Monday, March 21, 2011

Contemporary Latin American Literature: Reading Suggestions

By huge popular demand or, rather, by request of one intellectually curious reader, I will now try to offer suggestions on which contemporary Latin American writers might be worth reading. I don't study Latin American literature professionally, even though when I first started my career in Hispanic Studies that was what I was going to do. Then I realized that I was psychologically unprepared to deal with the kind of deep-seated hatred of women that informs contemporary Latin American literature. (If you have discovered Latin American novels that you think are not machista, leave their titles in the comments, and I will show you why you are mistaken.)

So these are the authors from Latin America who are writing right now and who are good enough for me to disregard their Stone Age attitudes towards women:

- Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru is the only writer of the Latin American Boom whose work I love to the point of following everything he writes. My favorite book ever by this writer is La guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World in English.) As I wrote before, Latin American writers have been trying to create a great Latin American love story for a very long time now. They have failed miserably, in my opinion. Vargas Llosa's attempt at this goal, however, (titled The Bad Girl: A Novel) is better than most. It's also one of the most recent novels by this newly-minted Nobel Prize winner.

- Another Peruvian whose work I'm reading right now is Alfredo Bryce Echenique. When I finish his Un mundo para Julius (Spanish Edition) (or A World for Julius: A Novel (THE AMERICAS)), I will post a review on this blog.

- If you are interested in Cuban literature, I'd recommend Zoe Valdes. Her I Gave You All I Had is available in English translation, so it might make sense to check it out. 

- Alberto Fuguet is what I'd call a very typical Chilean writer. His male Bildungsroman Mala onda (in English translation Bad Vibes) has had a cult following, although I have no idea why. I find this author's writing to be infantile and boring. 

- Edmundo Paz Soldan is a Bolivian who teaches at Cornell. His novel La materia del deseo (Spanish Edition) (or The Matter of Desire: A Novel in English) is a story of a Bolivian professor who teaches at Cornell. The book would be really fantastic if it weren't for its profound machismo, but well, what else is new. If you want to read Latin American literature, you'll have to get used to it. 

- Roberto Bolaño from Chile died recently. He is a Latin American writer you need to read because his fame keeps growing. If you don't feel prepared to tackle his humongous 2666: A Novel, maybe you should start with The Savage Detectives: A Novel

As I go over this list, I'm seeing that I don't have any authors from Mexico and Argentina which upsets me. If anybody knows of anything good in terms of literature that happened in these countries since Juan Rulfo and Manuel Puig respectively, please let me know in the comment section. My familiarity with other Latin American countries in terms of literature has always been next to non-existent.

Remember that the best gift you could give me is a reading suggestion. So feel free to share your favorite contemporary Latin American writers in the comments. Please don't list Borges and Carpentier, though, because we are talking about people who are writing right now.


Spanish prof said...

My favorite Mexican contemporary writer is Jorge Volpi: En busca de Klingsor and El fin de la locura (I think both have been translated). Others: Sergio Pitol, Juan Villoro

Some random Argentinean novels: Plata Quemada (Burnt Money), by Ricardo Piglia; Ciencias Morales, by Martin Kohan; Acerca de Roderer, by Guillermo Martinez (when he was actually a good writer). Cesar Aira has a great following in Argentina, but that's a taste I still haven't acquired.

Fuguet's Por favor, rebobinar and Las Películas de mi vida are much better than Mala Onda.

Clarissa said...

Oh, now we have a real Latin Americanist. Good!

I keep planning to read Volpi but it never happened just yet.

Cesar Aira I have read but, like you, I'm not getting him.

Are there any female writers one needs to be aware of?

Spanish prof said...

Carmen Boullosa (Mexico) and Diamela Eltit (Chile) are two big ones. I haven't read either.

Cristina Rivera Garza is also pretty well known. In my recent trip to Mexico I bought "La muerte me da", and plan to read it soon because I find it intriguing:

Link to a synopsis of the book

Anonymous said...

