Best Latin American Classics You’ve Never Heard Of

36 Shares

Explore the classic literature of Latin America with this list of classic novels from South America and the Caribbean.

Latin American Classics

This summer I’ve been researching the classics of Latin American literature, and I’ve got a few big takeaways.

First, there are a ton of great classic Latin American books and authors.

Second, for such a vast geographical region, it’s astounding how few of these books and authors have actually been translated into English.

There are plenty of modern Latinx authors in translation nowadays, but oddly many of the authors and works who shaped the very roots of Latin American literature have yet to see the light of day in the northern hemisphere.

It’s frustrating. And, makes me wish I was fluent in Spanish so I could read all these untranslated gems!

I also noticed something else of interest as I worked on this Latin American classics reading list, as well as my earlier posts on non-mainstream classics (i.e., classic Japanese literature and classic African-American novels). This is my very unscientific observation, but I think it’s fascinating and warrants a closer look: The formation of these literary traditions seem to follow a certain pattern. Poetry is invariably first on the scene. Next comes nonfiction in the form of histories, travelogues, autobiographies, diaries, essays, and literary criticism. Then come short stories. And the novel is the last to emerge!

I’ve seen this pattern multiple times now, and if you think about it, it’s present in Western literature, too; the Iliad and the Odyssey are poems, and the novel didn’t really take off until the 18th century.

Literary canon as it relates to gender follows the same trajectory. With a few exceptions, male authors are more prominent earlier on in the literary scene than female. When female authors do gain a foothold, they follow the overall pattern: female poets come first, followed later by writers of nonfiction, short stories, and last of all the novel.

Ironically, my main literary interests run backwards to the pattern, because I prefer novels, then short stories, then poetry! So that throws a further spanner in the works when I try to compile these lists of non-mainstream classics!

When I put together the following list of Latin American classics, I decided to blatantly leave out the two biggest names in Latin American literature–Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Aunque amo al señor Borges, I’ve already covered these fellows in my list of 101 Classic Books to Read Before You Die.

I’m also highlighting authors who came before the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s. That’s because the main Boom authors are already fairly well known (Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Julio Cortázar), and frankly, they’re not really my cup of tea, anyway!

So, here’s a look at some of the should-be-better-known Latin American authors and books of the 1800s through the mid-1900s.

Classics Reading Challenge

If you’re following along with our 2023 Classics Reading Challenge, the theme for August is to read a classic by a Latin American author. Any of the following books could count for the challenge, and it’s never too late to join!

Best Classic Latin American Novels

Note #1: The definition of “Latin America” isn’t set in stone anywhere! Generally, it includes Mexico, Central America, and all of the countries in South America and the Caribbean whose inhabitants speak a Romance (Latin-derived) language.

Note #2: I’m including two Chilean novels because I’m very biased. Chile is my favourite country in South America.

Martín Rivas by Alberto Blest Gana (published 1862)

In this novel of manners, Martín is a poor but ambitious young man from Chile’s mining region in the north. Wanting more from life than what his community has to offer, he finds employment in Santiago as a servant for a wealthy aristocrat. But Martín’s ambitions quickly take a new turn when he falls in love with his employer’s haughty daughter, Leonore.

Blest Gana wrote all his novels with an eye to establishing a unified national identity for Chile, and he effectively uses Martín’s story to explore the customs, culture, and class divides of his homeland. Blest Gana was successful: Martín Rivas is considered to be the first Chilean novel, and is required reading in schools throughout Chile to this day.

Note: The current English-language edition of Martín Rivas is expensive if purchased new, but there are cheaper used copies online!

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis (1881)

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is a satiric tragicomedy narrated by a member of Brazil’s elite ruling class–who also happens to be dead. Brás Cubas confesses all, exposing his many flaws and failures as he looks for love and fame. Despite Brás Cubas’s pessimistic outlook on life, the novel is witty and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. You’ll find short, engaging chapters, a playful narrative structure, and a style reminiscent of Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift.

