seems a long way away. In fact, they are much more Kafka than Pele. Well worth exploring though. My other South American read is a volume of selected poems Poemas Selectos by contemporary Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas, a writer for whom I have a soft spot. I've been very slowly savouring his poems over recent years, but will make an effort to finish this book before this theme is out. I have volumnes by Barrera Tyszka, Andrés Neuman and Ricardo Piglia on my tbr pile, but may not get to them until the new year.

Coincidentally, I happen to be reviewing the final volume of HBW, Handbook of the birds of the world, special volume, which has a South American theme. It publishes the descriptions of 15 new bird species from Amazonia; the last time descriptions of such a large number of new species were collated in a single work was in 1871!

Nov 27, 2013, 4:51pm Top

67: thanks for the review! I've had that book on my bookshelf for the longest time, and maybe I'll finally get around to reading it over the December holidays. While they're works of non-fiction, both that book and Sarmiento's Facundo are often read as foundational works of Brazilian and Argentine literature, respectively. Your experience with Da Cunha sounds simliar to mine with Sarmiento: a slog, but worth the effort!

@68: I'd recommend complementing that book, Borges's initial foray into the sort of ficciones he's so very (and rightly) famous for, with one of his later collections, Brodie's Report. It might be fun to compare and contrast young and old Borges.

@49, 53: thanks for the reviews of both Saer and Asis... I've got Asis's O alienista on my bookshelf, and hope to get to it soon!

One more thing: I wanted to plug Roberto Arlt's Mad Toy. Arlt is absolutely central to the development of Argentine narrative, and this book was translated to English not too long ago.

Edited: Nov 27, 2013, 5:44pm Top

#73--another big fan of Arlt as my profile page will attest. The seven madmen is a great book. Roberto Arlt IMO is one of the most unappreciated writers of the 20th century.

Nov 28, 2013, 8:12am Top

We still need volunteers to lead the 2014 Central American read and postwar Germany read and I would like to wrap this by the end of the weekend so the first quarter leader can start planning. We definitely need someone who can lead one of these in the fourth quarter, but I can juggle the other quarters a little bit. There were 21 of you who voted "yes" for each of these reads, so there must be someone who can volunteer to lead them!

Thanks again to Rhonda for volunteering to lead the sub-Saharan Africa read and lilisin for volunteering to lead the travelogue read.

Dec 1, 2013, 8:03am Top

From Argentina.

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal

I really liked the central idea of this book -- a painting created over the course of 60 years on rolls of canvas ultimately extending more than 4 kilometers. And some of the writing was beautiful, and I could see that the author wanted to use the painting to explore communication among families. But the plot that went along with this was a little convenient, and the revelation of family secrets a tad obvious.

Juan Salvatierra has died when the novella opens, but the reader learns his backstory: after a gruesome riding accident as a child, he became mute (whether for physiological or psychological reasons is unknown). He was apprenticed to a painter, later got a job at the post office, married, and had children. At the age of 20, he starts painting on these canvas rolls, recording what is happening in his life and in the community, and continues, with one roll per year, until is death. His two sons return from Buenos Aires (Salvatierra lived, and they grew up, near a river that forms the border between Argentina and Uruguay) to figure out whether a cultural institution will take the rolls of painting. While looking at the rolls, they discover that one is missing, hence the missing year, and the narrator, son Miguel, decides to investigate. Needless to say, family secrets are revealed in the course of his exploration.

I read this novella in one afternoon, and I did enjoy it. Especially after reading Zola's The Masterpiece, it was interesting to experience another artist's mode of creation and read about the images he painted. But, in the end, I felt the author was trying to do something "meaningful" and didn't quite achieve it, and I also felt he tied up the loose ends too neatly.

Dec 1, 2013, 12:03pm Top

Paradises by Iosi Havilio

This novel is set mainly in modern day Buenos Aires, narrated by a woman who has moved there from a small town after her husband has died and left her and her young son destitute. She finds lodging at a rooming house, where she is befriended by a Romanian immigrant who helps her land a job at a local zoo. She subsequently moves into a nearby abandoned building, which houses a community of squatters that is headed by a woman dying of cancer, who relies on the new resident to give her intravenous injections of morphine to relieve her pain. The narrator integrates herself into the settlement and its shady characters, while maintaining close relationships with her Romanian friend and a running buddy from her old neighborhood, who has moved in with a wealthy drug addict nearby.

All three women and those around them are lonely, desperate people, bored with life and in search of temporary pleasure, in order to mask their anxieties and fears. The narrator frequently abandons her rambunctious son, as danger exists within and outside of the squatter settlement and whenever she meets up with her old friend.

Paradises was a pleasant and well written but not particularly memorable read, with characters who live on the edge of society. I didn't find them or the story to be particularly unique or enlightening, as people like these can be found in any major city in the world, but I liked this book enough that I would be willing to try other books by this author.

Edited: Dec 2, 2013, 12:23am Top

Borges! Borges is my favorite author, ever. Everyone should read his work. Someday I am going to own all his books, buy signed copies, buy a statue, make a shrine, make a pilgrimage to his grave... which I realize is creepy but don't care. Right now I have the Hurley translations, Ficciones in Spanish, and a mug with his library quote ("I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library").

I see this quote all the time, but it doesn't mean what people think it means. The an English translation of the poem is here. Borges slowly went blind over his lifetime. http://library.gmu.edu/mv/presentation.html

I have a Tumblr dedicated to Borges. http://www.tumblr.com/blog/glabripennis

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector
Yet another fantastic book. I have no idea why this book only gets 3.87 stars while some of the worst books I've read have over 4. The book is haunting. One of the characters is a duplicate "author" who goes through his creation of the character Macabéa as he writes her. I'm not going to say much beyond that, because the novella is very short. If I give a away the beginning I've given away much of the story. It was published posthumously, the same year the author died, making it even more haunting.

Dec 2, 2013, 9:57am Top

chris, amazing that there has been such a lag in new work in ornithology, but that does sound as if it could be a gorgeous book. It sounds as if you are reading the poetry in Spanish. Doing some background for this thread, I was dazzled by the number of South American poets and thought it would be a worthy lifetime to study them. Of course that would be after first learning Spanish! Translators who can keep the spirit of poetry from one language to another have a rare gift.

msjohns and lriley, Arit was new to me, but that's the whole purpose of Reading Globally, so good endorsements.

rebecca, I posted on your Club Read thread about Backlands, but I'll add here that I think that in something like Reading Globally, it's really important to read nonfiction to give context to works that readers from other countries might lack, so thanks for the review. Good cover art for the Mairal book.

doc, I am currently reading Paradises. Do you subscribe to And Other Stories? They seem to be a good source of current South American fiction in English translation.

Anoplophora, I suspect we all have an author we feel so strongly about. Thanks for the link to the poem. I was unable to open the Tumblr though.

On the subject of Borges, Alberto Manguel, one of the most assiduous anthologizers around, spent part of his student life reading to Borges several times a week for about four years. It really shows in his devotion to literature and knowledge of it. Manguel now has an amazing library himself, of over forty thousand books.

I have a copy of Borges at Eighty, but it seems to have met the same fate as rebecca's copy of Labyrinths

Dec 3, 2013, 8:32am Top

Hello SassyLassy! I agree about the poetry - I've tried reading quite a few world-renowned poets in translation and none of them has been worthwhile, despite the translations being highly praised. I'm sure they're wonderful in the original, but I don't think I will read any more in English.

As for the birds, there has not really been a lag. New bird species are being described at a fair old rate and South America is THE continent for avian diversity (in fact, for diversity of all major groups of organisms). However, the examination of bird vocalisations and other cryptic characters, as well as the advent of genetic analysis, has helped maintain the rate of discovery of new species. When I was a wee lad learning about birds in the 1970s, there were reckoned to be 8,600 species - now we're up above the 10,000 mark (despite extinctions), and this could increase by a few thousand more when new checklists are published later this year. Don Stap's A Parrot Without a Name is getting old now, but gives something of the feel of the frontiers of South American ornithology.

Yes, the HBW series are gorgeous books - all 17 of them. At 3,000+ euros a set, they're too expensive for me though! So there's a Secret Santa idea...

Dec 3, 2013, 10:59am Top

I couldn't open the Tumblr either -- it wanted me to log in (or I guess create an account, which I am unlikely to do).

Edited: Dec 3, 2013, 3:02pm Top

I found this interesting opinion piece the other day concerning the informal formation of a list of ten "indispensable authors" in the Argentine literary canon. The author and a group of students of literature undertook the task "partly as a joke, partly as a challenge."

¿Cuáles son los diez autores imprescindibles de la literatura argentina?

Here's a brief summary in English:

--The discussion took place at a literary workshop dedicated to the study of the work of Juan José Saer. The gathering unanimously voted him onto their "top ten" list, arguing that "Anybody who wants to take the reading or writing of fiction in our country seriously must familiarize themselves with the works of Saer."

--The next three choices, which were made quickly because there was really no possible reason to object, were Roberto Arlt, Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortázar: "The ABCs of Argentine literature."

