Welcome to 6 Reads, where we pick out 6 top novels of a given theme. Our lit-loving, former South American resident, James Newman, gives us his top 6 Latin American novels…
Latin American literature is by far my favourite due to the heady mix of ethereal settings, unique humour and magical realism. There are so many great writers and stories to choose from, but I’ve put down a few which might have passed you by.
#1 Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos: Goodreads 3.6
“All I had to do was wait a couple of weeks for the currency to be devalued 8,000 percent and then I’d pay him back."
Some Goodreads ratings mystify me and this one is one of those. Quesadillas is one of the funniest books I have ever read. I am not one to ‘out loud guffaw’ but with this surrealist, Mexican comedy I guffawed around the floor.
The short novel follows adolescent Orestes as he navigates poverty and corruption in the turbulent 1980’s - a role he plays with the pithy sarcasm and the self-centredness of a thirteen-year-old. Wry humour and punchy one-liners litter the book, which skirts the meeting point of comedy and tragedy – without getting too serious.
#2 Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel: Goodreads 3.9
“When it came to dividing, dismantling, dismembering ... dispossessing, destroying, or dominating, Mama Elena was a pro.”
Another Mexican novel here. LWFC delivers two things without restraint – magical realism and food. Food and fiction seem to gel perfectly and, when written well, food enlivens the senses, whets the literary appetite and allows passion and sensuality to flow.
Each of LWFC’s 12 chapters is attributed to a month and begins with a recipe, produced in a kitchen which provides the backdrop to this powerful and harrowing saga of love, family and death.
Being the youngest daughter, Tita’s life is laid out for her. She will not marry but dedicate her life to caring for her mother – the tragic and cruel Mama Elena. Alas, Tita meets Pedro and a passionate love affair is sparked but thrown asunder by the marriage of Pedro to Tita’s sister.
#3 Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa: Goodreads 3.9
"Senator Selcedo can't get it up! If I were certain he'd stay that way, I'd marry him for his dough...But what if I cured him? Can't you just see that old gaffer trying to make up for lost time with me?"
Nobel-prize winning Vargas Llosa was born in Arequipa, Peru. I happily lived in the white city and it is wonderfully chaotic and from such beginnings one can understand Vargas Llosa a little better.
Set in 1950s Lima, aspiring teenage writer, Mario, falls in love with the 32-year-old ex-wife of his uncle, Aunt Julia.
The novel follows the peaks and troughs of Mario’s career and relationship, throwing in calamities and characters one can only imagine coming from Peru.
The book is partly based on Vargas Llosa’s own life – and marriage – to his aunt (not a blood relation, you’ll be relieved to know) and contains some of the finest writing by one of the world’s greatest ever novelists, imbued with his unique skill for holding a mirror to society and human behaviour.
#4 The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel García Márquez: Goodreads 3.7
“The only wars here will be civil wars, and those are like killing your own mother.”
The Colombian, known as El Mago, wrote many more popular novels but the one which has stayed with me the most is this one.
It follows the last months of Simon Bolivar, El Libertador, who led the overthrow of Spanish colonialism in South America. A hero of the continent, Bolivar’s last months saw him resign a presidency and prepare for exile in Europe. Marquez fictionalises the final months of his life and inspires a desperate sorrow in his touching portrayal of a great warrior reduced to a sick, powerless memory.
#5 The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri: Goodreads 3.9
“This particular category of asshole compounds temerity with obliviousness.”
An Argentinean crime thriller which has been twice adapted for the screen. The Argentinean film is outstanding, and the novel is excellent too.
Justice administrator, Benjamin Chaparro, writes a book looking back on his life, and struggles to cope with the memories of his most harrowing case - a rape and murder. The crime was solved but justice was far from done. However, the past has a way of catching up with the future as Benjamin refuses to let sleeping dogs lie.
#6 City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende: Goodreads 3.7
“The longer I live, the more uninformed I feel. Only the young have an explanation for everything.”
Famous for ‘House of Spirits’, Allende takes us to the rainforest for a novel aimed at younger readers but equally enlivening for adults too. Fifteen-year-old Alexander is foisted upon his journalist-explorer Grandmother for a trip to the tropics. He buddies up with local guide, Nadia, and together they encounter the People of the Mist and report a journey which acts as a non-patronising warning of eco-issues, particularly the exploitation of resources in the Amazon basin.
A magical, easy read with more substance than your average young adult crossover.
James Newman runs a light-hearted 'bookstagram' account over @helikesbooks on Instagram.