Unlike his protagonist, Machado de Assis was not born to privilege. His family was working class–his mother an immigrant from the Azores and his father the son of freed slaves. (Incidentally, Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888.) Despite a haphazard education, Machado de Assis became the foremost author of Brazilian literature.

Besides Brás Cubas, Machado de Assis is best known for Quincas Borba and Dom Casmurro, a more “serious” fictional memoir. All three books are loosely related, due to some shared characters.

English-speaking readers are lucky to have several translations of Brás Cubas to choose from, and as they all have their merits, just get what’s readily available and dive in!

The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela (1915)

Considered “The” novel of the Mexican Revolution, The Underdogs is a gripping war story that provides an unsentimental portrait of one of the defining periods of Mexican history.

Demetrio Macías is a peasant who finds himself thrown into the conflict when a group of despotic Federales burn his home and kill his dog. Macías escapes to the mountains and becomes the de facto leader of a motley crew of disaffected commoners. Against the odds, Macías’ band becomes a formidable fighting force, but as they become participants in the horrors of war Macías begins to question the justness of their cause.

Mariano Azuela had first-hand experience of the Mexican Revolution, serving as a field doctor under one of Pancho Villa’s generals. Azuela was a prolific novelist, but only a handful of his works have been translated into English.

Note: For more reading on the Mexican Revolution, this book would pair well with Nellie Campobello’s memoirs based off her childhood perspective of the Revolution, first published in the 1930s.

Doña Bárbara by Rómulo Gallegos (1929)

Set in the vast Llanos–or plains–of Venezuela, Doña Bárbara is a sweeping tale that will appeal to fans of Western/cowboy novels. Fresh from law school in Caracas, protagonist Santos Luzardos returns to his father’s ranch in order to tie up loose ends and sell off the land. Luzardos expects a quick turnaround, but when he arrives he discovers the ranch has fallen prey to gross mismanagement, and he decides to stay on in order to restore his inheritance and modernize the ranch.

Opposing his efforts is neighboring landowner Doña Bárbara, a femme fatale who asserts her dominance in the region by means of brutality, seduction, and–it’s rumored–witchcraft. Luzardos and Bárbara become embroiled in a rivalry that symbolizes the central theme of the novel: the conflict between civilization and progress vs. “barbarism” and the old ways.

Author Rómulo Gallegos is notable not only for being one of the most famous Venezuelan writers, but also for being the first democratically-elected president of Venezuela in 1948. Unfortunately, Gallegos was unseated just nine months later due to a coup d’état, and spent the next decade in exile. He returned to his homeland in 1958 with a hero’s welcome.

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (1940)

The Invention of Morel is a short, genre-bending novel that’s part science fiction, part surrealism, part adventure story. The unnamed protagonist is an escaped convict from Venezuela, who finds himself marooned on a mysterious island in the South Pacific. The protagonist keeps a diary of his experiences, and soon begins to encounter odd things: the island is home to an empty museum, a swimming pool, and a library.

Then, people appear suddenly on the island, dressed in old-fashioned clothing and moving about as if they’re tourists–playing tennis and listening to music. The fugitive watches “the others” from the underbrush, fearing he’ll be captured if they notice him. But as he watches, he begins to fall in love with one of the tourists, and finally decides to risk it all by speaking to her.

Fun fact: The Invention of Morel served as one of the inspirations for the TV show LOST, and the character Sawyer can be seen reading the novel in one of the episodes!

Born and raised in Argentina, Bioy Casares met fellow countryman Jorge Luis Borges as a young man. The two remained lifelong friends and collaborated on several books together.

Yawar Fiesta by José María Arguedas (1945)

Yawar Fiesta is a book without a main character. Rather, the central “character” is the whole community of Puquio, a small village high in the Andes of Peru. The novel explores the often tense relations between the Indians, whites, and mestizos (people of mixed European and indigenous descent). The conflict comes to a head with the approach of the annual summer bullfight, a revered tradition among the indigenous community, which an arrogant bureaucrat is trying to shut down for being “too primitive.”