--They proceeded to add four more names, again with little to no objection: Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Horacio Quiroga, Manuel Puig, and Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill.

--Name number nine was Osvaldo Lamborghini. I believe he's the only author on their list whose work hasn't been translated into English.

--They could not reach an agreement on the tenth name. They were embarrassed that there were no poets, and no women, on their list (fearing that maybe their list was misogynistic). They noticed that every author they listed was dead, and wondered what death contributes to the work and the figure of the author.

I think I was surprised by the importance granted to Puig, Saer, and Fogwill. I suppose I thought names like Ricardo Piglia or César Aira might come before theirs, not to mention classic authors like Esteban Echevarría, José Hernández, and Leopoldo Lugones. It's a

Edited: Dec 3, 2013, 4:30pm Top

#82--I know some might not like him--personally I never cared much for The Tunnel but Ernesto Sabato comes to mind. There is a gothic element to his novels. I liked his other translated works. Enrique Medina to me is very interesting as well as Mempo Giardinelli. Piglia I like a lot as well particularly Artificial respiration and Money to burn. Might mention again Rodolfo Walsh as well.

Dec 3, 2013, 6:37pm Top

#82 - I agree that it's curious to include Sarmiento but omit Hernández, the author of the "national epic." Based on my very limited reading experience I would have included Sabato as well. Adolfo Bioy-Casares would also be a name to consider.

Dec 3, 2013, 7:34pm Top

I have a book by Saer on the TBR that I got through my Open Letter subscription, as well as a book by Puig and a couple by Cortazar. I realized I have many more books by Argentine authors on the TBR than by other South American authors, and so I am trying to read other works so this doesn't become an Argentine read for me!

Dec 5, 2013, 1:12am Top

Juan José Saer must be of the most accomplished writers I've ever read (and I've only read a couple of his books). He does not seem to be highly rated in English and I can only speculate that the translations do not capture his superb writing adequately (I'd be interested to hear what people here think of him). He's one of the few authors who immediately make me feel that I'm in the hands of a master. I only wish I had an unread Saer on my shelves. What with Aira, Puig, Arlt, Cortázar, Sábato, Bioy Casares, Borges, etc., etc., Argentina certainly punches well above its weight.

Dec 5, 2013, 8:17am Top

(I'd be interested to hear what people here think of him).

I read The Witness and posted my review in message #49 above.

Argentina certainly punches well above its weight.

Very true. When I was preparing the background material for this quarter I had difficulty with some countries finding a respectable number of writers whose works were available in English translation. With Argentina the challenge was in paring the list down to a reasonable size.

Dec 5, 2013, 1:16pm Top


The Armies by Evelio Rosero, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
first published as Los Ejércitos in 2006

Everyday, Ismael, the retired profesor, climbs a ladder against the wall in his garden to pick oranges. It sounds like an idyllic life in the small Colombian town of San José. Then we learn that he is also spying on his neighbour Gracelita, as she sunbathes nude in her garden next door. Ismael doesn't see his voyeurism as a problem, since she does it in front of her whole family. However, her husband the Brazilian sees things differently as does Ismael's wife Otilia. Both in their own ways tell him to stop.

Small domestic conflicts, but enough to send Ismael out roaming the streets of his town to fill the time. As he roams, he renews old acquaintances and catches up on the news. He visits old Maestro Claudino, the traditional healer, who tells him about being taken by guerilla soldiers. Out walking one morning, Ismael is caught up temporarily in an army roundup. The café owner's pregnant wife is kidnapped and held for ransom. Ismael's reveries are interrupted more and more frequently by such events. As Ismael is forced out of his self absorbed complacency and into the lives of others, Rosero skilfully draws the reader deeper and deeper into the chaos that is rural Colombia. Gradually routines lose their structure, people flee, and the town loses its purpose. The profesor must decide what to do and what he can live with doing.

All this would be enough if the novel was just about Ismael and his town. Rosero goes further though. The Armies is a universal novel, telling through the tale of one man the tales of generations of people around the world whose lives have been overrun and destroyed at random by marauders foreign and domestic, in a cycle that never ends.

Dec 5, 2013, 1:23pm Top

What a lot of great reviews! There is more and more that I want to read--I kind of wish this challenge were longer.

Anoplophora, love the poem. It made me think of Milton, "On His Blindness." And I appreciate the Tumblr link. I just got a Tumblr account, on the advise of my teenager, and have no clue what to do with it. Now I can follow you.

Dec 5, 2013, 4:06pm Top

banjo, luckily we can follow steven as he leads us through Central America next year! I'm looking forward to it.

Dec 5, 2013, 5:43pm Top

#86 chrissharpe Juan José Saer must be of the most accomplished writers I've ever read

Well that's moving Scars higher up on the TBR!

Dec 6, 2013, 9:12am Top

I own one of Saer's novels, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, so I'll plan to read it this month.

Dec 6, 2013, 9:47am Top

And I'll put in writing, so that I feel committed to the endeavor, my desire to read Saer's Nadie nada nunca (translated in 1994 as Nobody Nothing Never) later this month!

Edited: Dec 7, 2013, 9:47am Top

Yes, Tumblr does make you create an account, I forgot to warn everyone.

Banjo, thanks! If you see an interesting post you can follow whoever originally posted it. A bunch of libraries and publishers have Tumblrs, and there is spotlights for book Tumblrs.

I finished The Fish Child by Lucia Puenzo (Argentina, of course), and A Tale of the Dispossessed by Laura Restrepo (Colombia). Both were decent.

The Fish Child is written from the perspective of a dog. It's fairly vulgar perspective, not an innocent one. The story is about the love affair between Lala, a rich teenager, and Guayi, her father's maid. There is also a movie directed by the author that seems to follow a different plot.

The narrator in A Tale of the Dispossessed is in love with a man called Three Sevens, named for his 21 toes. However, Three Sevens is obsessed with the memory of and trying to find his surrogate mother Matilde Lina, who was separated from him during the War.

Dec 7, 2013, 7:54pm Top

I read A Tale of the Dispossessed last year and really liked it.

Edited: Dec 7, 2013, 8:15pm Top

How I Became a Nun by César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews (New Directions, 2006)

"Seneca says that culture is what always saves that country", wrote the late Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes in La silla del águila (2002, The Eagle's Throne): "César Aira is, after all, the first Argentinian to receive the Nobel Prize." Fuentes's speculative fiction was set in the year 2020 when Argentina was 'Balkanised' ("once a united republic and now an appalling assortment of petty 'independent' republics ... each one with its own local Facundo, its own autocratic local boss"). Aira's Nobel win and hypothetical role as a messiah figure may or may not be a compliment from Fuentes. The Mexican may be retaliating against the Argentinian's audacity to make him a comic character in the madcap science fiction El congreso de literatura (1999, The Literary Conference).

Fuentes's own epistolary novel was a political farce. It imagined a presidential power struggle after the breakdown of Mexico's satellite communications system. Aira's novels, on their own, were almost non-political.

In Cómo me hice monja (1993, How I Became a Nun), Aira told a straightforward story of a hypersensitive, intelligent, and self-conscious six-year old child (boy or girl, it was not clear) who was taken by his/her father for a first taste of ice cream. The bonding moment between father and child over ice cream was broken when the strawberry flavored ice cream the child ate turned out to be contaminated by cyanide. The father, very proud to introduce to his young César the delicious delicacy, was disappointed at the revolting reaction of the child gagging from the bitter taste of the spoiled ice cream. He disbelieved the child's reaction and started badgering and scolding him for ruining the day. César, meanwhile, was undergoing a painful epiphany. His first taste of poisonous reality: "I looked in horror at the pink of the ice cream. Farce was beginning to impinge on reality. Worse than that: farce was becoming reality, right in front of me, through me."
Mechanically I dug the spoon in. I felt faint at the mere thought that this torture was going to continue. All willpower had deserted me. I was crying openly, making no attempt to hide it. (...) I wanted to say something, but I didn't know what. That I didn't like the ice cream? I had already said that. That the ice cream tasted foul? I had said that too, and it was pointless, because I couldn't get it across; it was still there inside me, impossible to convey, even after I had spoken.
That unacceptable experience, of being forced to ingest poison, was torture to an innocent child. This was also the revolting experience of an innocent person (someone wrongly accused of crimes, some member of the political opposition) forcibly told to put into his system some poisonous concoction or idea or propaganda. His torturer was deaf and blind to any of his protestations.

The novel has clear autobiographical elements. It was set in Rosario, after the family of the child character César Aira moved from Pringles. The actual César Aira was born in Coronel Pringles in 1949. The temporal setting of the novel could then be set in the mid-1950s Argentina, during and after the military government of Juan Perón. It was a time of frequent coups d'état, crippling inflation, detention and torture of those in the opposition, social unrest. The political atmosphere was very like a poison, a wave of food poisoning.
I was a victim of the terrible cyanide contamination ... the great wave of lethal food poisoning that was sweeping Argentina and the neighboring countries that year ... The air was thick with fear, because it struck when least expected; any foodstuff could be contaminated, even the most natural ... potatoes, pumpkin, meat, rice, oranges ... In my case it was ice cream. But even food lovingly prepared at home could be poisoned ... Children were the most vulnerable ... they had no resistance. Housewives were at their wit's end. A mother could kill her baby with baby food. It was a lottery ... So many conflicting theories ... So many deaths ... The cemeteries were filling up with little tombstones, tenderly inscribed ... Our angel has flown to the arms of the Lord ... signed: his inconsolable parents. I got off lightly. I survived. I lived to tell the tale ... but in the end I had to pay a high price ... like they say: Buy cheaply, pay dearly.
He/she was a survivor of the times. But the high price little César the erstwhile ice cream survivor will pay in the end will still involve a kind of dealing with poison. The whole story was in fact a sort of adjusting to the fearful existence, to the paranoid atmosphere of living in troubled times.

