8 Modern Hispanic Masterpieces

One of my favorite literary subgenres has no name. Call them quirky Latino tour de forces. Call them short, dazzling Hispanic literary fiction. Whatever you want to call them, they’re realistic, usually written in the first person, usually about two hundred pages long, and make great discussion pieces for reading groups. Check out these narrative delights from the last five years.

THE OXFORD MURDERS by Guillermo Martinez

For three hundred years, people have died trying to solve the most ancient problem in mathematics. Now a stolen paper has provided the springboard for a possible proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, and someone has begun to commit imperceptible murders.

Join a 22-year-old graduate student from Argentina as his stay at Oxford turns into a treacherous puzzle, where the mysterious mathematical genius, Arthur Seldom, pits his wits against Inspector Petersen of the Oxford police.

Martinez has crafted a thrilling, intellectually-teasing tour-de-force that’s part Arthur Conan Doyle, part Jorge Luis Borges, dizzyingly original and refreshingly smart, with an utterly unexpected ending.

PARADISE TRAVEL by Jorge Franco

Marlon Cruz is so crazy about Reina that he’d follow her anywhere, even New York. Now he’s stuck in a seedy hotel, out of money, out of hope, and he and Reina have had a spat. Unfortunately no one tells Marlon that when you’re an illegal immigrant from Colombia and you know only one word of English, it’s not a good idea to go for a walk in New York City at night.

When he turns around, there’s a policeman behind him. Marlon runs. He’ll never find his way back.

How a desperate, penniless young immigrant slowly puts himself back together again in a little Colombian restaurant makes a delightfully comic novel about the heartbreaking business of illegal immigration. Gabriel Garcia Marquez says that Jorge Franco will inherit his place in Latin American literature. Discover him now.

THE MATTER OF DESIRE by Edmundo Paz Soldan

Leaving behind a steamy, reckless affair with a student, assistant professor Pedro Zabalaga flees back to his hometown in Bolivia to find himself confronting the unsolved mystery of his father’s assassination fifteen years ago. He will discover more than he wants to know.

In a world choked with pop technology, through streets blocked with bombs and protesters, through a maze of secrets and rumors, clues and lies as complex as Uncle David’s crossword puzzles, Pedro will search for the man who betrayed his heroic leftist father. He will find his way into the lair of Jaime Villa, infamous drug trafficker and charismatic folk hero, who may have ordered his father’s death.

Author Paz Soldan will have you begging to know the truth. Be prepared for whiplash – this plot has hairpin turns right up to its jaw-dropper ending.

CAPTAIN OF THE SLEEPERS by Mayra Montero

Why, after all these years, does the man Andres swore to kill suddenly want to tell him the truth?

Long ago, secret adult passions ripped apart the little world of eleven-year-old Andres at his father’s hotel on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. And the problem seemed to revolve around Andres’ mother and the Captain of the Sleepers, J. T. Bunker, a pilot-for-hire who transported the dead back to their homes and occasionally more dangerous shipments between the islands.

As the nationalists secretly prepare to strike, a brainy little brat decides to interfere in a situation he doesn’t understand. Cuban author Montero’s thrilling study of two men at a moral crossroads has an unforgettable ending.

MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The 90-year-old music reviewer of Barranquilla is about to have the most unpredictable, upsetting experience of his life.

He thinks he’s going into the red light district for one last old man’s fling with nothing less than a virgin. But you’re in the hands of one of the greatest writers of our century, and nothing happens exactly as planned. Nobel Prize-winning Garcia Marquez breaks a ten-year absence from fiction to pen this magnificent little daredevil high-wire act, simple and brief and gorgeous and life-affirming.

Laced with surprises and chuckles and earthy wisdom, studded with those unique Garcia Marquez moments, it’s an elegant comic love story about an old stick-n-the-mud who discovers you’re never too old to accidentally fall in love.

SOLDIERS OF SALAMIS by Javier Cercas.

A Franco-supporter manages to escape from a mass execution at the end of the Spanish Civil War.

A pursuing soldier finds him in the forest, locks eyes with him, and lets him live.

Out of this incident springs a fascinating meditation on war, memory, and the writing of fiction. Part One shows the author’s discovery of the incident and his research, with a little help from his girlfriend. Part Two is the biography of the fascist who walked away from the firing squad alive. Part Three attempts to find the soldier who spared his life, in a search through all the nursing homes of France.

Tough and unsentimental, like no novel you’ve ever read before, this little volume has the cumulative effect of a bullet straight to the heart.

THE SPEED OF LIGHT by Javier Cercas

Did you know that ten times more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than on all of Europe during the Second World War? Take a fresh, startling look at the American tragedy of Vietnam through the eyes of Spain’s most brilliant, unorthodox new writer.

A Spanish grad student from Barcelona lands a teaching assistant post at the University of Illinois, and finds himself sharing an office with a troubled older man haunted by more than his share of ghosts. Meet Rodney Falk, loner, outsider, Vietnam vet. Talk to his father. Talk to his wife. Peel back the layers, and find out what happened. Find out why. If you can.

Javier Cercas is a brilliant modern original whose novel Soldiers of Salamis captured the imagination of the world. Cross the line between reality and fiction, and enter an enigmatic, hyper-real world where success leads straight to destruction, where an honest author is doing his best to tell you a story he can’t tell.

THE UNCOMFORTABLE DEAD by Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos

The masked leader of the Zapatista revolution joins Mexico’s premier detective writer to create a hilarious literary feast.

Here’s a narrative duet of alternating chapters, passionately political and wildly funny, as two smart writers have their two detectives join forces to solve a mystery that begins with phone calls from a dead man – and might involve a taco vendor from Juarez City who impersonates bin Laden on news broadcasts.

Meet humble, bright, easily confused Elias Contreras, the country bumpkin detective hero, trying to figure out the confusing ways of modern Mexico City. Enjoy a wacky political mystery noir, Mexican-style. It’s achingly sincere, occasionally profound, and brimming with literary antics, a revolutionary novel co-authored by a man whose real-life revolution has made Zapatista a modern household word.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

3 Comments on "8 Modern Hispanic Masterpieces"

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  1. libermagistra@gmail.com' Libermagistra says:

    As a librarian, aware that today’s young really dislike reading, especially “long” books, I greatly appreciate this contribution. I have read a couple of them and can’t wait to recommend others to my reading club.

  2. carpen@uh.edu' Carmen Pena says:

    The Lady from Buenos Aires (Arte Publico Press, 2007) At 214 pages, this mystery novel about Argentina’s “children of the disappeared” by John Lantigua fits right in with the titles mentioned on this list.

  3. smartinez@tulsalibrary.org' Sara Martínez says:

    I panic when I see the word ‘Hispanic’! To be precise, these authors are Spanish, Latin American or Caribbean writers published in English translation. Nice list, however, at 288 pages, I wouldn’t call them all ‘short’ works either! A couple of additions to this ‘genre’ might be – ‘Lost City Radio’ by Daniel Alarcon and ‘The Movies of My Life’ by Alberto Fuguet.

    For Latino authors, try Junot Diaz – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Ana Castillo – The Guardians

    ¡Salud!

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