Great Hispanic Fiction:  
12 Recommended Works
One Dozen Memorable Works of Hispanic Fiction

by Ted Gioia

Let’s take advantage of Hispanic Heritage Month – held every year from September
15 to October 15 – to recommend some of the finer works of fiction by Latin and
Spanish authors.  This year we have special reason to celebrate, with a new book
by Mario Vargas Llosa in the stores this week, and recent outstanding works
published by
Junot Diaz and the late Roberto Bolaño.  2007 also marks the 40th
anniversary of the release of Gabriel García Márquez’s
One Hundred Years of
Solitude
, the greatest novel in Spanish (and perhaps any language) of our era.
Each of the dozen titles below is a remarkable book – either a celebrated classic or
a recent work that seems likely to stand the test of time.    

THE FEAST OF THE GOAT by Mario Vargas Llosa:  This gripping historical novel
may be Llosa’s finest effort.  The novel traces the journey of Urania Cabral,
who returns to the Dominican Republic, after several decades in the
United States, to confront the legacy of the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo.  
Llosa reconstructs Trujillo’s corrupt reign and assassination through a
series of flashbacks and dramatic scenes, drawing both on Cabral’s re-
collections as well as the perspectives of more than a dozen other his-
torical figures.  The Trujillo reign has inspired various authors (most re-
cently Junot Diaz who uses it as a springboard for his
The Brief Wond-
rous Life of Oscar Wao), but none has handled the subject as deftly as
Llosa.  He shows how the savagery of a single individual spreads outward,
poisoning first his immediate collaborators, but ultimately debasing an entire
society.   

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by Gabriel García Márquez:  For more than a half
century, Florentino Ariza has waited for the woman of his dreams.  Alas,
Fermina Daza forgot about him long ago, and has happily settled into
married life with a wealthy doctor.  But when her husband dies, the old
lady finds herself besieged again by the suitor of her youth.  Marquez
made his name with the magical trappings and shifting cast of characters
of his epic works, but this poised novel focuses on a single grand passion
presented in starkly realistic terms.  His account of a hero who aims to
end his fifty years of solitude ranks as one of the great love novels of
recent decades.     

THREE EXEMPLARY NOVELS by Miguel de Unamuno:  Unamuno, one of the
leading Spanish intellects of the early 20th century, is too little read to-
day.  He is best remembered for his 1913 philosophical study
The Tragic
Sense of Life
, a deep and passionate work in an existential vein.  But
Unamuno’s
Three Exemplary Novels from 1920 brings these same con-
cerns into the realm of fiction in a trio of short works.  Unamuno is a mas-
ter at evoking a claustrophobic atmosphere, with overtones of the gothic.   
The clash of the sexes is a recurring theme here, as his flawed characters
battle themselves and each other in a series of intimate dramas.   

THE OLD GRINGO by Carlos Fuentes:   The American journalist and literary writer
Ambrose Bierce traveled to Mexico toward the close of 1913, at the height
of the Mexican Revolution, and disappeared a short while later.  Carlos
Fuentes imagines the events of Bierce’s final days in
The Old Gringo, a
novel which became a surprise bestseller (and later a film) after its trans-
lation into English.  Fuentes constructs an anguished, peculiar love tri-
angle around the figures of Bierce, an American school-teacher named
Harriet Winslow, and General Tomás Arroyo of the rebel army.  The rich,
Faulknerian prose sometimes gets too soupy in the widely available
Margaret Sayers Peden translation, but the psychological intensity of the work
makes for compelling reading.   

THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES by Roberto Bolaño:  This vibrant novel has been
available in English translation for only a few months, but already critics
are acknowledging it as a modern-day classic of Latin American liter-
ature.  
The Savage Detectives traces the lives and times of two fringe
poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, over a period of almost twenty
years.  The epic sweep of Bolaño’s work is breath-taking, as the story
is filtered through the perspective of dozens of narrators, and trans-
pires over four continents.  His protagonists move from literary concerns
to petty crime to romance or narcotics, but embark on their most un-
settling  vision quest when they decide to seek out a missing poet from the
1920s.   