The story of the child César Aira was told in retrospective manner. The older person was looking back on the comic misadventures of a younger self. It was notable how gender identification was handled in the story. It was, presumably, the story of a child's coming of age, his/her trials and tribulations until becoming a virtual nun. And yet the child character was viewed as a "boy" by persons around her. During school break, the child went to a "boy's bathroom at school". Five times, to be exact, the character was referred to in the masculine – as "son", "boy", or "young Master César" – each by a different character, while there were about two dozen incidents when the character referred to herself in the feminine – as "girl", "little girl", "daughter", or "mistress". (These are the translator's word choices.)

It was only the child who viewed herself as a girl. It seemed whimsical on the part of Aira. Perhaps his infamous writing method was to blame, the method of not revising what he already put to paper. At one point in the narrative, the writer probably decided to be consistently vague about his character's gender. The mixed use of gender, together with the wicked, crazy ending of the story, was seemingly the product of the fertile imagination of the little child César Aira, who throughout the story was narrating (constructing) hysterical scenarios left and right.

There was another possible reason for Aira's unorthodox telling. It had to do with the embrace of unorthodoxy itself. The consistency of transgression was nun-like, or martyr-like; that is, the consistency to be arbitrary and experimental in storytelling, to embrace unorthodox narrative principles.

Aira may simply be breaking the rules of grammar. He must have closely followed Fernando Pessoa's principles of creative writing. In The Book of Disquiet, the Portuguese poet revealed his writing system.
Today, during a break from feeling, I reflected on the style of my prose. Exactly how do I write? I had, like many others, the perverted desire to adopt a system and a norm. It's true that I wrote before having the norm and the system, but so did everyone else.

Analysing myself this afternoon, I've discovered that my stylistic system is based on two principles, and in the best tradition of the best classical writers I immediately uphold these two principles as general foundations of all good style: 1) to express what one feels exactly as it is felt – clearly, if it is clear; obscurely, if obscure; confusedly, if confused – and 2) to understand that grammar is an instrument and not a law.

Let's suppose there's a girl with masculine gestures. An ordinary human creature will say, 'That girl acts like a boy.' Another ordinary human creature, with some awareness that to speak is to tell, will say, 'That girl is a boy.' Yet another, equally aware of the duties of expression, but inspired by a fondness for concision (which is the sensual delight of thought), will say, 'That boy.' I'll say, 'She's a boy', violating one of the basic rules of grammar – that pronouns must agree in gender and number with the nouns they refer to. And I'll have spoken correctly; I'll have spoken absolutely, photographically, outside the norm, the accepted, the insipid. I won't have spoken, I'll have told.
To speak "absolutely, photographically, outside the norm, the accepted, the insipid", that was what Aira had done here. In Pessoa's simple summation: "Let grammar rule the man who doesn't know how to think what he feels. Let it serve those who are in command when they express themselves."

In How I Became a Nun, Aira was in command of a singular childish consciousness. Breaking the rules of grammar, he proceeded with his cultivated style ascetically. It was not that different from clinging tenaciously to a chosen faith. From taking the veil, becoming a full pledged nun. Taking the vows and entering the sacred convent of fiction. Irreverently, of course.

Dec 8, 2013, 12:05pm Top


Deep Rivers by José Maria Arguedas

This was a haunting and at times painful book to read. It is the story of Ernesto, a white Peruvian boy who was relegated to he kitchen by the relatives he was sent to live with and thus was raised by the Indian servants and came to speak their language, Quechua, and love their culture, especially their relationship to the natural world. When he got a little older, his father, a not-so-successful itinerant lawyer, took him with him as he traveled around the Andes seeking work.

As the story opens, the father is taking his son to see his estranged brother, known as the Old Man, in the ancient city of Cuzco. The Spanish colonial walls built on top of the remains of Inca stone buildings set the symbolic stage for the rest of the book, for Ernesto is caught between the two cultures. Later, father and son go to the town of Abancay, where the father hopes to stay but ultimately leaves his son at a Catholic boarding school. It is there that most of the novel takes place.

Although the usual pranks and even some terrible cruelties take place at the school -- most horribly the opaquely described repeated rapes of a mentally unstable woman called "the Idiot" -- most of Ernesto's time there is spent inside his own unhappy and lonely head. The most moving and lyrical parts describe his connection to nature, not just animals and plants but the mountains and rocks and rivers, all of which in Quechua culture have much greater significance than in white culture, and are often even personified. Aruguedas, whose early life was similar to Ernesto's, frequently uses Quechua words and Quechua songs to illustrate Ernesto's deep love of the culture and its conflict with the powers that be. Ernesto is also drawn to the myths and spirits and music of the Indian culture and endows a top he receives as a gift with the powers of communication.

I found it a little difficult to keep track of who the various schoolboys were, but I think this was intentional, as they are really more symbols of different aspects of white and mestizo upbringings than fully developed characters. Although there is not much of a plot, a couple of things of significance happen, including an uprising by local woman because the distribution of salt has been halted; feeling himself connected more to these women than to the society inside his school, Ernesto runs after them, drawing the ire of the powerful but condescending priest, the Rector, who runs the school. (Later, however, in the wake of another trouble that strikes the area, the Rector will try to protect Ernesto.) Following the uprising, the troops come to town, and that gives Arguedas the opportunity to further contrast people from the coastal regions with those from the highlands, and to further show the conflicts between the descendants of the colonialists and the indigenous populations.

Mostly, as I said, this book is about Ernesto, and the tragedy of his alienation from both worlds which leads to his living so much in his own dreams and odd ideas.

"I wanted to see Salvinia, Alcira, and Antero. And then to become a falcon and soar over the towns where I had once been happy; to descend to the levels of the rooftops, following the streams that bring water to the settlements, hovering for a moment over the familiar trees and stones that mark the boundary of the tilled fields and, later, calling down from the depths of the sky." p. 161

Because Ernesto is the center of the book, and because he is so unhappy and feels so out of place, this was in places a difficult book to read. The ending of the book is ambiguous, and not a little shocking.

Arguedas, who was also raised by Indian servants in a home in which his white stepmother despised him, became an ethnologist and ultimately killed himself. My edition had an interesting afterword by fellow Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa.

Dec 9, 2013, 11:07am Top

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa, translated by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís (Knopf, 1963)

This novel from Brazil was a haphazard record of Riobaldo's tale of his adventures as a member of a jagunço (armed ruffian) outfit under different leaders. He was speaking to an unnamed man, a learned person, almost certainly a writer who was interviewing the retired bandit in order to write about his exploits. The tale was told out of order, following the unpredictable courses of winding rivers, branching out into various tributaries. Characters crossed and re-crossed each other. The sertão backlands contained a world, and that world was small. The succession of events made for a jumbled telling but the compositional choices—the details and images, the succession of surprises one after another, the reappearances of characters—were perfectly timed, in a narrative that was seemingly without letup in its spontaneous flow.

The elegiac tone of the narration was like a hymn to a vanishing land; that is, Brazil in the first half of nineteenth century, at a time when the government was starting to compartmentalize the region by building roads. The bandit wars in the sertão region of Brazil were being fought by private armies funded by the landed class (owners of fazendas) against government troops who were harassing them. The story was set during the heydays of vigilante fighting when different factions of armed militias went at cross purposes and even fought each other. Food rations, weapons, and horses were sourced out by exacting tributes from fazendeiros.

The breakdown of law led to more groups being formed to "impose justice" and bring order to the world. They had “taken up arms in the cause of justice and honest government” and to protect friends (their benefactors) who were persecuted by government soldiers. It's not really that different to some regions today which are at war or in conflict or to the most violent cities in the world. Then, as now, warlords and their armies ruled the world.

War strategies and the politics of warfare figured prominently in the novel. They were tempered by the melancholic voice of Riobaldo who was recounting his violent past, sweet loves, and disappointments. Reflecting on the several changes in leadership in his jagunço army, Riobaldo was able to examine his own peripatetic life and give a glimpse of the personal and public lives of jagunços in peace and war.

The imposition of "order and justice" in the sertão was best exemplified by a key scene in the book. It was during the trial of Zé Bebelo, who made war in the pay of government against Joca Ramiro's group, that the ideas for the dispensation of justice were explored. Parliamentary procedures were carefully observed during the trial. It made for a riveting courtroom drama, in fact. It turned out that in a world of chaos and war, jagunços could still be bound by certain codes of conduct.

