Is South American Literature Being Overlooked These Days?

We are all familiar with The Alchemist and One Hundred Years of Solitude, international bestsellers whose titles are repeated as mantras in any discussion about South American literature. But having talked with moderate readers from Europe, I was saddened to see many have never even heard about – let alone read – some of my favorite writers from the continent of tango and coffee (and dictators or Pablo Escobar, for that matter).

My most preferred South American writer is Isabel Allende, born in the Peruvian capital during the First World War. Her incredible life experiences have profoundly shaped her strong ideas about politics, family, and human nature, thus influencing the sort of books she wrote. So far, she has published eighteen works of fiction with a new one, In the Midst of Winter, soon to be released. Her first novel was The House of the Spirits (1982), which incorporates elements of magical realism and which began as a series of letters addressed to her dying centenary grandfather. I was first introduced to Allende’s “invented country” when I read Island Beneath the Sea (2009), a marvelous piece of historical fiction centered around a young female slave in Haiti and her road to freedom in the midst of a slave rebellion.

What fascinates me about Allende’s books isn’t the narrative itself, but rather the way she creates incredibly intricate relationships between her characters, many of whom were inspired by the personalities of some of her family members. Such a skill could have only been developed during a life-long  process of analyzing the people around around her not only through the lens of the eyes and the mind, but the heart as well.

Another South American writer is the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, best known for Fictions and The Aleph, compilations of short stories written in the ’40s. His works have been made available to the English-speaking world during the Latin American Boom, a literary movement from the ’60s and the ’70s that has ensured the international recognition for many of the South American writers. Borges greatly influenced Roberto Bolaño, who is considered one of the most praised Chilean writers. To his great disappointment and frustration, Borges has never been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, unlike the beloved poet Pablo Neruda, who received it in 1971. Having worked for the Salvador Allende-led government of Chile, Neruda was supposedly poisoned at the orders of Pinochet a few years later.

“Naked you are blue as a night in Cuba;
You’ve vines and stars in your hair.
Naked you are spacious and yellow
As summer in a golden church.”

                    From Morning (Love Sonnet XXVII), Pablo Neruda


The Peru-born Mario Vargas Llosa once said “If you are killed because you are a writer, that’s the maximum expression of respect“. Fortunately, he hasn’t been shown such “respect” so far as he is still alive. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. His first novel was The Time of the Hero (1963), a highly controversial story set in a military academy in Peru, whose authorities burned one thousand copies of the book in protest. Another famous novel is The Feast of the Goat (2000), which explores the tyrannical rule of the dictator Rafael Trujillo and its implications for the lives of ordinary people.

Lesser known contemporary South American writers include Patricio Pron (My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, 2013),  Daniel Alarcón (Lost City Radio, 2007), Andres Neuman (The Traveler of the Century, 2011), and Alejandro Zambra (The Private Lives of Trees, 2010).

What many of these writers have in common is having lived during difficult times of political and social turmoil. Some of them were forced to flee their homelands to avoid prosecution and extended their roots to various corners of the world without being able to completely severe them. Their South American homelands became the “invented” countries that would live forever in the books they all wrote.

Featured Image Source: 1762 Janvier Map of South America



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