It appears our old buddy Jonathan Franzen’s reign of terror continues. He totally bungled an interview with Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Franzen said, “To me it feels as if there’s been a kind of awakening in Latin American fiction, a clearing of the magical mists,” and asked Vásquez if his wonderful new book, The Sound of Things Falling, is a reaction to Gabriel García Márquez and his peers. Chad W. Post at Three Percent didn’t like the interview either, and tried to rework the question for Franzen instead of a Latin American author: I’m struck by how different in feel The Corrections and Freedom are from the American “modernist” novels of a generation ago. I’m thinking of both their disinterest in language and representations of the inner workings of the human experience (the straightforward neo-realistic prose that dominates both of them) and the obsession with the suburbs. To me it feels as if there’s been a kind of awakening in American fiction, a clearing of the obfuscating mists, and I’m working to what extent you see your work as a reaction to that of Faulkner and his peers. Did you come to fiction writing with a conscious program? I guess Franzen was trying to say that realism is replacing magical realism in Latin American literature. Post’s point, and the real problem with the original interview, is that Franzen takes a half-century of Latin American work and pegs it all to García Márquez. Attributing a region’s entire contribution to the field to one author is, frankly, pretty ignorant. In fact, there are so many other essential books and authors in the Latin American canon that it seems fair to wonder (once again) whether JFranz is just trolling us all for sport.
2666, Roberto Bolaño
This one’s sort of a no-brainer, as Bolaño’s final novel is basically required reading by now. If you haven’t read this one yet, skip Infinite Summer and fill your big-book quota with this epic story that touches on everything from unsolved murders in Mexico to the breakdown of relationships.
Near to the Wild Heart, Água Viva, The Passion According to G.H. and A Breath of Life, Clarice Lispector
Buy all four of these books by this mid-century Brazilian writer, new translations of which appeared a few years back via New Directions, not only because you need to read them, but because they look amazing when you put them together.
The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector
Yes, we’re cheating by putting another Lispector book on here. We reserve that right because this small postmodern masterpiece is the perfect example of why people often compare her to both Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka.
Traveller of the Century, Andrés Neuman
This smart, deeply philosophical, and ultimately very strange novel that takes place somewhere between Saxony and Prussia in middle of the 19th century by Argentinean-born Neuman got the Bolaño seal of approval before it was published in English.
Red April, Santiago Roncagliolo
Seek out this tense Edith Grossman-translated version of this Catholic symbolism-packed Peruvian murder mystery set in Peru near the end of the 20th century as the war with the Shining Path terrorist group starts to wind down.
“Birds in the Mouth,” Samanta Schweblin
This story by the Argentinean writer (which you can read at Recommended Reading) has us hoping that somebody will take up the task of translating more of her working into English very soon.
The Death of Artemio Cruz, Carlos Fuentes
The best book by one of Mexico’s greatest writers, Artemio Cruz’s deathbed retelling of his life fits somewhere between Charles Foster Kane and any of the Russian masters you surely love.
Conversation in the Cathedral, Mario Vargas Llosa
It is truly difficult to pick just one book from the 2010 Nobel Prize winner to recommend. But we’re going to go with the Peruvian author’s marvelous 1969 novel, which takes the era in which Manuel A. Odría ruled Llosa’s homeland as its backdrop.
Heartbreak Tango, Manuel Puig
Dalkey Archives did the non-Spanish speaking world a favor by reissuing Boquitas Pintadas in English, a book that winds the stories of Big Fanny, Nelida Fernandez, and Juan Carlos Etchepare together.
Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges
It would be unthinkable to make a list like this without mentioning the ultimate Borges collection.
Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel
Esquivel’s hugely popular debut novel is a great work of Mexican literature that looks at family, tradition, love, and cooking, and transforms it all into something magical and beautiful.
The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño
We didn’t say that 2666 was his greatest book. Bolaño’s globe-trotting 1998 novel features over 40 narrators, a gang of poets, and the author’s alter ego, Arturo Belano. If you’re going to get into Bolaño’s work (and you should…) start here.
Dirty Havana Trilogy, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez
Gutiérrez’s gritty book was banned in Cuba, but eventually made its way into the rest of the Spanish-speaking world before being translated into English by Bolaño translator Natasha Wimmer.
How I Became a Nun, César Aira
One interesting feature that’s common in Latin American literature is the use of children as narrators and main characters. Aira’s “autobiographical” novel is a mix of dark humor and magic, told by six-year-old César, a hyper-intelligent introvert who sees herself as a girl but is seen by the rest of the world as a boy.
Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra
Don’t be surprised when you see this Chilean author’s unflinching novel, which looks at the Pinochet era through the eyes of a child, on a lot of “best books of 2013 lists.”
Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar
As the co-winner (along with Casanova’s History of My Life) of the inaugural National Book Award for best translation, Rayuela is one of the most important Spanish-language books in the history of literature translated into English.
I, the Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos
The Paraguayan author wrote this book, which transcends the tag of historical novel, while in exile from his home country. I, the Supreme takes a fictionalized look at the life of his country’s first ruler, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia.