If you’re interested in world literature and Spanish culture specifically, this reading list is for you. As every reader knows, reading is to travel far and wide where we cannot physically go. I hope this list guides you on a wonderful journey through the Spanish speaking world.
Since the Spanish speaking world includes so many countries, I’ve decided not to organise this list by country but by publication date. This list includes some of the best of Spanish literature in English translation with entries from the majority of Spanish speaking countries.
Miguel de Cervantes > Don Quixote < 1605
“Don Quixote has become so entranced by reading chivalric romances, that he determines to become a knight-errant himself. In the company of his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, his exploits blossom in all sorts of wonderful ways. While Quixote’s fancy often leads him astray – he tilts at windmills, imagining them to be giants – Sancho acquires cunning and a certain sagacity. Sane madman and wise fool, they roam the world together, and together they have haunted readers’ imaginations for nearly four hundred years.
With its experimental form and literary playfulness, Don Quixote generally has been recognized as the first modern novel. The book has had enormous influence on a host of writers, from Fielding and Sterne to Flaubert, Dickens, Melville, and Faulkner, who reread it once a year, “just as some people read the Bible.”” (GoodReads)
Jorge Luis Borges > Ficciones < 1944
“The seventeen pieces in Ficciones demonstrate the whirlwind of Borges’s genius and mirror the precision and potency of his intellect and inventiveness, his piercing irony, his scepticism, and his obsession with fantasy. Borges sends us on a journey into a compelling, bizarre, and profoundly resonant realm; we enter the fearful sphere of Pascal’s abyss, the surreal and literal labyrinth of books, and the iconography of eternal return. To enter the worlds in Ficciones is to enter the mind of Jorge Luis Borges, wherein lies Heaven, Hell, and everything in between.” (GoodReads)
Carmen Laforte > Nada < 1944
“Carmen Laforet’s Nada ranks among the most important literary works of post-Civil War Spain. Loosely based on the author’s own life, it is the story of an orphaned young woman who leaves her small town to attend university in war-ravaged Barcelona.
Residing amid genteel poverty in a mysterious house on Calle de Aribau, young Andrea falls in with a wealthy band of schoolmates who provide a rich counterpoint to the squalor of her home life. As experience overtakes innocence, Andrea gradually learns the disquieting truth about the people she shares her life with: her overbearing and superstitious aunt Angustias; her nihilistic yet artistically gifted uncle Román and his violent brother Juan; and Juan’s disturbingly beautiful wife, Gloria, who secretly supports the clan with her gambling. From existential crisis to a growing maturity and resolve, Andrea’s passionate inner journey leaves her wiser, stronger, and filled with hope for the future.” (GoodReads)
María Luisa Bombal > House of Mist < 1947
“House of Mist stands as one of the first South American novels written in the style that was later called magical realism. Of this story of a young bride struggling with her marriage to an aloof landowner—and the mysteries surrounding their life together—in a house deep in the lush Chilean woods, Penelope Mesic wrote in the Chicago Tribune that Bombal showed “bold disregard for simple realism in favor of a heightened reality in which the external world reflects the internal truth of the characters’ feeling…mingling…fantasy, memory and event.”” (GoodReads)
Alejo Carpentier > The Kingdom of this World < 1949
“A few years after its liberation from the brutality of French colonial rule in 1803, Haiti endured a period of even greater brutality under the reign of King Henri Christophe, who was born a slave in Grenada but rose to become the first black king in the Western Hemisphere. His rule is observed through the eyes of the elderly slave Ti Noël, who endures abuse from masters both white and black and who looks, with his charismatic fellow slave Macandal, for a release from the endless cycle of suffering through the practice of animal magic. In prose of often dreamlike colouration and intensity, Alejo Carpentier records the destruction of the black regime—built on the same corruption and contempt for human life that brought down French rule while embodying its same hollow grandeur of false elegance attained only through slave labour—in an orgy of voodoo, race hatred, madness, and erotomania.” (GoodReads)
Miguel Ángel Asturias > Men of Maize < 1949
“Social protest and poetry; reality and myth; nostalgia for an uncorrupted, golden past; sensual human enjoyment of the present; ‘magic’ rather than lineal time, and, above all, a tender, compassionate love for the living, fertile, wondrous land and the struggling, hopeful people of Guatemala. Winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize for Literature” (GoodReads)
Camilo José Cela > The Hive < 1951
“The Hive presents a panoramic view of the degradation and sufferings of the lower-middle class in post-civil war Spain. Readers are introduced to over a hundred characters through a series of starkly rendered interlocking vignettes. Filled with violence, hunger, and compassion, The Hive captures the buzzing ambitions and set-backs of Spanish society under the rule of Franco.” (GoodReads)
Juan Rulfo > Pedro Páramo < 1955
“Pedro Páramo is a short novel written by Juan Rulfo, originally published in 1955. In just the 23 FCE editions and reprintings, it had sold 1,143,000 copies by November 1997. Other editions in Mexico, Spain, and other nations have sold countless more copies. It is Rulfo’s second book, after the short story collection El Llano en llamas, translated into English as The Burning Plain and other Stories. It has had a major influence in the development of magical realism and it is told in a mixture of first and third person narration. Gabriel García Márquez said that he had not felt like that since reading The Metamorphosis, while Jorge Luis Borges called it one of the best novels in literature.” (GoodReads)
José María Arguedas > Deep Rivers < 1958
“José María Arguedas is one of the few Latin American authors who loved and described his natural surroundings, and he ranks among the greatest writers of any time and place. He saw the beauty of the Peruvian landscape, as well as the grimness of social conditions in the Andes, through the eyes of the Indians who are a part of it. Ernesto, the narrator of Deep Rivers, is a child with origins in two worlds. The son of a wandering country lawyer, he is brought up by Indian servants until he enters a Catholic boarding school at age 14. In this urban Spanish environment he is a misfit and a loner. The conflict of the Indian and the Spanish cultures is acted out within him as it was in the life of Arguedas. For the boy Ernesto, salvation is his world of dreams and memories. While Arguedas’ poetry was published in Quechua, he invented a language for his novels in which he used native syntax with Spanish vocabulary. This makes translation into other languages extremely difficult, and Frances Horning Barraclough has done a masterful job, winning the 1978 Translation Center Award from Columbia University for her efforts.” (GoodReads)
Juan Carlos Onetti > The Shipyard < 1961
““The Graham Greene of Uruguay . . . foreshadowing the work of Beckett and Camus.”—The Sunday Telegraph
With all the enthusiasm of a man condemned to be hanged, Larsen takes up his new post. Like the other workers at the shipyard, he routinely goes through the motions. Every so often, his sense of reality is shaken by a tremor of self-deception, and then it is possible to believe that the yard’s glory is not just a thing of the past.” (GoodReads)
Rosario Castellanos > The Book of Lamentations < 1962
“Set in the highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas, The Book of Lamentations tells of a fictionalized Mayan uprising that resembles many of the rebellions that have taken place since the indigenous people of the area were first conquered by European invaders five hundred years ago. With the panoramic sweep of a Diego Rivera mural, the novel weaves together dozens of plot lines, perspectives, and characters. Blending a wealth of historical information and local detail with a profound understanding of the complex relationship between victim and tormentor, Castellanos captures the ambiguities that underlie all struggles for power.
A masterpiece of contemporary Latin American fiction from Mexico s greatest twentieth-century woman writer, The Book of Lamentations was translated with an afterword by Ester Allen and introduction by Alma Guillermoprieto.”” (GoodReads)
Carlos Fuentes > The Death of Artemio Cruz < 1962
“As the novel opens, Artemio Cruz, the all-powerful newspaper magnate and land baron, lies confined to his bed and, in dreamlike flashes, recalls the pivotal episodes of his life. Carlos Fuentes manipulates the ensuing kaleidoscope of images with dazzling inventiveness, layering memory upon memory, from Cruz’s heroic campaigns during the Mexican Revolution, through his relentless climb from poverty to wealth, to his uneasy death. Perhaps Fuentes’s masterpiece, The Death of Artemio Cruz is a haunting voyage into the soul of modern Mexico.” (GoodReads)
Julio Cortázar > Hopscotch < 1963
“In 1966, Gregory Rabassa won the first National Book Award to recognize the work of a translator, for his English-language edition of Hopscotch. Julio Cortazar was so pleased with Rabassa’s translation of Hopscotch that he recommended the translator to Gabriel García Márquez when García Márquez was looking for someone to translate his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude into English. “Rabassa’s One Hundred Years of Solitude improved the original,” according to García Márquez.
