Great Hispanic Novels

Thanks to Larry Dignan for sharing this link. Since Facebook and Acción en Venezuela friend Jess Brodnax once asked me if there was such a list, I imagine that other visitors to this blog might also be interested:

50 Great Hispanic Novels Every Student Should Read | Online College Courses

Maybe I should try to get through all these books myself. I'll say just a word about the few that I have read.
  1. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quijote de la Mancha, ed. J.A. Franch, vol. 1981 (Barcelona: Bruguera, 1605). Actually, I've read only the first, original volume, and it had me rolling on the floor laughing, as we say. An odd thing about this edition is that its footnotes explain many archaic expressions that for me weren't archaic at all — some expressions that have long gone out of use in Spain are still heard commonly in Puerto Rico and other places. I hear that there are good translations available but if you really want to get all the jokes, you should do as Sigmund Freud did and take the trouble to learn Spanish. Cervantes wrote the second volume, a sequel, to protect himself after other authors started coming out with books about the character he had invented. I should read that, too — but I think that first I'll want to re-read Vol. I. It is really funny, and very sharply observed.
  2. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, La sombra del viento (Barcelona: Planeta, 2002). I thought this was awful. You can read my review here.
  3. Miguel Delibes, Los santos inocentes. Well, I didn't read the book, but I saw the movie in which Delibes collaborated. You can see my reviews of a couple of other novels by Delibes, El camino and La hoja roja, here.
  4. Ildefonso Falcones, La catedral del mar. I started this, but it was just too ridiculous to continue. When I got to the part about ius primae noctis suffered by Falcones' simple caricatures, I felt like Oscar Wilde on reading Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shoppe: 'One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter.' But the book is on my shelves, and I may try again. Not out of literary interest, but just as a way to learn something about cathedral construction. 
  5. Javier Cercas, Soldados de Salamina (Barcelona: Tusquets Editores, 2001). This is terrific. See my review here. I've become a fan of Cercas, especially his novel-journalism in  Anatomía de un instante (Barcelona: Mondadori, 2009). I wrote about that book on my Spanish-language blog Lecturas y lectores back in 13 noviembre 2009.
  6. Antonio Muñoz Molina — I don't recognize the title listed here; what was it in Spanish? I don't think it was one of these, but I have read and reviewed two of his novels, El jinete polaco (which I loved) and Plenilunio, which is lighter but engaging. (Links are to my reviews.)
  7. Quevedo, El buscón. I somehow got distracted before finishing it. The sharp, scabrous wit can be startling, even shocking. I'll go back and finish it one day soon and post a review.
  8. Carmen Laforet, Nada (Madrid: El País, 1944). Wonderfully complex, closely observed story of post-war (Spanish civil war, 1936-39) Barcelona. Far superior to Ruiz Zafón's spooky comedy in supposedly the same setting. My review is here.
That's enough for today. I'll take a look at the other parts of the list, Spanish-language novels from countries other than Spain, some other day. 


    Art meets politics in Istanbul and the Armenian diaspora

    The Bastard of IstanbulThe Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    A 19-year-old Turkish Istanbuli girl oblivious to the past and nearly suffocated by her overdevoted relatives, meets a 19-year-old Armenian-American girl obsessed by the past and nearly suffocated by her overdevoted relatives; the first discovers a past that has been suppressed, and the second learns to partially free herself from the past and savor the present.

    This is an artfully constructed book with two contrary agendas, both essential, but not entirely comfortable with one another.

    First, the literary agenda: The quirks, foibles and virtues of a large number of complex characters, understandable even when not exactly lovable, are described in rich and vivid language, their personal dramas interwoven and mostly resolving in surprising and satisfying ways. The literary ambition is signaled in the opening chapter — the sounds and sensations of rush hour in Istanbul in a rainstorm, and the furious and impious thoughts of young Zeliha as she hurries through the broken streets to a critical appointment, are delightful, frightening and hilarious, and will be unforgettable. And then we meet the other badly split family of the Armenian American girl, and then back to Zeliha and her three sisters, each eccentric in a different way, and her mother and grandmother living in sweet but comical confusion.

    But there is another agenda, political and didactic: Elif Shafak wants us to face a terrible tragedy — the killings and deportations of Armenians in 1915 — and to help all of us, but especially Armenians and Turks, to come to mutual comprehension and forgiveness today.

