Spanish Culture in Five Books

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Spain’s literature ranks among some of the best in the West, but apart from Don Quixote, is vastly underappreciated among Anglophones.  The below five books represent the major literary traditions in Spain and are well worth reading before a trip to the Iberian Peninsula.

1) El Cantar de Mio Cid (The Poem of the Cid)

El Cid is Spain’s national epic.  This 12th-century poem is the fictionalized account of a knight battling the moors during the Reconquista, the pivotal event that gave birth to Spain’s identity. El Cid also provides insight into the chivalric mentality of medieval Spain that would later be satirized by Cervantes in Don Quixote. Although the Spanish is archaic, it’s worth reading to place historical events in context.

2) La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes (The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes) – Anonymous

While Don Quixote is considered to be the first modern novel and one of the greatest works of all time, I’ve often found this novella to be more engaging.  Published anonymously in 1554, Lazarillo de Tormes invents a new literary genre, the picaresque which focuses on the lower classes.  Lázaro is a young boy who must live by his wits as he serves various masters representing Spanish society.  As funny as it is eye-opening, Lazarillo de Tormes is one of the most vivid portrayals of 16th-century Spain ever put on paper.

3) Fortunata y Jacinta (Fortunata and Jacinta) – Benito Pérez Galdós

Galdos ranks as one of the great 19th century writers despite few of his works ever having been translated to English.  His historical fiction series that stretches from the Napoleonic wars to the dawn of the 20th century are immensely popular in Spain, but it is his novel about infidelity that is often considered his crowning achievement. Fortunata y Jacinta explores the values and ethics of the middle-class through Juanito Santa Cruz’ relationship with his wife and a young lower-class girl who he leaves pregnant. The book’s realistic portrayal of Madrilenian society was roundly condemned by the church and conservatives.

4) Niebla (Mist) – Miguel de Unamuno

Part of Spain’s Generation of 98, Miguel de Unamuno was influential in renewing Spanish literature and imbuing the realism of the 19th century with a sense of modernism.  Niebla explores identity from the point of view of Augusto, a wealthy intellectual madly in love with a young woman named Eugenia.  His obsession eventually leads him to confront his very existence.  Niebla captures Spain’s own identity crisis after the Spanish-American war that would have long-lasting consequences.

5) La Familia de Pascual Duarte (The Family of Pascual Duarte) – Camilo José Cela

Cela was a Franco loyalist and government censor.  Despite this, he still managed to get Pascual Duarte, his first novel, temporarily banned in Spain, and was forced to publish another in Argentina. Regardless of his politics, the book is a fascinating existentialist work reflecting the violence in which his generation lived.  Pascual Duarte tells his story of his life, the murders he committed, and his impotence in the face of destiny.  It is a highly visceral look at peasant life in the years leading up to Franco.

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