The book is highly influenced by Henry Miller’s reckless and relentless search for truth in post-decadent Paris and Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki’s modal teachings on Zen Buddhism.
Cortázar’s employment of interior monologue, punning, slang, and his use of different languages is reminiscent of Modernist writers like Joyce, although his main influences were Surrealism and the French New Novel, as well as the “riffing” aesthetic of jazz and New Wave Cinema.” (GoodReads)
Guillermo Cabrera Infante > Three Trapped Tigers < 1965
“Cabrera Infante’s masterpiece, Three Trapped Tigers is one of the most playful books to reach the U.S. from Cuba. Filled with puns, wordplay, lists upon lists, and Sternean typography–such as the section entitled “Some Revelations,” which consists of several blank pages–this novel has been praised as a more modern, sexier, funnier, Cuban Ulysses. Centering on the recollections of a man separated from both his country and his youth, Cabrera Infante creates an enchanting vision of life and the many colorful characters found in steamy Havana’s pre-Castro cabaret society.” (GoodReads)
José Lezama Lima > Paradiso < 1966
“First published in Cuba in 1966, Paradiso was hailed as a masterpiece of contemporary literature. It has gained the international reputation of a modern classic and was received with unqualified enthusiasm when it was published in France and Italy. Jose Cemi, the hero of Paradiso, begins life at the turn of the century in Cuba. As an adolescent, Cemi discovers his soulmates, the intellectuals Fronesis and Focion, and it is the triangle of their relationship which provides the impetus for much of the novel. Each of Cemi’s experiences in his search for his dead father and for the understanding of love and the powers of the mind has a tropical intensity that gives it long life in the reader’s memory.” (GoodReads)
Reinaldo Arenas > Hallucinations < 1966
“In the brilliant tradition of Don Quixote and Candide, Hallucinations is a modern masterpiece of Latin American fiction. Fray Servando-priest, blasphemer, dueler of monsters, irresistible lover, misunderstood prophet, prisoner, and consummate escape artist-wanders among the vice-ridden populations of eighteenth-century Europe and the Americas, fleeing dungeons, a marriage-minded female, a slaveship captain, and the Inquisition. Whether by burro, by boat, or by the back of a whale, Fray Servando’s journey is at once funny and romantic, melancholy and profound-a tale rooted in history, yet outrageously hallucinatory.
“An impenitent amalgam of truth and invention, historical fact and outrageous make-believe. . . . A philosophical black comedy.” (The New York Times)” (GoodReads)
José Donoso > The Obscene Bird of Night < 1970
“This haunting jungle of a novel has been hailed as “a masterpiece” by Luis Bunuel and “one of the great novels not only of Spanish America, but of our time” by Carlos Fuentes. The story of the last member of the aristocratic Azcoitia family, a monstrous mutation protected from the knowledge of his deformity by being surrounded with other freaks as companions, The Obscene Bird of Night is a triumph of imaginative, visionary writing. Its luxuriance, fecundity, horror, and energy will not soon fade from the reader’s mind.
“The story is like a great puzzle . . . invested with a vibrant, almost tangible reality.” —The New York Times
“Although many of the other “boom” writers may have received more attention—especially Fuentes and Vargas Llosa—Donoso and his masterpiece may be the most lasting, visionary, strangest of the books from this time period. Seriously, it’s a novel about the last member of an aristocratic family, a monstrous mutant, who is surrounded by other freaks so as to not feel out of place.” —Publishers Weekly” (GoodReads)
Manuel Puig > Kiss of the Spider Woman < 1976
“Sometimes they talk all night long. In the still darkness of their cell, Molina re-weaves the glittering and fragile stories of the film he loves, and the cynical Valentin listens. Valentin believes in the just cause which makes all suffering bearable; Molina believes in the magic of love which makes all else endurable.” (GoodReads)
Carmen Martín Gaite > The Back Room < 1978
“The winner of Spain’s 1978 National Prize for Literature, Gaite’s postmodern novel interweaves dreams and fantasies with autobiography and Spanish history, resulting in a book that is complex and elusive, but more than worth the effort. The main character, partially based on the author, narrates with an artful, mystifying self-reflectiveness that would be irritating in less sure hands but that works quite magically in this multi-layered tale. The plot is deceptively simple: the protagonist (also a writer) is awakened from sleep by a male journalist who ostensibly has come to interview her about her work. The author begins to muse about her past, but is interrupted by a phone call from the journalist’s female companion, who becomes an integral part of the story. At the end the writer’s grown daughter awakens her mother, but it is not clear whether the interview belonged to dream, fantasy, memory or reality. Several intriguing themes run throughout: multi-dimensional time and memory, the effects of the repressive Franco regime on the Spanish middle class, and the conscious, and more mysterious, aspects of the writing process. Gaite also provides an acute analysis of the theatrical performances at the heart of male/female relations, and a touching, honest, semi-autobiographical portrait. The language in this fine translation is sensual and lucid: the tastes, smells and customs of postwar Spain are vivid, and emotions, and ideas have a dream logic that is both evocative and precise.” (GoodReads)
Luis Rafael Sánchez > Macho Camacho’s Beat < 1980
“Over the course of a single afternoon, Macho Camacho’s hit song ‘Life Is A Phenomenal Thing’ blares out of every radio in San Juan and connects the lives of Senator Vicente Reinosa, his poor mistress, his neurotic, aristocratic wife and his fascist son. Full of puns, fantastic wordplay, advertising slogans, and pop-culture references, Macho Camacho’s Beat is a grimly funny satire on the Americanization of Puerto Rico.
One of Puerto Rico’s outstanding literary figures, Luis Rafael Sanchez is renowned for his plays, short stories, essays and poems, as well as his novels. He currently teaches at the University of Puerto Rico.” (GoodReads)
Eduardo Galeano > Genesis < 1982
“A unique and epic history, Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy is an outstanding Latin American eye view of the making of the New World. From its first English language publication in 1985 it has been recognized as a classic of political engagement, original research, and literary form.
“From pre-Columbian creation myths and the first European voyages of discovery and conquest to the Age of Reagan, here is ‘nothing less than a unified history of the Western Hemisphere… recounted in vivid prose.'”–The New Yorker
“Memory of Fire is devastating, triumphant… sure to scorch the sensibility of English-language readers.” (New York Times)
“An epic work of literary creation… there could be no greater vindication of the wonders of the lands and people of Latin America than Memory of Fire.” (Washington Post)
“A book as fascinating as the history it relates…. Galeano is a satirist, realist, and historian, and… deserves mention alongside John Dos Passos, Bernard DeVoto, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” (Los Angeles Times)” (GoodReads)
Isabel Allende > The House of Spirits < 1982
“In one of the most important and beloved Latin American works of the twentieth century, Isabel Allende weaves a luminous tapestry of three generations of the Trueba family, revealing both triumphs and tragedies.” (GoodReads)
Gabriel García Márquez > Love in the Time of Cholera < 1985
“In their youth, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall passionately in love. When Fermina eventually chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is devastated, but he is a romantic. As he rises in his business career he whiles away the years in 622 affairs–yet he reserves his heart for Fermina. Her husband dies at last, and Florentino purposefully attends the funeral. Fifty years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again.” (GoodReads)
Laura Esquivel > Like Water for Chocolate < 1992
“Earthy, magical, and utterly charming, this tale of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico became a best-selling phenomenon with its winning blend of poignant romance and bittersweet wit.
