The very best South American novels burst on the scene to make South American literate a major literary force in the twentieth century. It previously consisted mainly of oral and some written literature in indigenous languages but, with the explosion of immigrants in the twentieth century South American literature in Spanish rose to prominence around the middle of the 20th century and grew into something particularly prominent, with numerous great poets and novelists, including Jorge Luis Borges – the writer generally regarded as one of the very best twentieth-century writers anywhere.
One of the things that account for the prominence of South American literature is the emergence of the style known as magical realism, with its main practitioner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which developed into the twentieth-century movement, “Latin American Boom.”
by Romulo Gallegos (Venezuela), 1929
This is a psychological analysis of the brave inhabitants of the Venezuelan plains in their conflicts with the sophisticated institutions of Venezuela. The novel is an early example of magical realism, a fiction mode developed by subsequent South American authors like Marquez and Llosa. It tells the story of Dona Barbara and her cousin Santos Luzardo, who returns to the plains to reclaim his farm. Opposed by his cousin Barbara the story develops into one of violence and seduction, full of dangerous ranchers, needy women and tough cowboys, drawn in vivid detail, in a wonderful, engrossing read.
The Invention of Morel
by Adolfo Bioy Casares (Argentina), 1940
Casares was a close friend and collaborator with Jorge Luis Borges. The novel won the 1941 First Municipal Prize for Literature of the City of Buenos Aires. The novel is written in the form of a diary – of Morel. Morel is a fugitive from the law. He flees to a deserted Polynesian island. One day a group of tourists arrive and Morel becomes friendly with them. His fear of discovery develops into a painful mixed emotion when he falls in love with one of them but although they are both passionately in love he can’t tell her about his situation. His fear continues to haunt him so that he maintains a distance between them.
by Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina), 1962
The Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, never published or even attempted to write, a novel but cannot be excluded from a list of the top ten South American authors, nor, indeed, the top 20th century world fiction writers. Labyrinths is a collection of his short fictions, poems and some key essays. It’s difficult to describe his fiction as it is so very different from everything that went before, but, although different of most of what was to follow, it was hugely influential on subsequent writers around the world. The fictions are very short, completely stripped down, some of them as large as big novels, although, in never more than about five pages. They are concentrated, and in very simple, precise language, they process highly complex, literary and metaphysical questions, always within a satisfying story.
by Julio Cortázar (Argentina), 1963
This is an early example – perhaps the first example – of a hypertext novel, a fiction that anticipates the World Wide Web with a structure that invites readers to start reading anywhere and take the chapters in any order they like, thereby constructing the novel themselves. It concerns the adventures, or misadventures, rather, of a middle-aged Argentinean intellectual, Horacio Oliveira, and his girlfriend, La Maga who wander around 1950s Paris, followed by a band of aimless bohemians. A combination of misfortunes and miscalculations sends Horacio back to Buenos Aires, licking his wounds. The novel almost immediately achieved cult status and, as such, it was, and still is, hailed as one of the top landmarks of twentieth-century fiction.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia), 1967
One Hundred Years of Solitude could probably be labelled “the great South American novel” if there were such a thing. Colombian novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells the story of the history and culture of the whole of South America by using a simple narrative trick – the use of a straight-faced narrator who innocently mixes the brutally real with the magical, in a style that has become known as “magical realism.” It is a family saga with detailed family stories, which is, at the same time, a history of Latin America. While the novel is essentially Latin American, because of the human experiences, it is also universal and assessable to readers wherever they are.
Conversation in the Cathedral
by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), 1969
When Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 he was projected from a Peruvian to an international literary figure with more than fourteen great novels to his credit, making it difficult to choose one, although at least one of them should be on this list. Conversation in the Cathedral, which was the favourite of his novels of the Nobel committee members, is the one here. The novel is a reflection of Llosa’s adolescent idealism and optimism when he believed that if you exposed the nature of the corruption that was choking Peru you would be able to defeat it. The result was this novel that detailed the Peruvian corruption of his time.
Kiss of the Spider Woman
by Manuel Puig (Argentina), 1976
The Kiss of the Spider Woman is narrated as conversations between two very different cellmates in a prison in Argentina, during which they develop an intimate bond. The structure and form of this novel are unusual. First, there is no narrative voice, only the dialogue between the two prisoners, although there is some framing in the form of metafictional government documentation. The other formal feature is that most of the conversations are the relating and discussion of films that one of them, Molina, has seen. The characters are able to escape their miserable confining situation with their imaginations while engaged in discussing the films. That expands the vision of the novel with several subplots that supplement the relationship between the two men.
The House of the Spirits
by Isabel Allende (Chile), 1982
The House of the Spirits is deeply rooted in Chile’s uniquely troubled history. Allende grew up in Chile’s turbulent post-colonial years and that is reflected in this novel, in which three generations of the Trueba family live through a series of revolutions and dictatorships. The first and last protagonists are grandmother and granddaughter. Allende explores the lives of twentieth-century women and the Chilean and South American culture that sustains them. The House of the Spirits is Allende’s first novel, after which she was to go on to be one of Chile’s major writers.
Love in the Time of Cholera
by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia), 1985
This is an apparently simple love story by the most accomplished Colombian novelist. Two young people fall madly in love, but Fermina finally decides to marry a well-connected, wealthy doctor, breaking the young Florentino’s heart. He focuses his mind on his business career and cynically embarks on a series of affairs, 622 of them. Throughout all that time his heart has belonged only to Fermina while she and the doctor enjoy a happy marriage and grow old together She loses contact with Florentino. Almost fifty-one years after Fermina’s marriage the doctor dies and Florentino attends his funeral. He declares his love for Fermina, and after hesitating, she responds to his passion and they resume their courtship. The novel ends with their going on a steamship cruise up the river.
by Roberto Bolano (Chile), 2004
This is the Chilean novelist, Bolano’s, last novel. Its basic story involves an elusive German writer and the unsolved, ongoing murders of women in the city of Santa Teresa. There are multiple settings – in addition to Santa Teresa, the action goes to the eastern front of World War II, various places in the academic world, and takes in such things as mental illness, journalism, loss in relationships and careers and social degeneration. It is a huge literary canvas where twentieth-century themes are explored through a wide variety of characters, time zones, locations, and plots within plots.
And that’s our pick of the best South American novels. You may also like our article on the best Latin American authors. What’s your take – any South American books missing from this list you think we should add? Let us know in the comments section below.