From México, like Spanish prof, I would suggest Cristina Rivera Garza. She is not read enough in my view. I would add Alvaro Enrigue to the list.

You may like Fernando Vallejo, from Colombia. You have probably read (or heard of) Vallejo's La virgen de los sicarios.

From Peru, I really really like Oswaldo Reynoso, a writer who belongs to the generation of Vargas Llosa but has not reached the international recognition he deserves.

I do not think that you will like Volpi. His depiction of the Fall of the USSR in No será la tierra may make you cringe.

I have heard good thing about Chile's Alejandro Zambra, but I have not had the chance to read his works. Besides, Anagrama publishes his works... like 95% of the contemporary Spanish American writers that we deem good enough to read and study carefully.


PS: You do not need to convince me how Sanish American literature is deeply machista, but please expalin me why you think that La guerra del fin del mundo is so good!

Clarissa said...

I read Boullosa and Eltit. Boullosa is not bad but it's not the kind of writer I could get passionate about. Diamela Eltit is REALLY not my kind of writer. She is one of my worst memories from grad school. :-)

Thank you Spanish prof and Ol. for the advice! I'm ordering these books through ILL as we speak.

I don't know why i like La guerra del fin del mundo so much. The language is absolutely magical. I think Vargas Llosa never created anything better written stylistically. I also like a depiction of Latin America that is definitely not for export. No flying naked women, no generals with enormous testicles, no papagayos, no magical selvas, none of this stuff that North Americans and Europeans love to buy.

Whenever I read many of LatAm authors, I have this feeling that the author was writing for export, trying to mask the continent in a way that would make Northern neighbors consume it. I don't see any of that in La guerra.

Clarissa said...

Also, I find Anagrama's books to be very expensive and not very well edited.

Anonymous said...

"Whenever I read many of LatAm authors, I have this feeling that the author was writing for export, trying to mask the continent in a way that would make Northern neighbors consume it".

You're right! But this phenomenon has a new twist: the contemporary Spanish American writer needs to turns his/her back to flying naked women in literature if he/she wants to reach a wider readership and to be considered a serious writer. The contemporary writer needs to be cosmopolitan.


Anonymous said...


Pero no lo he leído.


Spanish prof said...

On Wednesday, I'm teaching in my Civ class "Presentación del país McOndo", the introduction to the McOndo collection that acted as a kind of manifesto (from whom some of the writers included have tried to back down) of a new generation of writers in the '90s. In my opinion, it's more interesting that many of the short stories included in it. Here is a link to it:

I taught Paz Soldan's El delirio de Turing last semester in my literature class and it was wonderful. The language was clear, students were engaged, and you can talk a lot about politics and social reality from the text.

Another suggestion:

Sergio Ramirez's Castigo Divino.

If you like crime novels, you should start reading a few Latin American ones. There are some gems.

Spanish prof said...

And one to either love or hate:

Gonzalo Garces' Los impacientes. I know an equal amount of people who loves it as people who hates it. I loved it, because I think the 3 main characters reflect perfectly the Buenos Aires I grew up in the late 90s, with its emptiness and pretentiousness.

Some people can't distinguish between a first person narrator and the author, and find it just pretentious.

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking about the reasons why I do not like La guerra del fin del mundo and I came up with the following reasons. Keep in mind that I read the novel 10 years ago and I did not like it:

1) violence in that novel is "polished" or "satined," which is a very popular feature of Latin American cultural productions lately. It is the kind of cultural prodcuts that Western readers are used to consume from Latin America, like flying abuelas.
2) one of the main protagonist of the novel is a sneezing, myopic intellectual. Come on!
3)Vargas Llosa's narrative style is flat and conventional, nothing like Euclides da Cunha monumental and unconventional depiction of Antonio Conselheiro in Os sertoes (1903). Vargas Llosa's novel does not add anything new here. In comparison with Os sertoes it is even reductionist.

I like the Vargas LLosa of the 1960s better, what can I say...


profacero said...

