And we are done with the fifth month of the year. Who’d have thought that five months have already passed us by. COVID 19 is still as prevalent as ever, and most of us are still working from home, isolated from our colleagues and friends, and some, even family. I hope you are all doing well physically, spiritually, and mentally in these uncertain and challenging times.
But before we can finally move on to June, let me take a look back at the month that was, at least in terms of my reading journey. As you all know, I have decided, at the start of the month, or even before the month started, that I will be immersing in the world of Latin American and Caribbean literature. In the past three months, I have been traveling around the world, at least through literature. My journey began last March in Africa before I moved to Asia in April and then to South America and the Caribbean in May.
This is my first time dedicating a reading month to purely works of Latin American writers. Whilst I am familiar with some of the works emanating from this part of the world – I have already read the works of popular writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, to name a few – I admit that my understanding of this part of the literary world is quite limited. By immersing solely in the works of Latin American writers, I am hoping to gain more ground on the region’s people, culture, and history. May was still a busy month but I managed to complete six books. Without further ado, here is my April 2021 reading list.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
My May reading journey commenced with an author whose works I have never read before but has become familiar with because some of his works were listed in several must-read lists. Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño shot to global fame when his 1998 novel Los Detectives Salvajes was translated and published in English in 2007 as The Savage Detectives, to critical acclaim. The Savage Detectives is also one of the titles that I have been pining for since I first encountered; this was despite the fact that I barely had an iota on what the novel is about. The novel charted the adventures of two young and promising poets, Chilean Arturo Belano (the alter ego of Bolaño) and the Mexican Ulises Lima. Two of the pillars of the Visceral Realist movement in Mexico City, the two young men set out to search for Cesárea Tinajero, a famed Mexican poet who disappeared in the 1920s in the Sonoran Desert. However, The Savage Detectives is no straightforward narrative. The second of three sections of the novel was its heftiest and contains testimonies from different people who they have encountered during their bohemian years in the European continent. Bolaño engaged the readers through several voices but none of these voices were of the main protagonists. The Savage Detectives was certainly a unique reading experience.
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
From an unfamiliar name to a familiar name, my next reading journey took me to Colombia through Nobel Prize in Literature winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores. In terms of heft, Memories of My Melancholy Whores was the antithesis of The Savage Detectives. The former is a slender read, it came as no surprise that I was with it in one sitting. It was also my fifth novel by the prolific Nobel Laureate in Literature and was the shortest from these five novels. Originally published in Spanish as Memoria de mis putas tristes, Memories of My Melancholy Whores is the story of a journalist celebrating his 90th birthday. A bachelor all his life but not stranger to the pleasures of sex, he sought to obtain the services of a 14 year old prostitute who was selling her virginity in order to help her impoverished family. However, it was more than just a typical transaction as the journalist experiences a eureka moment that dictated the flow of the story. Interestingly, as I was reading the novel, I was reminded by the work of another Nobel Laureate in Literature. Elements of Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata’s The House of Sleeping Beauties resonated all throughout the narrative and, surprisingly, I was not the only one who have noticed the allusions.
Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé
From Colombia, my immersion in Latin American literature next brought me to the Caribbean. I have never heard of Guadaloupean writer Maryse Condé nor have I encountered any of her works previously. It was during the leadup to the announcement of the 2018/2019 Nobel Prize in Literature that I have first encountered her as she was touted by many literary pundits as one of the frontrunners for the prestigious literary award. Unfortunately, she did not win but she has certainly piqued my interest. She is, after all, a leading figure in Caribbean Literature. Luckily, I managed to snag a copy of her works during the 2020 Big Bad Wolf Sale. I have been wanting to dip my fingers into her prose and May 2021 presented that perfect opportunity. On the surface, the narrative revolves around the murder of Francis Sancher, an enigmatic Cuban who migrated to the small village of Riviere au Sel in Guadaloupe. What ensued is an introspection of the villagers who had encounters with the outsider who was both loved and resented by the locals. However, as each character relate his or her own encounter with Sancher, what was woven were their own stories and the story of the village. It was an impressionable first read which made me look forward to reading more of Condé’s works.