The number one bestseller in Mexico and America for almost two years, and subsequently a bestseller around the world, Like Water For Chocolate is a romantic, poignant tale, touched with moments of magic, graphic earthiness, bittersweet wit – and recipes.
A sumptuous feast of a novel, it relates the bizarre history of the all-female De La Garza family. Tita, the youngest daughter of the house, has been forbidden to marry, condemned by Mexican tradition to look after her mother until she dies. But Tita falls in love with Pedro, and he is seduced by the magical food she cooks. In desperation, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura so that he can stay close to her, so that Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds.” (GoodReads)
Ricardo Piglia > The Absent City < 1992
“Widely acclaimed throughout Latin America after its 1992 release in Argentina, The Absent City takes the form of a futuristic detective novel. In the end, however, it is a meditation on the nature of totalitarian regimes, on the transition to democracy after the end of such regimes, and on the power of language to create and define reality. Ricardo Piglia combines his trademark avant-garde aesthetics with astute cultural and political insights into Argentina’s history and contemporary condition in this conceptually daring and entertaining work.
The novel follows Junior, a reporter for a daily Buenos Aires newspaper, as he attempts to locate a secret machine that contains the mind and the memory of a woman named Elena. While Elena produces stories that reflect on actual events in Argentina, the police are seeking her destruction because of the revelations of atrocities that she—the machine—is disseminating through texts and taped recordings. The book thus portrays the race to recover the history and memory of a city and a country where history has largely been obliterated by political repression. Its narratives—all part of a detective story, all part of something more—multiply as they intersect with each other, like the streets and avenues of Buenos Aires itself.” (GoodReads)
Juan Goytisolo > State of Siege < 1995
“A traveller looks out his hotel window on a war-torn city. A mortar explodes in his room and, when the police arrive, the corpse has disappeared and only a notebook of apocryphal writings and poems is found. These enigmas lead into a labyrinth, where blind and barbarous forces lay siege to individual lives and diverse cultures.
“State of Siege is a novel of pure fiction, but infinitely more powerful than all the big speeches about Bosnia.”—Le Nouvel Observateur
“A passionate dialogue with the reader, a reflection on privacy and commitment [engagement], with the steady vigilant presence of a great literary voice.”—Le Monde
“The reader is thrown into the unreality of a besieged city, as if a firm hand had rudely pushed him out of the tank that brought him from the airport.”—L’Express” (GoodReads)
Roberto Bolaño > The Savage Detectives < 1998
“New Year’s Eve, 1975: Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, founders of the visceral realist movement in poetry, leave Mexico City in a borrowed white Impala. Their quest: to track down the obscure, vanished poet Cesárea Tinajero. A violent showdown in the Sonora desert turns search to flight; twenty years later Belano and Lima are still on the run.” (GoodReads)
Mario Vargas Llosa > The Feast of the Goat < 2000
“Haunted all her life by feelings of terror and emptiness, forty-nine-year-old Urania Cabral returns to her native Dominican Republic – and finds herself reliving the events of 1961, when the capital was still called Trujillo City and one old man terrorized a nation of three million. Rafael Trujillo, the depraved ailing dictator whom Dominicans call the Goat, controls his inner circle with a combination of violence and blackmail. In Trujillo’s gaudy palace, treachery and cowardice have become a way of life. But Trujillo’s grasp is slipping. There is a conspiracy against him, and a Machiavellian revolution already underway that will have bloody consequences of its own. In this ‘masterpiece of Latin American and world literature, and one of the finest political novels ever written’ (“Bookforum”), Mario Vargas Llosa recounts the end of a regime and the birth of a terrible democracy, giving voice to the historical Trujillo and the victims, both innocent and complicit, drawn into his deadly orbit.” (GoodReads)
Antonio Muñoz Molina > Sepharad < 2001
“From one of Spain’s most celebrated writers, an extraordinary, inspired book—at once fiction, history, and memoir—that draws on the Sephardic diaspora, the Holocaust, and Stalin’s purges to tell a twentieth-century story.