Arguedas was an anthropologist, poet, and novelist whose work reflects his own blended cultural identity. His family was of Spanish descent, but he spent much of his childhood in the households of his family’s indigenous servants, becoming fluent in the native Quechua language. Arguedas’s novels are not widely translated because he invented a writing style that blended Spanish vocabulary with Quechuan words and syntax. Thankfully, Frances Horning Barraclough has worked to translate some of his best-known novels into English: Yawar Fiesta, Deep Rivers, and The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below.

House of Mist by María Luisa Bombal (1947)

Deep within the lush forests of southern Chile, a new bride finds herself locked in a loveless marriage, and increasingly turns to her own imaginative inner life for solace. Although sometimes called a forerunner of the magical realism genre, House of Mist is more gothic than anything. This dark and dreamlike tale will be a good fit for any fan of Wuthering Heights or Rebecca. (And if you like this type of book, be sure to check out this reading list of dark and cozy books for more ideas!)

House of Mist was Bombal’s own English-language adaptation of her earlier 1934 Spanish-language novella La última niebla (the final mist). Bombal translated another of her novellas into English as well: La amortajada (1938) became The Shrouded Woman. The two English versions can sometimes be found in the same volume, as in this Texas Pan American Series edition.

María Luisa Bombal was born in Viña del Mar, Chile, and educated in Paris after the age of twelve. She eventually met fellow Chilean writer Pablo Neruda when they both lived in Argentina, each working on their writings at the kitchen table.

The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier (1949)

This historical fiction novel is set at the end of the 1700s during the Haitian Revolution–the only successful slave revolt in history–which resulted in Haiti’s independence from French rule. The novel’s central character is Ti Noël, an elderly slave who experiences firsthand the violence of the shifting political landscape.

Alejo Carpentier was a Cuban author who was a major influence on the literature of the Latin American Boom period. He was a pioneer of the magical realism so closely associated with García Márquez, but Carpentier actually had his own theory of the technique, which he called lo real maravilloso. He felt that the history, culture, and landscape of Latin America has an intrinsically fantastic quality, so much larger-than-life as to appear unbelievable to outsiders.

Carpentier’s use of lo real maravilloso can also be found in his historical adventure novel Explosion in a Cathedral, his lost world novel The Lost Steps, and his existential thriller The Chase. (The first two novels are getting new Penguin editions in September, 2023!)

Land of Childhood by Claudia Lars (1959)

Although Claudia Lars is one of El Salvador’s best-loved poets, only a handful of her poems have been translated into English (and from what I can find, there are no complete English-language volumes of her poetry). Thankfully, Lars also wrote a prose memoir which her granddaughter, Florence Beers Araujo, translated into English (the book features cover art by Lars’s great-granddaughter).

Lars’s memoir describes her golden childhood in the Salvadoran countryside, and is filled with rich, sensory depictions of the land and her people’s customs. The vignettes that make up the book are bursting with all the people who fill Lars’s world: her Irish-sailor father, her Indian grandfather, and her aunts, always busy at their work. Land of Childhood is a perfect book for anyone who longs for a taste of simpler times and the nostalgia of growing up.

How to Find More Classic Latin American Literature

As I discovered, translated Latin American classics from the 1800s and early 1900s can be hard to find. Two good resources are the Texas Pan American series from the University of Texas Press, and the Library of Latin America from Oxford University Press. Titles from these series are on the pricier side because they’re not printed in large quantities and are often used only in academic settings. I’d suggest exploring them as an idea resource, and then if the book prices aren’t doable for you, using the ISBNs to seek out cheaper secondhand copies online.

What are your favourite classic books from Latin America?

Other regional book lists you might enjoy:

36 Shares

Join Our Society!
Reawaken your passion for reading by discovering books you love and connecting with like-minded readers.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the list of books! I will be reading “Ficcones” by Jorge Luis Borges, as soon as a copy is available from my library. While I’m waiting, I’ll be reading some Dickens (the September reading challenge author)!

  2. I just found your website and the 2023 challenge and am starting now! I plan on reading Yawar Fiesta. I graduated college with an Anthropology degree and this seems to be like the ethnographies we would read!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *