Southern Exposure

08.06.13

Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s Book Bag: My Favorite Books About Latin America

Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, whose new novel The Sound of Things Falling visits the history of his home country and its troubled capital, Bogotá, picks his favorite books about South America.

Nostromo
By Joseph Conrad

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“The Sound of Things Falling,” by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. 288 pp. Riverhead. $28. ()

Joseph Conrad’s insultingly ambitious and incredibly accurate political novel is, to my mind, the best piece of fiction ever written about Latin America outside of Latin America. The fictional republic of Costaguana watches one of its provinces secede, aided by the military intervention of the United States, in a series of events that are suspiciously reminiscent of the revolution through which the province of Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903. This is political literature at its best.

Hopscotch
By Julio Cortázar

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Of course, Julio Cortázar’s experimental, exhilarating, and encyclopaedic novel is not really about Latin America. But it is as Latin American as you can get: Horacio Oliveira, an Argentinean intellectual/bohemian, spends his expatriate life in Paris musing about jazz, books, and the crisis of the modern man. Then he goes back to Buenos Aires and does essentially the same, but drinking mate. The novel created a type in Latin American literature—and it did the world the favor of breaking a few stereotypes about it.

One Hundred Years of Solitude
By Gabriel García Márquez

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How original to include this one, you might say. But the choice is unavoidable to me. Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece redefined, through the prism of magical realism, what Latin America was to several generations of European and North American readers. Besides, it’s one of the most influential novels in the history of literature: without it, writers such as Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, Ben Okri or even Mo Yan would have written very different books.

Terra Nostra
By Carlos Fuentes

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No understanding of the Latin American zeit is complete without including Spain in the conversation; no one has ever discussed the multiple ties—historical, moral, psychological, political, religious, esthetical—between Spain and Latin America better, or deeper, than Carlos Fuentes in his legendary 800-page mammoth of a novel. The book spans almost five centuries and talks, quite literally, about everything. Sadly, it is more commented upon than read.

The War of the End of the World
By Mario Vargas Llosa

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The first time Mario Vargas Llosa set one of his “total novels”—those huge things designed to take in the whole of reality—outside of Peru, he took one of the most difficult subjects ever: a religious rebellion. His fictional account of the Canudos revolution, which shattered the peace of northern Brazil at the end of the 19th century, is as rich as Tolstoy and full of characters with the passionate intensity you only find in Faulkner. It’s his best novel, which means one of the best ever written in Latin America