Shifting seamlessly from the past to the present and following the routes of escape across countries and continents, Muñoz Molina evokes people real and imagined who come together in a richly allusive pattern—from Eugenia Ginsburg to Grete Buber-Neumann, the one on a train to the gulag, the other heading toward a Nazi concentration camp; from a shoemaker and a nun who become lovers in a small Spanish town to Primo Levi bound for Auschwitz. From the well known to the virtually unknown—all of Molina’s characters are voices of separation, nostalgia, love, and endless waiting.
Written with clarity of vision and passion, in a style both lyrical and accessible, Sepharad makes the experience our own. A brilliant achievement.” (GoodReads)
Carlos Ruiz Zafón > The Shadow of the Wind < 2001
“Barcelona, 1945. Just after the war, a great world city lies in shadow, nursing its wounds, and a boy named Daniel awakes on his eleventh birthday to find that he can no longer remember his mother’s face. To console his only child, Daniel’s widowed father, an antiquarian book dealer, initiates him into the secret of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library tended by Barcelona’s guild of rare-book dealers as a repository for books forgotten by the world, waiting for someone who will care about them again. Daniel’s father coaxes him to choose a volume from the spiraling labyrinth of shelves, one that, it is said, will have a special meaning for him. And Daniel so loves the novel he selects, ‘The Shadow of the Wind’, by one Julian Carax, that he sets out to find the rest of Carax’s work. To his shock, he discovers that someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book this author has written. In fact, he may have the last one in existence. Before Daniel knows it his seemingly innocent quest has opened a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets, an epic story of murder, magic, madness and doomed love. And before long he realizes that if he doesn’t find out the truth about Julian Carax, he and those closest to him will suffer horribly.” (GoodReads)
Javier Marías > Fever and Spear < 2002
“Part spy novel, part romance, part Henry James, Your Face Tomorrow is a wholly remarkable display of the immense gifts of Javier Marias. With Fever and Spear, Volume One of his unfolding novel Your Face Tomorrow, he returns us to the rarified world of Oxford (the delightful setting of All Souls and Dark Back of Time), while introducing us to territory entirely new–espionage. Our hero, Jaime Deza, separated from his wife in Madrid, is a bit adrift in London until his old friend Sir Peter Wheeler retired Oxford don and semi-retired master spy recruits him for a new career in British Intelligence. Deza possesses a rare gift for seeing behind the masks people wear. He is soon observing interviews conducted by Her Majesty’s secret service: variously shady international businessmen one day, would-be coup leaders the next. Seductively, this metaphysical thriller explores past, present, and future in the ever-more-perilous 21st century. This compelling and enigmatic tour de force from one of Europe’s greatest writers continues with Volume Two, Dance and Dream.”” (GoodReads)
Álvaro Enrigue > Sudden Death < 2013
“Sudden Death begins with a brutal tennis match that could decide the fate of the world. The bawdy Italian painter Caravaggio and the loutish Spanish poet Quevedo battle it out before a crowd that includes Galileo, Mary Magdalene, and a generation of popes who would throw Europe into the flames. In England, Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII behead Anne Boleyn, and her crafty executioner transforms her legendary locks into the most sought-after tennis balls of the time. Across the ocean in Mexico, the last Aztec emperors play their own games, as conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Mayan translator and lover, La Malinche, scheme and conquer, fight and f**k, not knowing that their domestic comedy will change the world. And in a remote Mexican colony a bishop reads Thomas More’s Utopia and thinks that instead of a parody, it’s a manual.
In this mind-bending, prismatic novel, worlds collide, time coils, traditions break down. There are assassinations and executions, hallucinogenic mushrooms, utopias, carnal liaisons and papal dramas, artistic and religious revolutions, love stories and war stories. A dazzlingly original voice and a postmodern visionary, Álvaro Enrigue tells a grand adventure of the dawn of the modern era in this short, powerful punch of a novel. Game, set, match.” (GoodReads)