The prisoner's rights were protected, along with the right to defend himself in a court of war. The "fair" trial demonstrated some ethical considerations in pursuing the rules of war. Human rights, against torture and against death, were safeguarded. Being a senior member of the Brazilian diplomatic community, Guimarães Rosa must have been familiar with the discussions on human rights prior to their international adoption as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, eight years before the publication of the novel.

The novel also explored ideas about the individual as a free agency of good and evil, equipped with human feelings and human reason. The individual has seemingly unlimited capacity to change, to reform his ways, from one station in life to another. This individual political will to change was closely tied to Riobaldo’s metaphysical discussions on God and the devil, on saints, reincarnation, and the afterlife. Does the devil exist or not? Does God exist to thwart the devil's plans? How free are we to make a choice between good and evil? What is a "just" war? What compels a man to transform himself from good to bad and the other way round?

It was significant that Riobaldo had a special ability. He was an expert marksman. He held the life of his target enemy on his trigger finger. The latter's hearbeat depended on Riobaldo's error, but Riobaldo never made any. Choosing whom to mark out for death and whom to spare may be the same as playing God.
Those fellows there were really a gang of kind friends who helped each other at every turn, and who did not balk at sacrifices to that end. But the fact remained that, in support of some political feud, they would not hesitate to shoot up a village of helpless people, people like ourselves, with mothers and godmothers. And they found it quite natural to go out and do the same thing for the sake of health and exercise. I was horror-stricken—you know what I mean? I was afraid of the race of men.
In several instances in the novel, Riobaldo was faced with a decision to choose between what he perceived as right and what he knew to be wrong. A single word from him could decide the fate of an innocent young woman. A single bullet could pass judgement on the life of a man or a horse or a dog. Every day, in battle or outside them, a jagunço may have to decide, one way or another, on things whose outcome may haunt him forever. "Living is a dangerous business", the apologetic narrator repeated many times, too many for one's comfort. When Riobaldo pulled the trigger, he knew his entire being decided it, not just his hand: "I tell you, this right hand of mine had fired almost by itself. What I know is, it returned Adam to dust. That's just my way of talking."

It didn’t help that Riobaldo often courted unreliability. In many instances he denied the existence of the devil, in others he subscribed wholly to the concept and was even willing to make a pact with the "dark side". The power to do good and evil resides in any one of us, but it is regulated not only by the societal rules and legal frameworks governing our actions, but by the God of our chosen religion. But in the sertão, where "God himself, when he comes here, had better come armed", the situation was not simple. "It is man who exists," Riobaldo reflected at one point. Are devil and God then mere labels for acts of men?
God exists, yes, slowly or suddenly. He acts, all right—but almost wholly through the medium of persons, good and bad. The awesome things of this world! The backlands are a powerful weapon. Is God a trigger?

Dec 9, 2013, 11:58am Top

I have been trying to find that book, Rise, but can't find a copy for less than $300!!!!! Where did you find it?

Dec 9, 2013, 1:10pm Top

The library. There's a negotiation for a new translation by Elizabeth Lowe who did Backlands by Euclides da Cunha. Hopefully that comes through, even if it may still be some years before publication due to the supposedly difficult language of the original Portuguese.

Dec 9, 2013, 2:48pm Top

I've got one from the library too, but I'm only past the first couple of pages. Life and other books interfere.

I might be telling you stuff you already know, but if you search for a book on Worldcat.org it will tell you where the closest libraries are with it. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands seems to be sequestered at colleges, but even if you can't check the book out, you could always visit for a day to read it. The libraries at every college I've ever been to were open to the public.

Dec 9, 2013, 5:24pm Top

Ahh, that explains it. Elizabeth Lowe was the translator of the edition of Backlands that I read, so I'll keep my fingers crossed. And in the meantime I'll check out Worldcat.

Dec 11, 2013, 10:59am Top


Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel García Márquez, translated from the Spanish by Asa Katz
first published as La aventura de Miguel Littin, clandestino en Chile in 1986

Miguel Littin is a Chilean film director. When the American backed coup overthrew President Allende in 1973, he was head of Chile Films, a state organization. An obvious target for the new regime, he fled Chile. Years later, in 1983, with General Pinochet still in power, the dictatorship started publishing names of exiles who would be allowed to return to Chile. Littin's name did not appear. A later list of five thousand people who absolutely could not return did have his name on it.

Littin, however, was determined to return. Not only that, he was determined to make a film about Pinochet's Chile. He concocted an elaborate scheme which involved months of planning and untold underground connections. Someone provided Uruguayan identification. Littin relocated to Paris from Spain. Three weeks with two psychologists, a makeup artist, a Chilean specialist in clandestine operations and others changed his mien from that of a bearded European intellectual to that of a smug bourgeois businessman. Accent, walk, laugh: all were changed. A suitable spouse was provided with her own background story.

Three film crews had already been sent to Chile: one French, one Italian, one Dutch led. None knew about the others. Littin and his "wife" arrived in Santiago with Littin travelling as a Uruguayan advertising executive headquartered in Paris. His story was that he had chosen Chile for his promotional perfume films for its range of climates and scenery on any given day.

While the stories of Littin's two months of adventures in Chile and his eventual hasty exit are interesting in themselves, the excellent preface by Francisco Goldman was a story on its own. Immediately after the coup against Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, his friend, announced that he would neither write not publish fiction until Pinochet was overthrown. Time passed. Pinochet was still in power. The Cuban Revolution lost its lustre among many South American intellectuals. Civil wars and dirty wars in Central America diverted attention from Chile.

Gabriel García Márquez was getting impatient. In 1981, he published Chronicle of a Death Foretold, causing consternation among idealists who had truly believed in his vow. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 and published Love in the Time of Cholera in 1985. His status seemed unassailable, so in what Goldman terms an "act of revenge" against Pinochet, García Márquez returned to his earlier political reporter self. He had met Littin after Littin returned to Spain with over 100,000 feet of film from his Chilean adventure. García Márquez interviewed Littin on tape for eighteen hours. The result was Clandestine in Chile, written using Littin's first person voice, but with strong authorial overtones.

While Pinochet may not have particularly feared Littin's film, he did fear García Márquez' book. Fifteen thousand copies were seized and publicly burned in Chile. The film itself did not receive widespread distribution or acknowledgement, but by the time it appeared, Pinochet's regime was destined for defeat in the 1988 election. Knowing this lends Littin's story a certain sense of anticlimax, but it was still a worthwhile read for those who still believe in idealists.

Edited: Dec 11, 2013, 11:30am Top

Well, I read a book by Saer, and I could see that he's an interesting writer, but as I say in this review I didn't really enjoy it. I'd be interested in what other people think of Saer.

Scars by Juan José Saer

When I read on the Reading Globally South American theme read thread that Saer is considered one of the top Argentinian authors, I knew I had to move this book to the top of my TBR pile. And yes, Saer is an amazing writer, whose language flows on the page. And yes, he has an imagination and a remarkable ability to focus on details. But while I admired this book, I never warmed to it.

At the heart of the novel is a murder: a husband and wife go out duck hunting with a bottle of gin, and she winds up dead. But, until the last section of the novel, which is told from the point of view of the murderer, the book focuses entirely on the narratives of three other people, a journalist, a nonpracticing lawyer, and a judge, all of whom are connected to the aftermath of the murder. These narratives start months before the murder, so the murder is only a peripheral part of their stories.

And what of their stories? The journalist is an 18-year-old who lives with his still partying 36-year-old mother and writes the weather reports for a local paper, although he seems aspire to become a crime reporter. He hangs out with some friends, fights with his mother about their individual bottles of gin and her slutty mode of dressing, thinks a lot about sex, and becomes obsessive about thinking he sees his exact double on the street. In fact, all the narrators are obsessive. The nonpracticing lawyer has become an obsessive gambler, and the details of his lengthy nightly baccarat games are described in infinite detail. The judge is disillusioned about humanity and endlessly describes his automobile routes around the city as well as the "gorillas" who inhabit it. Only the murderer, in his brief section, seems to have the spark of humanity. Also, with the exception of the murderer, the narrators are all involved in literary ventures: the journalist, aside from writing, is a big reader and likes to talk about books; the gambler writes essays about comic book characters, and the judge is translating The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Needless to say, I had to think about why this author is great and what on earth he was trying to do with this book. And here's what I came up with. Partly, Saer is looking at identity and how we create meaning in our lives: the journalist who sees his double and is trying to figure out what his life is about, the lawyer who has become a gambler and obsessively tries to figure out systems for winning, the judge who reduces humanity to "gorillas," yet doesn't hang up on a threatening caller who repeatedly phones him. Partly he is getting inside his characters' heads and relentlessly recording their obsessions. Partly he is showing that what's important to one individual may be meaningless or just a blip to others.

In the end, I was left scratching my head. Saer writes well and gave me food for thought, but I didn't enjoy reading this book. Further, the women in the book are all just adjuncts to the men; none of them rise to being full characters.