I only like the early Vargas Llosa and I vote heavily for Os Sertoes over the Guerra del fin del mundo which I find derivative and exoticizing. However, I want to read his new one on Roger Casement / the Congo / Peru. V-Ll can sling words together and that is a fact.

Fascinating thread. Saer's dead but has anyone read him ... how about Luisa Valenzuela ... I read this Colombian novel that fascinated me, Philip Potdevin, Metatron, I don't know how he is supposed to fit into anything or how he is received...

Clarissa said...

I thought about buying El sueno del celta but I'm not sure why I'm supposed to care about this Casement person.

Luisa Valenzuela is OK but not my favorite author.

And sneezing myopic intellectuals do exist. :-)

Clarissa said...

I love this discussion but I'm kind of sad that there was no response to my posts on peninsular lit.

Where are my colleagues?

Spanish prof said...

Oh, we "latinos" are much more passionate, you know that.

Just a joke...

profacero said...

Casement, fascinating life, one can "care" or not but he's interesting (as are many people, of course, but then there's the person telling the story). Then the novel goes to the Congo and Peru, and so you can have a Comp Lit class with Heart of Darkness and more, or a LAS class with Michael Taussig and the Libro Rojo del Putumayo and more. So, if the Casement novel is good it can lead to lots of Fun! (Amazonian literature! Macunaima!)

Clarissa said...

This is so convincing that I'm going to order it right now.

You surely know how to get people to read books. Maybe you even have a career in it? :-)

Catrala said...

A number of friends and I actually have spent some time trying to compile a list of "new" women writers in Latin America (I know their gender doesn't mean that they can't be miserably machista, but it does give a bit of a better chance) and had a terrible time of it.

I really enjoyed Fuguet's Las peliculas de mi vida, though his gender politics suck.

I really enjoy Diamela's work so I'm not sure if our tastes will line up, but that said, other writers I've read that have published recently and I enjoyed:
- Silvia Iparraguire
- Andrea Jeftanovic
- Cristina Rivera Garza
- Ana Clavel (though not Cuerpo náufrago)
- Nona Fernandez
- Alejandro Zambra (already mentioned)
- Claudia Apablaza
- Samanta Schweblin

I've definitely got a geographical bias there, but it is what it is, I hope you can glean something interesting from it.

Clarissa said...

All of these are completely new names for me. My gratitude to everybody who left readings suggestions and commented in this thread knows no limits.

Anonymous said...

Hey, great post and interesting comments! Right now i'm doing some research for a master thesis on contemporary latin american authors, specifically on the way in which they deal with expectations (from readers) of magical realist literature, if they are expected to write in a magical realist fashion, or if they try to get round this.. I'm probably going to focus on writers such as Bolano, Volpi, Padilla, but maybe someone has other suggestions of writers who try to deal with this?

Spanish prof said...


If you haven't done so yet, I suggest that you read the short story collection "McOndo", edited by Fuguet and Sergio Gomez, and pay special attention to the introduction: "Presentación del país McOndo". That will tell you one way they deal with those expectations, although at some point that introduction is more declamatory than anything else. For criticism about it, see Diana Palaversich and an article by Rory O'Bryen that appeared in a recent issue of Bulletin of Latin American Research.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Spanish prof! Haven't read much yet in this stage, so I'll take a look at your suggestions.

Articulos said...

Hola, soy un autor de República Dominicana. Actualmente he reigistrado un libro en Estados Unidos.

Me agradaría mucho que pudiera observar mi trabajo. Mis textos están en el siguiente enlace:

Espero no casar molestias con esto. Estoy tratando de difundir mi obra. Su opinión sería importante.

Espero que pueda ver mis trabajos.

will said...

I just finished Vargas Llosa's book on Roger Casement, and I found it extremely moving - worthy of a great author.

Clarissa said...

Here is my review of the book, in case you are interested:

Anonymous said...

It's important to recognize the misogyny present in Latin American history and culture [the Malinche complex], but to make an effort to include a few more female writers to your list of worthy reads is a positive step.