FICCIONES by Jorge Luis Borges:  Before Márquez  and Llosa, the reigning
monarch of Latin American fiction was Jorge Luis Borges, one of the finest
modern writers to be denied the Nobel Prize in literature (a distinction he
shares with Proust, Joyce, Kafka and Nabokov, by the way).  Borges’ richly
imaginative fictions would help inspire the magical realism of the next
generation of South American authors, and establish the author as one
of the most distinctive short story stylists of his day.  His works evoke an
almost paradoxical blend of fantasy and philosophy, intellectual rigor and
child-like play.  His brief volume
Ficciones is an excellent way to make a
first acquaintance with the world of Borges.   

DON QUIXOTE by Miguel de Cervantes:  No reading list of Hispanic literature is
complete without this life-affirming classic, one of those books you can
return to again and again without exhausting its riches.  After reading
Don Quixote, you will no longer think that the experimental novel is a
recent invention.  Cervantes plays with all of the conventions of story-
telling, even inserting characters in the second half of the novel who
have read the earlier portions.   Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are
timeless figures, the episodes are memorable and full of rich implications,
and the language and proverbs have influenced a wide sweep of later
literature.  This is a book all should read.  I especially recommend the Samuel
Putnam translation for its smooth and stylish prose.    

THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros:  The work, now a staple of
many school reading lists, captures the day-to-day life of Esperanza Cor-
dero, a young girl who dreams of leaving her home in a poor Latino neigh-
borhood of Chicago.  This touching tale is comprised of 44 short chapters
– many of them only a few paragraphs long – and can be read in a single
sitting.   The chapters are written in the style of diary entries, but the
language is musing and poetic – one could almost read the individual
chapters as prose poems.  For a young reader or student, this work is
a great entry point into Latino literature.  Although written in English,
it is also available in Spanish translation.    

CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD by Gabriel García Márquez:  This is one of
the lesser known works by Márquez, but it ranks among his finest.  While
his more celebrated novels trace events over fifty or hundred year periods,
Chronicle of a Death Foretold re-constructs the circumstances of a single
day, when two angry brothers track down and murder the man they be-
lieve violated their sister’s virginity.  This is a rich work, and almost the
mirror image of those novels in which strange coincidences and chance
events save the protagonist.  Here all events conspire against a happy
ending. Márquez constructs a beautiful plot, in which almost every episode
seems to show a way in which the murder can be avoided.  But the bloodshed
here is apparently pre-destined, and the death already foretold.    

DROWN by Junot Diaz:  Diaz’s recent novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
has brought this flashy writer back into the limelight.  But readers should
not forget his short story collection
Drown from 1996.  Diaz dishes up a
spicy prose style which seamlessly shifts from English to Spanish, from
street talk to high-brow allusions.  But the playfulness of the language
stands in stark contrast to the gritty realism of Diaz’s stories.  Here we
find taunting and bullying, broken homes and infidelities, poverty and
violence, but presented without self-pity or sentimentality.  Diaz is one
of the finest writers chronicling the immigrant experience in contemporary
America.   

THE STORYTELLER by Mario Vargas Llosa:   Many books have captured the rich
heritage of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, or have tried to depict
the tragedy of their conflicts with European settlers.  But in this artfully
constructed novel, Llosa takes a different angle, relating the story of Saul
Zuratas, a Peruvian of Jewish descent, who attempts to leave behind the
ties and complexities or urban life and become a member of an Amazonian
tribe.  Here again Llosa shows his ability to build and pace a well-crafted
narrative, while also exploring the larger issues of ethnicity and our often
tainted historical legacies.     

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE by Gabriel García Márquez:   Márquez’s
masterpiece deserves all the praise that has been lavished on it during
the forty years since initial publication.  This may be the greatest work
by a living novelist, a stunning 450-page burst of creativity and imagina-
tion.   Few authors have tried to squeeze so many characters, sub-plots,
interludes, episodes and off-the-wall tangents into a single novel, but
Márquez never gets weighted down by the complexity of his narrative.  
The book is light, fanciful, and full of a raw vitality.  And in case you get
lost, the author provides a useful family tree at the front of the book.  
Of course, this is one of those journeys where getting lost is more enjoyable than
reaching your final destination.   Just as
Cervantes set the tone for the Spanish
language novel by squeezing a whole universe between the covers of a life-
embracing book, Márquez does the same with
One Hundred Years of Solitude.



This article originally appeared on
Blogcritics.