Edited: Dec 12, 2013, 6:44pm Top

Alluded to in >7 SassyLassy: above, but Caroline Schroeder just mentioned it in the Short Stories group: Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists. See book page for reviews. It seems to be top heavy with writers from Argentina, but Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay and Colombia are also represented for South America. All these writers were under 35 when the book was published, so it could be a glimpse of the future.

Dec 13, 2013, 7:57am Top


Open Door by Iosi Havilio

There are several unanswered questions in this puzzling and brief novel by a writer who has been hailed as a great young Argentine writer, among them what happened to a girl who was thought to be dead and why a rare old book turns up in the simple home of an aging ranch worker. But most of the novel is the story of a somewhat hapless young woman, originally an aspiring veterinarian living in a city, who ends up moving in with the aging ranch worker out in the country and doing relatively little other than having a hot romance with a neighboring girl who seems to be sexuality personified. Oh, they try various drugs too.

What gives the novel its title, and the country town its name, is the Open Door, a psychiatric hospital that operates on the principle that the mentally ill shouldn't be locked up but should be able to wander around on their own and find activities that they enjoy; there are no locked doors or gates, but apparently the inmates don't run away. And isn't that just a tidy metaphor for life! We all wander around trying to find ways to enjoy life and there isn't any way to escape.

Havilio writes well, and this was an easy and quick book to read, but I didn't really engage with the narrator or the other characters: the narrator herself seems so passive and the other characters more symbolic than real. There is another book by Havilio that continues the narrator's story, but I'm not very motivated to read it.

Edited: Dec 26, 2013, 8:21am Top


The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis

I found myself reading more slowly as I neared the end of this magnificent book, a collection of seven novellas, because I was reluctant to leave the world of Maqroll the Gaviero (lookout) and his diverse and far-flung friends. In varying styles, including describing Maqroll as a friend who sends him dispatches from around the globe, Mutis presents the tale of an inveterate wanderer, usually by sea, who consistently gets involved in money-making schemes, often not exactly within the law, that come to naught, who is steadfastly loyal to his friends, and who is given to reading historical books and musing philosophically about the important issues of life.

As the novellas progress, the reader becomes more and more familiar with Maqroll and some of the key episodes of his life, although his origins are murky: he travels on a clearly forged Cyrpiot passport but it is unclear where he was born, and the text hints that he had an unhappy childhood and took to a life at sea (as the lookout who climbed the tallest mast) at an extremely early age. He is older when the novellas begin, and to some extent they jump back and forth in time, so the reader has to figure out which adventure or misadventure came first. And because he is older, there is an elegiac if not downright melancholy feel to his thoughts. This is a fascinating work partly because it combines the downright adventurous with an equal helping of philosophy.

So what of his adventures? They range from traveling up a South American river with somewhat sketchy guides to find some lumber mills, starting a brothel using women who pretend to be stewardesses, engaging in a scheme to substitute lower quality oriental rugs for valuable ancient ones, transporting some mysterious boxes for a highly suspicious person, gold mining, and more. One novella focuses on Maqroll's best friend, Abdul Bashur, another inveterate wanderer, who sprang from a Lebanese family of shipbuilders and ship owners, his family, and his search for the perfect ship, and others involve other unforgettable friends of Maqroll, including a variety of strong women who he has been deeply attached to.

Mutis vividly depicts the environment, whether it's the hot, humid, buggy tropics, the cold of Vancouver, or the activity of a Mediterranean port. Above all, the reader gets a feeling for the sea, for life on freighter and other ships, and for the vibrant seediness (and criminality) of port communities. Mutis was a poet (who apparently wrote about Maqroll in poems long before he got the idea of writing a novella about him), but he was also gainfully employed as a publicist for an oil company and then a US film company, so he presumably traveled to many of the places he "traveled" to as a character in some of these novellas.

Maqroll lived a very full life, full of trials, hardships, love, friendship, adventure, stagnancy, but it is his reflections on literature and life, usually dark, that are as compelling if not more so than his adventures. Does he find a little happiness at the end?

Dec 27, 2013, 2:46pm Top

Before the quarter comes to an end, here are some questions you might want to use in reflecting upon your South American reading (including, of course, books you may have read before this quarter). Please post your thoughts on any of these that strike your fancy, and feel free to add questions of your own:

1. With the exception of the Guianas and Falklands, South American countries share what might be called an Ibero-American culture. What similarities did you see in your readings from different countries? What differences? What attitude did you sense about other South American nations? Is there a regional sense of identity?

2. Was there an attempt to distinguish the national character or values of the author's country from that of its European mother country?

3. Aside from Magical Realism, which is considered the signature style of Latin America, did you find any particular style, theme or motif that you think typifies South American literature?

4. What role did the indigenous cultures of South America play in what you read? Do you think they were fairly represented?

5. Did your reading change your attitude toward South America and its history--especially where your own country's role in that history is concerned?

6. If you have ever been to South America, did your reading reinforce what you saw there, or did it open up new perspectives?

7. Did your reading make you want to visit (or return to) South America? If so, what did it make you want to see or experience?

8. Do you intend to make a special effort to continue reading South American works beyond this quarter? If so, what countries or authors interest you most?

And finally: Thank You to all who participated in this quarter's global reading experience!

Dec 27, 2013, 4:35pm Top

Those are some really thought provoking questions, and once again I wish I had the background to be able to express how I feel about books in words sufficiently. Maybe some day. This year I read 6 novels by Latin American writers, and 2 collections of short stories. That isn't enough to make generalizations, but it is a lot more than I read in the past.

I have two questions for you guys:
How do you think your own background influences your readings of the books?
Did you feel any of the books you read were intended for outsiders, people not from the author's country? You get that a lot in Chinese movies that want oversea sales, I'm wondering if the phenomenon extends to literature.

1. What similarities did you see... I can't think of anything, so I'm probably attributing a lot of things to differences in the authors' particular style. Unless the book is specifically commenting on differences between specific countries (which none of them did) I'm never going to be able to separate out the differences with only 8 books. I have to read more. I would say there was a more regional sense of identity, because I can't remember an instance where an attitude towards another country was expressed.

2. Was there an attempt to distinguish the national character... I'm not familiar with the national character of the European mother countries enough to answer this. Maybe? Even in A Tale of the Dispossessed, which was about refugees, I didn't get a sense of identities based on nationality. Most of the people in the stories seemed to find their identity through class, religion, or political alignment, not nationality. People were connected to each other because they are all poor, or because they are all Catholic, or because they all followed Peron.

3. Any particular style, theme or motif... I found the writing fairly uninhibited, in that the authors were unafraid to talk about the nastier things in life without tempering them and wrote words that screamed without being afraid of being too dramatic. There was everything from Ana Maria Shua's willingness to write a father-son relationship based on mutual hatred, to Alejandra Pizarnik's willingness to write an almost erotic story about Elizabeth Báthory, to Lucía Puenzo's novel written from the point of view of a sex-obsessed dog, to Clarice Lispector's heartbreaking novel about poverty and happiness, to someone's story about mothers protesting their sons' abduction by wearing white cloths on their heads.

4. What role did the indigenous cultures... Indigenous peoples were present in some books, but absent (?) in others. I believe a main character in The Fish Child was indigenous, but I can't remember any indigenous people in Death as a Side Effect. One of the short stories I read "Love Story" by Elena Poniatowska brutally covered a relationship between a rich woman and her servant who I believe was indigenous. It's possible the authors pictured certain characters as indigenous and just didn't mention it, since I'm not sure how much being indigenous implies a specific life-style or character.

5. Did your reading change your attitude... Before this year I thought of Latin America as an awesome place of literary wonder (Borges is from Latin America), and I still think of Latin America in this way. The books I read where uniformly good. On Latin American history... many of the books addressed the political turmoil caused in Latin America by dictators and political parties, as well as problems of class differences. I am aware that my country (the USA) has behaved horribly towards Latin America and continues to do so, but I cannot remember anything I read that addressed that role besides perhaps Mean Woman. That book was more about the dictators themselves, not international relations.

7. Did you reading make you want to visit.... The one trip I really want to take before I die is a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and I will save years to be able to do that. But if I end up with money somehow I also want to go to Buenos Aires. They have museums dedicated to Borges there.

8. Do you intend to make a special effort... Yes. I have 10 books by Latin American writers I want to read this year, I must read everything that's translated by Ana Maria Shua and Clarice Lispector, and I must finish The Devil to Pay in the Backlands.

Dec 28, 2013, 11:28am Top


The Passion According to G. H. by Clarice Lispector
First published in Portuguese 1964
English translation by Idra Novey 2012


"I'm searching, I'm searching. I'm trying to understand."

A woman whom we know only as "G. H." spends the day alone in her penthouse apartment above Rio de Janeiro. Her maid has quit, so she enters the maid's room thinking to spend the day cleaning and organizing. She finds everything barren, clean, sterile, like a desert. But opening the door of a wardrobe she sees a cockroach. G. H. is frozen with fear. From a childhood spent in poverty in vermin-infested buildings, she has a phobia for cockroaches.

"I saw. I know I saw because I didn't give my meaning to what I saw. I know I saw because--I don't understand. I know I saw because--there's no point to what I saw. Listen, I'm going to have to speak because I don't know what to do with having lived.... Sorry for giving you this, I'd much rather have seen something better."

