As popular as Brazil's Paulo Coelho has become in the United States, it's only a hint of the scale of his stature in the rest of the world. From the publication of The Alchemist nearly two decades ago through his latest novel, The Witch of Portobello, the story of a mysterious and powerful woman told by the people who knew her, Coelho's tales of spiritual searching have made him one of a small handful of the world's bestselling authors. No doubt for many of his North American readers he is the only South American writer they have read, so we asked him to recommend some of his favorite books from his fellow South Americans. Here are the 12 he chose:
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges Ficciones (English Translation): I read one of Borges's short stories in a science-fiction magazine when I was 20, and I immediately fell in love with his style and his universe. Later on, I discovered this short story ("The Babel Library") was part of a collection of short stories, "Ficciones". Borges is the only South American writer all of whose books I read and re-read. He never wrote a novel, and I must say that I am not fond of essays: however, Borges writes fiction as if it were essays, and he writes essays as if they were fiction. We are incapable of distinguishing what is real, what is not--and for me this is a good definition of the human condition.
News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez News of a Kidnapping: Of course One Hundred Years of Solitude (P.S.), by this Nobel-prize winning novelist, became a classic, but the real story of Colombian drug barons and the political and social problems that still are affecting the country make this book not only excellent reading, but a true portrait of South America that goes beyond the main characters chosen by Marquez to guide us through the pages.
The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents by John Dinges The Condor Years: How Pinochet And His Allies Brought Terrorism To Three Continents: Dinges is not a South American author, and he is not a writer, but an American journalist, a correspondent for many years in South America. He arrived in Chile right before the coup d'etat that overthrew the democratic elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. This book, based on extensive research (including CIA files) gives us a picture of the Dark Ages that my generation had to go through. Being a former political prisoner myself, I would strongly recommend this book, at least to understand better our novelists and poets and the ordeals that we had to face.
Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon: Jorge Amado is, without any doubt, the best Brazilian contemporary writer. Gabriela, a young mulatto woman, poor, ready to work only to eat, finds a job in a restaurant. The owner, a Turk, sees in her his modern Cinderella. The first 200 pages or so take place in one single day, and Amado describes like nobody else the heart and the mind of this melting pot of races, religions, prejudices, social gaps, and human contradictions that we call Brasil. If you ever have to choose one single book about my country, choose this one.
The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey by Che Guevara The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey: Why do some people decide to follow the road less travelled? How could a young doctor-to-be make such a decision to leave a comfortable future behind and undertake a journey that was going to re-shape the whole continent? I can imagine Guevara and his companion meeting people, having fun, having a lot of adventures, and then the moment of their Epiphany arrives, the understanding that we are responsible for everything that happens not only in our garden, but in the whole world. Not being a communist myself, this book is a deep dive into the soul of an icon, whether I like his political views or not.
Cronopios and Famas by Julio Cortazar Cronopios and Famas: Cortazar is responsible for one of the most boring books in South American literature (Hopscotch: A Novel (Pantheon Modern Writers Series)). But as I was impressed by his character, I decided to read at least another book by him--and it was magical, good-humored, creative, and sensitive. Follow the rules. Respect the manual. Learn how to behave in an elevator. Some South American critics say that this book was a joke: it is not. The Marx Brothers could be very funny, but they were giving a very accurate picture of the American society.
Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende Ines of My Soul: A Novel: I read many books by Allende, and for years my favorite was Paula, in which she describes her ordeal as a mother. We met recently in Austria, and start talking about our new releases. When she told me the plot of her new book, I knew, even before reading it, that it would be a success. Inés, the political figure, the woman that most historians forgot, is now back in the South American feminist pantheon.
Blood Pact and Other Stories by Mario Benedetti Blood Pact and Other Stories: Benedetti is well-known in South America for his excellent poems. But in this book, we see a different face of his work: an interesting and cynical analysis of the ups and downs of the region. While reading, you will notice that his political vision (full of irony) describes the sometimes sad and recurrent scenario that keeps the region, with its gigantic potential, being guided only by the personal interests of an elite. You may laugh while reading, but the situation is really sad.
Olga: Revolutionary and Martyr by Fernando Morais Olga: Revolutionary and Martyr: The most respected Brazilian biographer gives us a compelling story (non-fiction) of the German Jewish communist militant Olga Benario. She came to Brasil to help create the Communist Party. Everything was going well, when all of a sudden the Brazilian government, led by the dictator Getulio Vargas, decided to made an under-the-table negotiation with the Nazis during World War II. Part of the deal was to send some Jews back to Germany, and Olga was sent back to die in a concentration camp. It took four years and a lot of travelling for Morais to get the real story behind the romantic--and tragic--young adventurer, full of enthusiasm but with a lack of experience in surviving the several challenges posed by her trip to Brasil.
The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier The Kingdom of This World: A Novel: "Carpentier's writing has the power and range of a cathedral organ on the eve of the Resurrection, " says The New Yorker. And his life is an incredible journey: he was born in Switzeland (contrary to the legend that puts his birthplace in Cuba), lived in Paris, worked in Venezuela among other countries, and is buried in Cuba. His few books had a gigantic impact on South American literature, and Carpentier became a kind of master that everybody wants to follow. In this book, he uses an expression: "For what is the history of Latin America but a chronicle of 'lo real maravilloso?'" Later on, during the South American literature "boom" (that I myself don't believe happened outside the literary supplements), the critics worldwide adapted Carpertier's definition, translating "lo real maravilloso" (the real and the marvelous) and creating the expression "magical realism".
Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig Kiss of the Spider Woman and Two Other Plays: Thanks to a film that won an Oscar, Manuel Puig's masterpiece became popular. The book takes place in a prison cell, where two totally different people have nothing but share their views of the world, and then you can see the two classical choices that my generation had to face: either go and praise the American pop culture (which was my case, therefore being labelled "reactionary") or fight for the classic Marxist ideology (therefore being labelled "revolutionary"). It reminds me of a popular South American story, where an atheist and a priest go to the main plaza to discuss whether God exists of not. At the end of the discussion, when they go back to their homes, the atheist prays to God, asking forgiveness for his sins, and the priest burns the sacred books and becomes an atheist.