10 Books For Your South America Reading List
Buenos Aires’ location right in the heart of South America, along with its well-connected travel routes, make it the perfect jumping off point for adventures all around the continent. From the steaming beaches of Colombia, to the depths of the jungle in Peru, to the icy peaks of Patagonia- there really is somewhere for everyone.
Whether you’re planning a trip around the continent, or maybe just a little curious about your neighbours, there’s nothing like a compelling read to transport you to unknown places. Here’s a personal South American reading list, fact and fiction, to get your imaginations going.
Andes by Michael Jacobs
Starting with a piece of travel literature at it’s finest: Jacobs embarks on an ambitious trip along the spine of the continent, the formidable Andes. As he covers the immense, drastically changing geographical terrain, he reflects on one of the continents most important figures, Simon Bolivar. Starting in Bolivar’s birthplace, what is now Venezuela, he charts South America’s hero’s childhood, military progress and eventual battles for independence all the way down to Bolivia, the country named in his honour. The books encompasses a broad cast of other important figures in its history too: if you’ve ever looked at street names in Palermo wondering what Humbolt and Bonpland have to do with South America, this is the book for you. Its an easy but absorbing read that combines travel writing with history, politics and culture, with enough anecdotes of amusing encounters with locals and life-threatening bus journeys to keep you entertained, as well as informed, throughout its many chapters.
The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano
Galeano’s rousing, powerful indictment of the past and present plundering of the continent’s resources by foreign powers is so beautifully written that at times you forget it’s a historical text, so enthralling is the power of his story telling. Revealing an astonishing depth of research, Galeano outlines the exploitation of gold, silver, sugar, coffee and rubber, amongst other materials, by both Europe and the United States over five centuries. It’s surprising, shocking and impossible to put down. First published in 1971, the book was banned in Galeano’s home country of Uruguay- only serving to fuel its popularity. The photo on the back cover of the latest edition shows Hugo Chavez presenting Obama with a copy of it in 2009, a move that reawakened interest in the book and shows that it is just as relevant now, as ever.
Santa Evita by Tomas Eloy Martinez
I’ve already written in more detail about this book here, but for me, if there’s one must-read book about Argentina, it’s got to be Martinez’s Santa Evita. If you thought the story of the country’s most famous female ended with a spirited encore of ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’ and Antonio Banderas looking sad, then think again. The novel’s protagonist is the embalmed corpse of Eva Peron, the focus of bitter tensions between the ruling military and the anguished Peronistas. The story develops as her body is first replicated and then sent out on a mysterious journey lasting nineteen years, before finding its way to its current resting place in Recoleta’s cemetery.
By Night in Chile by Robert Bolaño
A hop over the border from Mendoza lands you in Chile’s capital, sensible Santiago, the setting of Bolaño’s novella. The story takes the form of a monologue by the ill and dying Father Urrutia, a ranting priest defending his life from his critics and from the part of himself that harbours regrets. A troubled man, his story features appearances from Chile’s famous poet — Pablo Neruda—at a party, and its infamous dictator — Pinochet — who takes classes from the priest in order to learn about Marxism. It is a strange, dense little read, whose meandering flow can sometimes leave the reader a bit lost, but is nonetheless interesting for its poetic evocation of Chile’s turbulent seventies.
The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
Allende’s most famous book and the one that catapulted her to international fame, The House of Spirits tells the story of the Trueba family over four generations, against a backdrop of political and social turmoil, in an unnamed South American country modelled closely on Allende’s own Chile. Wildly entertaining and unpredictable, this magical realist tale blends drama- poisonings, earthquakes and protests- with the supernatural- ghosts, prophecies and curses- into one enchanting saga.
Marching Powder by Rusty Young
It’s a book that’s impossible to avoid on the gringo trail around South America, so if you’re making the trip don’t worry about bringing your own copy, one’s bound to turn up in one hostel or another. Set in Bolivia, Marching Powder retells the true story of British drug dealer Thomas McFadden who, after getting caught smuggling cocaine at El Alto airport in La Paz, is thrown into Bolivia’s most notorious prison: San Pedro. More like a small city than a prison, here prisoners must buy their own prison cell and run shops or restaurants for profit; McFadden famously makes a lucrative business out of running tours of the prison for backpackers. Women and children live together with their incarcerated husbands and fathers as families within its walls, which nonetheless conceal a hierarchical world of extreme violence. Written by Rusty Young, a backpacker captivated by Thomas’ tale, it is certainly a unique story and a powerful deterrent for any traveller contemplating taking a risk with the law.
Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa
Both of my recommended books about Peru are by the country’s most famous writer, the prolific, Nobel Prize winning Mario Vargas Llosa. In Death in the Andes he captures life in a poor, remote, traditional village perched at the feet of, and at the mercy of, the volatile Andes. The story follows Corporal Lituma, a coastal city boy nostalgic for warm weekends drinking and womanizing with his friends, who is posted in an Andean village following a spate of disappearances, suspected of being connected to the terrifying Sendero Luminoso terrorist group sweeping the country. What follows is an eerily disturbing detective story, based in this community caught between the cruelty of man and of nature, with one of the most chilling endings to a book you’ll ever come across.
The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa
My second recommendation by Mario Vargas Llosa takes you deep into the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. The novel tells, from the perspective of his friend, the story of Saul, a University student who- having become increasingly fascinated with indigenous Amazonian cultures- eventually gives up city life and goes to live permanently with the Machiguenga Indians, as their story-teller. This narrative strain is intertwined with stories and legends about the Machiguenga, as told by Saul. The book raises contentious issues surrounding the rights of tribal and indigenous peoples in Peru and their struggle to survive as autonomous communities, with the government and foreign companies encroaching ever more upon their resources. But it is also a celebration of another culture’s rich and very different world-view, and its daily life in the remotest parts of the Amazon. It is a book that will enhance any trip into the jungle by shedding some light on the myriad of different cultures it is home to.
The General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In this novel, Colombia’s- and perhaps South America’s- most famous writer presents a deeply human portrayal of a hero hanging on, with sheer tenacity, to his life, as a debilitating illness tries to wrench him from it. Marquez’s Bolivar spends most of the book swaying in a hammock, reflecting on his life- its many triumphs, its many defeats. As he makes his final journey, down the Rio Magdelena, his fate is clear to him, but what of the fate of his country? Marquez’s novel takes Bolivar down off of his pedestal and treats him as the flesh and blood man he was, with all his weaknesses and defects. Lacking in Marquez’s trademark magical-realist elements but an example as ever of his beautiful prose, this novel addresses big questions about life and death.
Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution by Richard Gott
Few figures in South America’s recent past have been as controversial as Hugo Chavez. In this concise and clearly expressed account, journalist and historian Richard Gott takes us step by step through Chavez’s rise to power and the subsequent planning and implementation of his policies and programmes. Gott puts this into historical context, by providing an overview of Venezuela’s history and the political landscape before his electoral triumph. He also explores why and how Chavez has incorporated the figure of Bolivar into his political strategy. Considering the hysterical and distorted discourse too often employed when talking about Chavez, this book offers a welcome balanced study of an undeniably intriguing character.