She starts to scream,...

"Everything could be fiercely summed up in never emitting a first scream--a first scream unleashes all the others, the first scream at birth unleashes a life, if I screamed I would awaken thousands of screaming beings who would loosen upon the rooftops a chorus of screams and horror. If I screamed I would unleash the existence--the existence of what? the existence of the world."

...but summons the courage instead to slam the door, trapping and partially crushing the insect as it emerges from the wardrobe. The sight of the dying cockroach transfixes her.

"It was right now. For the first time in my life it was fully about now. This was the greatest brutality I had ever received."

The sight of the insect's cold, unfeeling tearless eyes carries G. H. back to a primordial age, millions of years before mankind, when these same eyes looked upon dinosaurs. In a maelstrom of ideas, images and metaphors she crosses trackless deserts, gazes out the window upon empires of antiquity, and adds words to the language to express the inexpressible.

Unable to move, G. H. spends the afternoon in silent introspection, examining every corner of her life.

"...for my so-called inner life I'd unconsciously adopted my reputation: I treat myself as others treat me, I am whatever others see of me.... An abyss of nothing. Just that great and empty thing: an abyss."

"I am so afraid that I can only accept that I got lost if I imagine that someone is holding my hand."

What G. H. sees, and begins to accept, is that life isn't composed of answers, but of neutralities, contradictions and uncertainties.

"I was seeing something that would only make sense later--I mean, something that only later would profoundly not make sense. Only later would I understand: what seems like a lack of meaning--that's the meaning."

"The hell I had gone through--how can I explain it to you?--had been the hell that comes from love. Ah, people put the idea of sin in sex. But how innocent and childish that sin is. The real hell is that of love."

A final, unthinkable act of communion will complete her metamorphosis...

"I want to find the redemption in today, in right now, in the reality that is being, and not in the promise, I want to find joy in this instant--I want the God in whatever comes out of the roach's belly--even if that, in my former human terms, means the worst, and, in human terms, the infernal."

"And I don't want the kingdom of heaven, I don't want it, all I can stand is the promise of it! The news I am getting from myself sounds cataclysmic to me, and once again nearly demonic. But it is only out of fear. It is fear. Since relinquishing hope means that I shall have to start living, and not just promise myself life. And this is the greatest fright I can have. I used to hope. But the God is today: his kingdom has already begun."

"Deheroization is the great failure of a life. Not everyone manages to fail because it is so laborious, one must first climb painfully until finally reaching high enough to be able to fall--I can only reach the depersonality of muteness if I have first constructed an entire voice.... It is exactly through the failure of the voice that one comes to hear for the first time one's own muteness and that of others and accepts it as a possible language. Only then is my nature accepted, accepted with its frightening torture, where pain is not something that happens to us, but what we are. And our condition is accepted as the only one possible, since it is what exists, and not another. And since living it is our passion. The human condition is the passion of Christ."

...and her rebirth.

"And now I am not taking your hand for myself. I am the one giving you my hand."

Edited: Dec 28, 2013, 2:11pm Top

1. With the exception of the Guianas and Falklands, South American countries share what might be called an Ibero-American culture. What similarities did you see in your readings from different countries? What differences? What attitude did you sense about other South American nations? Is there a regional sense of identity? Nearly all the book I read were quite different from each other in subject, style, country, and time written, so I can't really compare. I did find that characters in several books made fun of people from neighboring South American countries.

2. Was there an attempt to distinguish the national character or values of the author's country from that of its European mother country? I didn't feel that there was much reference to the European mother country, although the books I read that most dealt with indigenous peoples (Maira, Deep Rivers, Backlands, and to a lesser extent A House in the Country) contrasted the colonizers/white people with the indigenous people.

3. Aside from Magical Realism, which is considered the signature style of Latin America, did you find any particular style, theme or motif that you think typifies South American literature? No (see 1), but I did find that the works I read by Argentinian authors were more abstract and less personal than some of the works I read by authors from other countries.

4. What role did the indigenous cultures of South America play in what you read? Do you think they were fairly represented? See 2. In Maira and Deep Rivers, the authors, both anthropologists, attempted to present the indigenous cultures (and the depredations of the colonizers) fairly, but I would like to read works by indigenous authors. In some of the other books, indigenous people were invisible.

5. Did your reading change your attitude toward South America and its history--especially where your own country's role in that history is concerned? I felt more informed, and I am probably more interested in reading more South American writers than I was before this theme read, but I don't know that my attitude changed. I didn't read anything that specifically related to US actions in South America, but I am somewhat familiar with the bad things the US has done there.

6. If you have ever been to South America, did your reading reinforce what you saw there, or did it open up new perspectives? Have never been there.

7. Did your reading make you want to visit (or return to) South America? If so, what did it make you want to see or experience? Maybe!

8. Do you intend to make a special effort to continue reading South American works beyond this quarter? If so, what countries or authors interest you most?
Definitely. I still have quite a few books by South American writers on my TBR, including books that have been there for decades, so I would probably start with those. They include books from Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay (which I haven't yet "visited"). I am definitely interested in reading more by Donoso (and of course the Vargas Llosas I haven't read yet), and possibly in exploring some of the countries I haven't read from yet.

ETA I really enjoyed this theme read, partly because it spurred me to read books I've had on the TBR for years, but also because it introduced me to several new authors. Thank you, Steven and SassyLassy, for organizing it.

Dec 29, 2013, 4:28pm Top

I feel that I barely got started on this read--I think I read 3 books, all by Garcia Marquez. I have read others in the past (Examples: Isabel Allende, Laura Restropo Jorge Amado;Juan Gabriel Vasquez, however, so will try to take a stab at the questions.

1. With the exception of the Guianas and Falklands, South American countries share what might be called an Ibero-American culture. What similarities did you see in your readings from different countries? What differences? What attitude did you sense about other South American nations? Is there a regional sense of identity?
Since I focussed this year and last, on Columbian writers, it's hard to compare across countries. It seems to me that most of the writers I have read have a huge interest in politics and a large national identity.

2. Was there an attempt to distinguish the national character or values of the author's country from that of its European mother country?

Definitely, this was an issue for Garcia Marquez and Allende. I think that writers from formerly-colonized countries all struggle with making a place for their country's culture and values in a European literary tradition.

3. Aside from Magical Realism, which is considered the signature style of Latin America, did you find any particular style, theme or motif that you think typifies South American literature?

I think a focus on the community. In Garcia Marquez's work, the community itself is almost a character.

4. What role did the indigenous cultures of South America play in what you read? Do you think they were fairly represented?

It's difficult because there are not that many works by indigenous writers. I imagine this is in large part due to lack of access to education.

5. Did your reading change your attitude toward South America and its history--especially where your own country's role in that history is concerned?

Well, The Sound of Things Falling did make me think about the Colombian drug trade, and the US role in that.

6. If you have ever been to South America, did your reading reinforce what you saw there, or did it open up new perspectives?

Have never been there.

7. Did your reading make you want to visit (or return to) South America? If so, what did it make you want to see or experience?

I would like to go to South America--I would be interested in getting a more personal view of the landscape.

8. Do you intend to make a special effort to continue reading South American works beyond this quarter? If so, what countries or authors interest you most?

Yes! I am planning to continue my reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and would like to read other Colombian writers.

Dec 31, 2013, 1:59pm Top


Paradises by Iosi Havilio, translated from the Spanish by Beth Fowler
first published as Paraísos in 2012

Paradises picks up the story of the anonymous female narrator of Havilio's first novel Open Door, but can be read separately.

The young woman leaves the countryside where she has been living and starts off for the city, taking along her four year old son Simón. Friendless, she must find work, shelter and someone to care for her child as soon as possible. She finds a job in the reptile house at the zoo. Eventually, she moves into an apartment tower squat, controlled by low level gangsters. In exchange for the apartment, she must administer morphine twice a day to the enormous Tosca, who lives on the main floor and decides who is lucky enough to live in the building.

Lucky, yes, for this is a novel of the dispossessed in modern day Argentina; those who do anything just to get by. At times the mental images reminded me of Iñárritu's film Biutiful where the characters where faced with similar dilemmas. Then I decided there was no real comparison, as Paradises was episodic in nature; things just happened and sometimes they just didn't happen. Whether they did or not was of no particular interest to this reader, as there was nothing to make me care about the narrator, a sentiment expressed by others in reviews of Open Door*. This episodic telling may have been the whole point, meant to show the lack of control the characters had over their lives and the ways they were forced to deal with it, but it was hard to tell. This was a shame, as the story itself was well written and the translation appeared to do it justice.

In one of these odd tricks the brain plays, when I first saw this book, I read the title as two separate words: "para dises", just the way it appears. I went from there to something like "for telling" or "through telling". This led me to the idea of stories, which is basically what the narrator has here, a series of stories about her life. While I don't think there is any significance to the cover, I did feel better about the content when I thought of it this way.

However, I would say if you want to enter the world of the struggle to survive in some many cities, see Biutiful instead.

