In most of the world, bookstores are increasingly difficult to come by. But there is one place where a good read is easy to find: Argentina. Yes, if there is one thing that Argentinians love (besides steak, mate, and fútbol) it is books; Buenos Aires, literally, has an entire street dedicated to them. So, whether you are traveling to Argentina, or just looking for the next great read, here are five insightful books by Argentine authors.
1) Martín Fierro – José Hernández
Written in the 1870s, Martín Fierro is an epic poem widely considered to be the national book of Argentina. The rural ballad details the trials and tribulations of Martin Fierro, a gaucho (Argentinian cowboy), as his romanticized life on the pampas is shattered by war and knife duels, eventually, forcing him to become an outlaw. It is both a celebration of Argentinian culture and a sharp critic of the government’s forced recruitment of gauchos under President Sarmiento. Martín Fierro is available in dozens of languages; however, if you do plan to read it in the original Spanish make sure it’s well annotated as many of the words are archaic or regional.
2) Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie – Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
If Martín Fierro is a celebration of the gaucho than Facundo is its antithesis. Penned in 1845 by the very man that Hernández would later criticize for sending gauchos to the frontier, Facundo is both a history book and a novel. As the title suggests, Sarmiento sees the underlying societal problems in Argentina as a conflict between civilization, represented by European positivist ideas, and barbarism as personified by the gaucho Facundo Quiroga, who becomes a ruthless tyrant. Facundo was probably the most important work ever written by an Argentinian. It had a direct impact on the development of political thought inside the country and has influenced scores of writers across Latin America. However, its dense prose and the country’s changing sensibilities have seen it eclipsed in the last century by Martín Fierro. Barbarism, it would seem, dies hard. Facundo is available in both Spanish and English.
3) Ficciones – Jorge Luis Borges
A collection of short tales, Ficciones uses traditional storytelling to expound on metaphysical concepts with biting wit. One particular recurring motif in Borges’ work is the labyrinth, which appear in a number of his stories including The Garden of Forking Paths and The Library of Babel. Borges is often credited with having started the magical realism movement that gave rise to such literary greats as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He is, without a doubt, Argentina’s greatest writer of the 20th century, and Ficciones is his best work by far having been widely published in multiple languages.
4) Rayuela – Julio Cortázar
Rayuela (Hopscotch) is an innovative, if somewhat inaccessible, novel. The idea is that you can read it from cover to cover, by skipping around chapters based on the author’s instruction, or even randomly. Following the life of an Argentinian writer living in Paris who eventually has to return to Buenos Aires, Cortázar breaks conventional rules governing grammar and spelling and employs a variety of overlapping narrative techniques including stream-of-consciousness. Despite this (or rather because of it), Rayuela is widely celebrated among Argentinian intelligentsia. Available in both English and Spanish.
5) Breve Historia de la Argentina – José Luis Romero
Written by one of Argentina’s most prestigious historians, Breve Historia de la Argentina (Brief History of Argentina) is more a societal synthesis than a chronology of events. Romero’s heterodox interpretation of Argentinian history (he wasn’t afraid of critiquing Peronists and anti-Peronists alike) is still debated today even though the book was written in 1965. Unfortunately, this work is only available in Spanish, but its length and smooth prose make it an excellent choice for fluent and intermediate Spanish speakers alike.
Any books by Argentinian authors or about Argentina that you think should make the list? Let me hear your thoughts in the comment section!