Venezuelan-born author Miguel Bonnefoy, whose latest novel Octavio's Journey was published earlier this spring, tells us about his ten favourite Latin American works.
Behind every novel is a library. Before sitting down to write Octavio’s Journey, I had built up a sizeable collection of books on Latin America, Venezuela and illiteracy. The history of Latin-American literature is also the history of people almost biologically impelled to stand up against a European-imposed narrative, that of medieval heritage, the conquest of land, the figure of the Greek hero.
The colonists did not come to discover, but to confirm theological and alchemistic theories. The literature which developed from the late 19th century, therefore, harked back to its roots, to the slow rhythm of Andean landscapes, the heroism of indigenous resistance, the African Santeria religion and a close connection with the invisible forces of the land.
Embarking upon Octavio’s Journey with the humility of one writing four centuries after the conquest, I aimed to follow on from this narrative. In my small way, I wanted to make my own contribution to the cultural heritage of my country by telling the story of a man who travels through a country just as that country travels through him, a man with the same brave and noble character as this continent.
It was a matter of finding Octavio’s place in the long, slow maturation of a literature of codes, human geometry and towering ancestors, and of questioning my contemporaries. It seemed obvious to me that this journey should finish in the same way it began, with an Ovidian metamorphosis, borrowing from magical realism but also from the European concept of the fantastic.
In this sense, Octavio’s Journey is simply a consequence, a sequel, and I’m inclined to stand aside, giving way to the immortal souls of all those authors of yesterday and today who, day after day, book after book, show the world the scent of a land that speaks all languages.
And so, here’s a list of a few authors whose work has inspired me:
Chronicle of a Death Foretold
by Gabriel García Marquez
Marquez was the undisputed master of the imagination. I remember reading this book and saying to myself, "It’s not fair! How can anyone write something this beautiful?"
He showed that it was possible to reduce the world to a village and humanity to its inhabitants, distilling the universe down to its fundamental molecules and revealing its passions, excesses and wounds.
The Kingdom of this World
by Alejo Carpentier
Carpentier was the master of language and style. In my view, he succeeded in doing something few other writers have achieved: making form the foundation which rises to the surface.
His sentences turn like jungle creepers, the luxuriance of his vocabulary recalls the flamboyance of the natural world he describes, and his books carry the scent of Amazonian soil: fertile and teeming with life.
by Julio Cortázar
Cortázar could write about boxing, jazz and Greek mythology with equal passion. His work is like a pinboard covered in hundreds of drawings, phrases, quotations, newspaper clippings, conversations overheard, intriguing mysteries, anecdotes, reflections and tales of famous men.
To read him is to travel inside the head of a genius, or, as he put it, "around the day in eighty worlds".
The Book of Imaginary Beings
by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges was the blind man who saw more than those possessing the gift of sight. This book is a mythological zoo filled with fantastic and extraordinary beings, in which we meet animals hidden in mirrors, three-legged donkeys, Scandinavian angels and dragons, centaurs, gnomes, griffons, a whole cosmos of fairytale creatures treading a fine line between dream and reality, all the products of the imagination of one of the greatest writers of his century who was, essentially, a child lost in a library.
Legends of Guatemala
by Miguel Angel Asturias
Some passages of this book made me shiver. It seemed to me that the whole of indigenous mythology, from its Mayan roots to the present day, was contained within this little book whose poetry, simplicity and power stunned the Nobel Academy.
In these pages we find fields filled with men and corn, women carrying baskets of fruit on their heads, children playing at feeding a doleful parrot. Rich with storytelling, it is filled with memories of the past that help explain the future.
by Rómulo Gallegos
I love it for its portrayal of the Venezuela of arid plains and haciendas run by strong women. Probably the greatest Venezuelan novel of all time, its author went on to briefly serve as President of the republic.
After the illustrious male figures of Independence like Simón Bolívar, Sucre or Miranda, Gallegos wanted to tell the story of his country through the proud but painful destiny of a strong, tyrannical, wounded woman who takes control of a hacienda in the middle of the llano grasslands, whose legend is still taught to schoolchildren almost a century later.
Open Veins of Latin America
by Eduardo Galeano
I chose it for the Uruguayan’s political engagement. This book is a globally recognised masterpiece of 1970s Latin American geopolitics which demonstrates perfectly that the strength of hegemonies comes only from the weakness of the lower classes.
Few have spoken so well about Venezuelan oil, Bolivian mines, Chilian saltpetre, Argentinian meat or Brazilian coal, showing that the Spanish conquest morphed, a few centuries later, into conquest by the United States.
by Pablo Neruda
Neruda spoke for the people and the rains of the Araucania region, in fact, if Chile had a voice, it would be Neruda’s. Written in secret, published on sawdust paper, clandestinely distributed from under coats, this book of poems presents the dark, anonymous mass of Chileans as a melting pot blending all the verses of the earth, the language of the wind, the whims of the trees, the dignity of the worker, the silence of the shepherd, the quiet courage of women, the milk of the land, the weary hand of the poet who always, ceaselessly, strives to serve his country’s sovereignty.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Touching and charming, with a brilliant narrative structure, this fictionalised rollercoaster of an autobiography resonated with me for its young protagonist who dares to dream of becoming a famous writer, whose story is interspersed with tales from radio serials.
A book has rarely made me laugh as much. It made me see that literature can describe life to such a point that it becomes truer than existence itself.
The Old Man who Read Love Stories
by Luis Sepúlveda
This simple, tropical book is a bolt of silk dancing on the wind of legend and fable. I have always liked and been fascinated by the idea that a man like Sepúlveda, who fought against Pinochet’s dictatorship and was humiliated, tortured and imprisoned, could come out of jail and, after years of exile, give the world one of the most poetic and wonderful novels of the ’90s.
The story of the search for a cat in the depths of the jungle is really about the author’s search for his own animal nature in a far crueller world.
Published by Gallic Books, Octavio’s Journey is priced £7.99 in paperback original.
Feature image via literacydigital.wordpress.com
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