* see rebecca's review in >106 rebeccanyc:, among others

Jan 1, 2014, 12:43pm Top


The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel García Márquez, translated from the Spanish by Randolph Hogan
first published as Relato de un náufrago in 1970

In 1955, Luis Alejandro Velasco was washed overboard from a Colombian destroyer, along with seven of his crew mates. Velasco survived alone on a life raft in the Caribbean for ten days, before being washed up on the shores of Colombia. He was the only survivor.

That was the official story. It received widespread publicity in Colombia and Velasco briefly became a celebrity. As his story waned as news, he approached Gabriel García Márquez, offering to sell him the "real" story. Márquez was sceptical, assuming the sailor had merely run out of money. However, he listened to him. What he heard convinced him to write the story for the newspaper El Espectador.

While it was true that Velasco had been washed overboard, declared dead and then found, the reasons for the accident had been concealed by the Colombian navy. There had not been a storm. Instead, there had been at least three violations of naval rules. The ship, a destroyer, had been transporting cargo, which was forbidden. The ship was sailing overweight, due to the cargo. Thirdly, the cargo consisted of contraband in the form of domestic appliances from the US. The illegal contraband had shifted in high winds, then washed overboard, taking Velasco and the seven other men with it. The overweight meant the ship was unable to manoeuvre finely enough to attempt to rescue the sailors, so they were basically abandoned in the water.

García Márquez wrote Velasco's account as a series of articles. As the real story emerged, the military dictatorship attempted to deny it, but the author was able to back it up with eye witness accounts from the crew. Velasco had to resign from the navy. Retribution for Garcia Márquez came when the dictatorship shut downEl Espectador several months later.

Like the later publication of Clandestine in Chile, (>103 SassyLassy: above), García Márquez tells the story in the subject's voice, lending an immediacy to details like the school of sharks that surrounded Velasco's raft each evening at five. However, both these books are more interesting now for the story behind them, then for the actual journalism. The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor was not published until 1970, fifteen years after the incident. García Márquez in his introduction freely admits that it would not have seen publication as a book had it not been for his own fame.

Jan 1, 2014, 12:45pm Top


Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
first published as Lituma en los Andes in 1993

A mute, an albino and the highway foreman have all disappeared separately from the remote Peruvian village of Naccos. Shining Path guerillas, malevolent spirits, or just plain left town: the possible explanations are endless.

Corporal Lituma, a favourite character of Vargas Llosa, is in the village to protect the highway crew trying yet again to build a new road. He and his deputy Tomás must now investigate these disappearances. Lituma and Tomás are outsiders, shunned by the villagers, so there will be no help from them. The road crew won't help either. Dionisio, the proprietor of the cantina where workers gather nightly to drink reality away merely hints at possibilities and evades any follow up questions.

Each night, Lituma and Tomás creep into their respective cots and Tomás tells stories of the beautiful Mercedes. These stories, the investigations, and stories of the disappeared themselves are separate, but are told in the same time frame, switching seamlessly from one to another in classic Vargas Llosa fashion. As the stories unfold, other possibilities arise, connections develop and the lines among what could happen, what might happen and what did happen blur, until Vargas Llosa magically gathers them all up and presents his final version.

A wonderful book to end the year.

Jan 1, 2014, 1:21pm Top

Now that I've got in my last three books for this quarter, it's time to address steven's questions

1. ...What similarities did you see in your readings from different countries? What differences? What attitude did you sense about other South American nations? Is there a regional sense of identity?

The similarities I saw were somewhat elusive, but I would say they came from the language used, the structure of Spanish itself, given that language and structure are inextricably linked. All the books I read were in translation, by a variety of translators, but I don't think any author was ill served by the process.

The differences were more apparent. They seemed to reflect the state of development of each particular country. There were no direct references to other South American countries in these books, apart from Clandestine in Chile, but there were strong regional senses of identity within countries, particularly evident in the writing of Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru.

2. Was there an attempt to distinguish the national character or values of the author's country from that of its European mother country?

All the works I read were post independence for the various countries, so there was no reference to Spain or Portugal as a mother country that I recall. I think that is a good thing at this stage of development, indicating a mature sense of nationhood. I know that earlier writers pursued that theme and I will be interested to follow its development as I read more.

3. Aside from Magical Realism, which is considered the signature style of Latin America, did you find any particular style, theme or motif that you think typifies South American literature?

This question probably has a different answer from each reader as we all prefer different styles of writing. The books I read had strong political and social themes, which I believe is a constant in South American literature.

4. What role did the indigenous cultures of South America play in what you read? Do you think they were fairly represented?

Indigenous peoples were represented in all the fiction I read. Vargos Llosa in particular featured them, and his novel The Storyteller was built around the threats to indigenous cultures in Peru. It's difficult to know from here if they were fairly represented, but nothing I read indicated any strong bias.

5. Did your reading change your attitude toward South America and its history--especially where your own country's role in that history is concerned?

Canada's role in South America has been largely one of resource exploitation. The current scandal is that the Canadian government was conducting electronic surveillance of Brazilian mining operations. I did think of these things, particularly when the reading concerned the Amazon and its rainforest. The reading also made me think about the role of foreign academics in South America, particularly when studying indigenous cultures.

I don't think it changed my attitude to South America itself.

7. Did your reading make you want to visit (or return to) South America? If so, what did it make you want to see or experience?

I've always wanted to go to South America and had even started studying Spanish for a planned trip which had to be called off along with the lessons. The reading made me want to go even more. One of the books that most made me want to go there isn't included here. It is Tierra del Fuego by Francisco Coloane from Chile. From this quarter's reading, it would be Miguel Littin's descriptions of Chile in Clandestine in Chile. Brazil would be a strong second.

8. Do you intend to make a special effort to continue reading South American works beyond this quarter? If so, what countries or authors interest you most?

I definitely plan to continue reading South American works beyond this quarter and expand into Central America. I hope to read some of the older, longer books and work forward. This would be my normal approach, but I was trying to get as many books in as possible, so opted for more modern works. In terms of authors, a new one for me is Evelio Rosero, whom I will continue to read, and I plan to start reading Vargas Llosa again. I'm not sure why I stopped; it was pre internet, so probably had something to do with availability.

And finally: Thank You to all who participated in this quarter's global reading experience! The same from me.

Hope to see you all over at this quarter's Sub Saharan Africa read: http://www.librarything.com/topic/162615

Jan 4, 2014, 5:47pm Top


Facundo: or, Civilization and Barbarism by Domingo F. Sarmiento
First published in Spanish 1845
English translation by Mary Peabody Mann 1868


Argentina had only recently become independent from Spain when it fell into a prolonged series of civil wars lasting from 1814 to 1880. The conflict was chiefly between two factions, the Unitarios, who favored a strong central government headquartered in Buenos Aires, and the Federales, who preferred provincial autonomy in a weak confederation. In 1845 Domingo Sarmiento, a Unitario living in exile in Chile, published what was ostensibly a biography of Juan Facundo Quiroga, one of the Federales leaders. This highly polemicized biography of his now-dead enemy was also an attack on Juan Manuel de Rosas, the Federalist governor of Buenos Aires and de facto dictator of Argentina.

Sarmiento begins with several chapters on the geography and demographics of Argentina. His sentiments are immediately clear: "Civilization" is represented by urban life and European ideas. "Barbarism" is found in the countryside among the ignorant and brutal gauchos (cowboys) and the savage Indians. The goal of the Federales, as he saw it, was to keep Argentina divided and undeveloped so these "gaucho-outlaws" (as he frequently calls them) can pursue their careers of dissolution and banditry unmolested by any civil authority.

Facundo Quiroga (the two surnames are used interchangeably) was the foremost of the gaucho generals in the early stages of the war. His undeniable talents and powerful charisma were only partially offset by his ignorance and reckless behavior. He was especially known for his capricious and arbitrary brutality. When in a foul mood he would torture a man to death for an unintended slight, but on other days would not only pardon but reward an enemy who had the courage to defy or insult him. Sarmiento even shows a grudging admiration for Facundo's strength of character and occasional flashes of nobility. He is always quick to note, however, that Rosas has no such qualities. In the end, after a spell of residence in Buenos Aires, Facundo begins to show leanings toward the Unitario side, so Rosas has him assassinated.

It is impossible not to sympathize with Sarmiento, the author, a self-proclaimed child of the Enlightenment. He idolized French philosophers, believed in the separation of church and state, and later in his life, as Argentina's president, made public education his top priority. His ideas on education came from his friendship with Horace Mann, called the father of American public education. Sarmiento translated a biography of Mann into Spanish, and Mann's wife, Mary, translated Facundo into English. (Mary and Sarmiento are also presumed to have been lovers.) But critics have said there is more fiction than fact in Facundo, and the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano excoriates Sarmiento for his disenfranchisement as president of the rural poor and Native Americans. So we must take everything in this book with a hefty dose of skepticism.

Though it is beautifully written, Facundo is probably best read by someone who has more background than I do in Argentine history or is planning further reading. The many factions and shifting alliances of the civil war period are confusing, and Sarmiento is writing to an audience of his compatriots and contemporaries. Several times he says that something is too well known for him to bother describing or recounting it. So I would recommend this work chiefly to those with a special interest in the subject matter.