I the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos
Augusto Roa Bastos’ I The Supreme was one of my recent random purchases. The title and the image on the book’s cover were the two things that immediately caught my attention. I also do admit that the author’s name did catch my attention as well. After a quick research on what the book was about, I added it to my cart. As I am in the midst of a Latin American literature month, I decided to read it ahead of the other books currently gathering dust in my bookshelf (HAHA). I The Supreme draws from the stormy infancy of the Paraguayan Republic. A couple of years after declaring independence from Spain, the young nation found itself under the rule of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia. After being elected by the junta (or congress) to the highest position, Dr. Francia established himself as dictator for life. The book’s title is an allusion to how Dr. Francia referred to himself. The novel gave me an insight into the history of Paraguay, which, I admit, I have very limited knowledge of. It was also through this novel that I have learned about the existence of “dictator” novels, a seminal part of Latin American literature. The novel reminded me of similar works by Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
My next reading stop brought me again to the Caribbean. I have long been curious about Dominican American writer Julia Alvarez, who piqued my interest a couple of years aback. In fact, her 2020 novel, Afterlife was part of my 2020 Top 10 Books I Look Forward To List. It was unfortunate that I was not able to procure a copy of the book, making it the only book in the list I was not able to read. Nevertheless, I was lucky to snag a copy of her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. It related the experiences of the four Garcia sisters – Carla, Sandra, Yolanda and Sofia – as the navigated the sea of change. As the Trujillo dictatorship was approaching its twilight years, the Garcias migrated to the United States. Like fishes out of the water, the girls encountered several challenges in their new environment, such as discrimination and assimilation. It was an interesting story as the characters also had to grapple with history and memory. As much as I intrigued by the premise and its promise, I was undone by the lack of cohesion in the narrative. It felt like pieces woven together to come up with a novel. It also didn’t allow for deeper study of the primary characters, thus, they came off as mundane, shallow even.
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
My last read for the month saw me staying in the Dominican Republic for my second Mario Vargas Llosa novel, after The War of the End of the World in 2018. Both Vargas Llosa novel were set out of his native Peru which made me thinking that his prose concerns itself beyond Peru. But I was wrong of course as I soon learned that these two novels were his only works set outside of Peru; what a coincidence. Both are also historical novels and The Feast of the Goat explores two subjects I have also encountered during the month – dictators and Rafael Trujillo. The Feast of the Goat follows three distinct story lines but zeroes in on the events preceding the assassination of Trujillo. The novel, however, doesn’t only concern itself with the past as Vargas Llosa vividly captured how Trujillo’s 31-year reign in the Dominican Republic reverberated in the contemporary. The story of Trujillo and Dominican Republic did resonate with elements similar to my own country’s history. Compared to The War of the End of the World, I found The Feast of the Goat an easier read, not the themes of course, but the writing was somehow lighter, more accessible.
Reading Challenge Recaps
- My 2021 Top 21 Reading List: 9/21
- 2021 Beat The Backlist: 4/12
- My 2021 Books I Look Forward To List: 0/11
- Goodreads 2021 Reading Challenge: 39/60
- 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: 8/20
Book Reviews Published in May
- Book Review # 252: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
- Book Review # 253: Piranesi
- Book Review # 254: Transcendent Kingdom
- Book Review # 255: Nineteen Eighty Four
- Book Review # 256: Migrations
- Book Review # 257: The Beauty of Your Face
- Book Review # 258: The Nickel Boys
I know that the six books I have read in the previous month doesn’t represent the totality of Latin American literature and of the region but it did give me deeper and better insights about its history, culture, and people. I did enjoy this immersion although I felt that it was still lacking; there are still many works I wanted to read and have to read to better understand the region. Imagine, I have never heard of the “dictator” novel before but because of my May reading journey, I encountered a new facet of literature I never thought existed. Because of my hangover from May, I have decided to extend my immersion into Latin American literature this June.
In terms of writing book reviews, May was somehow better than the previous two months. I still failed to live up to my resolution of writing at least eight book reviews per month. On a brighter note, I reduced my backlogs from 2020 as all of the seven book reviews I completed were my reads from the previous year. June still looks like a grim month form me, at least in terms of my job, but I am still hoping to make up for the lost time and regain some of the momentum I have lost. Reading-wise, I have slowed down in May, hence the lowly output but six is still a decent number for most of the books I read this month are rather challenging. I am hoping that I can regain my reading momentum this June and read more books. However, the priority is still writing more book reviews. (Fingers crossed).
For now, keep safe, and happy reading everyone!