Jan 5, 2014, 12:02pm Top

Now that I have belatedly finished my reading for this theme, it's time to answer my own questions:

1. What similarities did you see in your readings from different countries? What differences? What attitude did you sense about other South American nations? Is there a regional sense of identity?

There is as much diversity within South American literature as there is in any part of the world, but there does appear to be a fascination with the mystical side of life. Perhaps that derives from Catholicism. And there is also a fatalism that may reflect the unfortunate political history of South America. The comments I found about other South American countries tended to reflect the political status of the day and not a general attitude.

2. Was there an attempt to distinguish the national character or values of the author's country from that of its European mother country?

Not as much as you might expect. The one case was Facundo where the author portrayed his faction in Argentina as having ties to France and England, while the "barbarians" were closer to the Spanish.

3. Aside from Magical Realism, which is considered the signature style of Latin America, did you find any particular style, theme or motif that you think typifies South American literature?

The theme of dictatorship and political repression is fairly common since that is a common thread in South American history.

4. What role did the indigenous cultures of South America play in what you read? Do you think they were fairly represented?

There was a huge difference between the 19th century works I read where the indigenous people were referred to as savages and valued only as slaves, and the 20th century works which were very sympathetic. Most notable was The Witness where Juan José Saer showed that the Indians had a radically different but equally sophisticated world view to the Europeans which it would take a lifetime to begin to understand.

5. Did your reading change your attitude toward South America and its history--especially where your own country's role in that history is concerned?

Reading Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano showed me that American influence in South America (and Central America) was even more pervasive and despicable than I had imagined. My reading in general showed that South American history is much more complex than I had thought, and that internal political conflicts have been more important in their history than external conflicts.

6. If you have ever been to South America, did your reading reinforce what you saw there, or did it open up new perspectives?

Have never been there.

7. Did your reading make you want to visit (or return to) South America? If so, what did it make you want to see or experience?

I have long wanted to visit South America. I can't think of any one place I want to visit more than another at this time.

8. Do you intend to make a special effort to continue reading South American works beyond this quarter? If so, what countries or authors interest you most?

After reading The Passion According to G. H. I immediately put everything else written by Clarice Lispector on my wishlist. And, in general, I knew that I had wanted to read more by Argentine authors, but now that extends to Brazilian writers as well.

And Anoplophora's questions:

How do you think your own background influences your readings of the books?

My political views made me more sympathetic to liberal writers such as Eduardo Galeano than some might be. I am also exposed daily to Hispanic culture, so I tend to have an affinity for South America even though I've never been there.

Did you feel any of the books you read were intended for outsiders, people not from the author's country?

Yes, I think all of the books I read were intended as much for an external readership as an internal one. Nearly every author was exiled from his native country at some point or went to study abroad, so their intellectual community was multinational.

Jan 10, 2014, 4:48pm Top

I know this is no longer the current theme read, but I meant to read this book last quarter and just didn't get around to it!


Showdown by Jorge Amado

Showdown tells the tale of the community of Tocaia Grande ("the big ambush," and the original Portuguese title), from the first settlers who arrived shortly after that big ambush to its eventual end; as the reader knows from the initial pages of the novel, a new town called Irisopolis rose at the same location. The story of Irisopolis -- one of "progress" -- "holds no interest," as Amado writes, while the story of Tocaia Grande is a tale of fascinating characters fending for themselves in what could be called Brazil's wild west at what appears to be the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th.

A fight between colonels eager to claim vast swaths of cacao-growing land for themselves leads to the "big ambush" in a lovely fertile valley. After the dead have been buried, cattle drovers realize that this valley provides a shortcut on their regular route. And soon after the drovers start passing though, commerce establishes itself: a man called the Turk who seems to come from Lebanon opens a small store and bar, a formerly enslaved black man who assaulted a white plantation owner opens a blacksmith shop, and numerous prostitutes, invariably called whores, arrive. (This is definitely a bawdy book, with lots of sex and lots of vulgar slang, but it completely fits the characters of the people.) The stories of these people, and how they came to seek a life in Tocaia Grande, are compelling and fascinating.

Not far away is the cacao plantation of the victorious colonel, who has high hopes for the future of his ne'er-do-well son who has succeeded in obtaining a law degree but prefers to spend his time pretending to take additional courses while carousing in Rio de Janeiro to coming home and setting up shop near the plantation (to legally ratify all the unscrupulous land deals). The man who was responsible for the big ambush has been made a captain (a rank bought for him by the colonel, in gratitude) and, while serving as the colonel's devoted bodyguard and right-hand man, takes an interest in the development of Tocaia Grande. Eventually, he encourages several families to settle there, families that have been expelled from the land they were farming because the landowner wanted to use it for cattle or cacao. These families do a little to change the character of Tocaia Grande, but it remains a self-governing town of outlaws and the outcast.

Although there is some plot to the novel, most of it is about the relationships of these vivid and lively characters and life in the village of Tocaia Grande, including serious troubles that befall them. It can be difficult at times to keep track of all the characters, but the sweep of the novel keeps everything moving. It is also, very lightly until the very end, a commentary on the history of Brazil, of the corruption of the large landowners and the political bosses, the decadence of the wealthy, and the exploitation of the poor and darker-skinned. Per Wikipedia, Amado was a member of the Brazilian communist party and lived part of his life in exile. I would say his politics inform the perspective of the novel, but I certainly didn't feel this was a political novel except in the very broadest sense. It is a wonderful story of vivid characters in a fascinating time and place, exciting, thought-provoking, and moving.

This book, like two other books by Amado, has sat unread on my shelves for 25 or so years. I'm sorry I didn't read it sooner, and I'll definitely be turning to those other novels soon.

Jan 10, 2014, 8:19pm Top

rebecca, I'm glad you posted it here. Amado was an author I didn't manage to fit in but wanted to. Your review makes me want to read him more, as it seems to follow the themes in other Brazilian novels of the relationships of the people, the landowners and the land.

Jan 11, 2014, 8:09am Top

Yes, if I could make a broad generalization based on the infinitesimal number of books I've read, I would say that other than the Argentinian novels I read (which seemed more focused on current events and writing style), a lot of the South American novels I read focused on relationships of people and landowners, the powerful and the oppressed. But, of course, that's probably a theme I sought out in the books I chose to read!

Feb 5, 2014, 8:39am Top

I know this theme read is over, but I thought I'd post this here anyway.


Tent of Miracles by Jorge Amado

This novel takes as its theme the strength of the racial mixture that is Brazil, more specifically Bahia, the region to which most of the enslaved Africans were taken -- or, as it was called at end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century when much of the action takes place, miscegenation. It has two, unequal, strands: the story of Pedro Archanjo, a self-educated anthropologist who wrote about the African roots, especially candomblé and racial mixing, of Bahian culture while remaining an important and beloved member of the community, and the story of the modern Bahians who, spurred on by the enthusiasm of a Nobel Prize-winning Columbia University professor for Archanjo's work, embark on the celebration of the centennial of his birth in 1968. The modern section is a broad satire while Archanjo's own story is lively and frequently moving, although unfortunately occasionally a tad too politically didactic. But perhaps that is attributable to the book being written in 1969.

Although Archanjo's story begins with his death (and funeral attended by all the poor people of the community), Amado quickly turns to his birth when the midwife, who arrived after the fact, recognizes him as Ojuobá, the Eyes of Xangô. And Archanjo goes on, through his life, to act as the eyes of the community, recognizing his obligations to the leaders of the ceremonies and participating in them, but also recording what is taking place. The novel is the story of the entire community, and Archango's relationships with a variety of unforgettable characters: with his closest friend Lidio, with whom he collaborates on a whole variety of projects; with a multiplicity of women, primarily Rosa and Doroteia; with his godson Tadeu who is assumed to be his real son; with an aging countess who has a zest for life and the snooty and racist family of Tadeu's fiancée; with the varied professors at the university where he works as a messenger for the medical school and encounters both virulent racists and supporters who help guide his work; and with many more. It is filled with candomblé ceremonies, drinking, bawdiness, and the struggle to survive and be productive. In a way, Archanjo is a symbol of the entire mulitracial, multicultural community and its ongoing struggle to be recognized as the strength of Bahia and Brazil.

I am glad I read the wonderful Showdown before I read this book; although it has its strong points, especially the wonderful characters, it was marred, as noted above, by a tendency towards preachiness and by the modern sections which, while entertaining, couldn't stand up to the story of Archanjo. I will definitely be reading more books by Amado.

Apr 29, 2014, 11:53am Top

Keep posting them rebecca! I often go back to these threads when looking for inspiration for a particular region, and the date of posting is inconsequential for those purposes.

Apr 29, 2014, 3:16pm Top

I guess I should post the other Amados I've been reading here but they're on my thread and on the Reading Globally thread for the region that includes Brazil.

Group: Reading Globally

1,655 members

23,343 messages


This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.




About | Contact | Privacy/Terms | Help/FAQs | Blog | Store | APIs | TinyCat | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | Common Knowledge | 130,813,648 books! | Top bar: Always visible