    The contemporary Turks of the novel (and, I think, in reality) have no problem whatever with their Armenian compatriots. None of Zeliha's friends thinks it remarkable that her lover, Arman, is Armenian; for them, "Armenian" is just another variety of Turk. But when Zeliha's now 19-year-old daughter Asya introduces her new friend Amy — or Armanoush — to her friends in the bar as an Armenian American, they are suddenly on the alert.
    Now the word Armenian wouldn't surprise anyone at Café Kundera, but Armenian American was a different story. Armenian Armenian was no problem — similar culture, similar problems — but Armenian American meant someone who despised the Turks.
    As Asya begins to tell the tragedy of Armanoush's Istanbulite family, the execution of her great grandfather because he was an intellectual, one of the drinkers at the table blurts out, "That didn't happen."

    The problem is that Armenians in the diaspora cannot forget their terrible history, while Turks cannot remember it or, if they have even thought about it, accept a version where both sides did awful things and nobody now is to blame — 1915 was long before they were born, Turkey was a different country, and none of that has anything to do with them.

    But Shafak insists that it does have to do with them, because until Turks recognize and acknowledge the pain of the Armenians they are in effect accomplices of a massive cover-up. But on the other side, would Armenians in the diaspora ever accept any reasonable concessions or admissions by the Turks?

    When Armanoush gets Asya to take part in an on-line forum of Armenian Americans, one of them immediately demands that she as a Turk recognize the genocide. The young but well-read Asya writes back, "Genocide is a heavily loaded term… It implies a systematic, well-organized, and philosophized extermination. Honestly, I am not sure the Ottoman state at the time was of such a nature. But I do recognize the injustice that was done to the Armenians. I am not a historian. My knowledge is limited and tainted, but so is yours."

    And then she asks, "Tell me, what can I as an ordinary Turk in this day and age do to ease your pain?" And the Armenian Americans, never before confronted by such a question, have no plausible answer. Apologize, says one after a long pause. For something she had no part of? Get the Turkish state to apologize, demands another. But how could she get the Turkish state to do anything?

    But then another Armenian American forum member joins in, one who calls himself "Baron Baghdassarian" and whom we have been taught to expect to be wiser than the others, and surprises everyone by typing:

    “Well, the truth is… some among the Armenians in the diaspora would never want the Turks to recognize the genocide. If they do so, they'll pull the rug out from under our feet and take the strongest bond that unites us. Just like the Turks have been in the habit of denying their wrongdoing, the Armenians have been in the habit of savoring the cocoon of victimhood. Apparently, there are some old habits tht need to be changed on both sides.”

    And whether or not you believe that a real Armenian American might write that in an on-line forum, it is clearly the opinion of Elif Shafak.

    The on-line forum allows Shafak to introduce political discourse by characters who have no existence beyond their cyber presence. And to describe events for which there is no human testimony, an ancient djinni who has been magically enslaved by Zeliha's eldest sister, the clairvoyant Banu, gives his eye-witness account.

    In this literary tale all the decisive actors (actresses) are women and the men, whether comical, sympathetic or pathetic, are necessary but secondary figures like Poins or Bardolph in Henry IV, useful for displaying some aspect of the more complex (and always female) protagonists. That for me was one of the pleasures of the book, allowing me to enter the consciousness of so many and such complex girls and women.

    The blatantly political segments interrupt the flow of the other, literary story, sometimes jarring the reader's willingness to believe. But they enable Shafak to describe that terrible history.

    The book is charming, sometimes stunningly beautiful, often outrageously funny, sometimes deeply sad. And because of its political content, it is also a very brave book. Elif Shafak knew she was taking a major risk when she published the original version in Turkish, that she would offend powerful members of the state and risk imprisonment. And I imagine that her version of events will also greatly offend members of the Armenian diaspora, for the very reason "Baron Baghdassarian" expounded. And for all these reasons, it's a book we need to read.

    View all my reviews

    Armenians in Turkey - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The bankers are safe

    Now isn't it good to know that?

    Greg Palast — Hamptons Hurricane: A Bankers’ Katrina


    Calling all authors; Red Room spiffs up its site

    The Red Room is a lively gathering place for authors to talk shop, trade notes, promote books, or just hang out. And now it looks better than ever. I hadn't been spending a lot of time there, but a new team of editors (I think they're new, at least they've got some new ideas) has just made it more lively, and at their urging I've added some posts to my blog there. So if you are an author, you won't want to miss this forum. And check out Geoffrey Edmund Fox's blog to see what it looks like (mostly the same content you've seen here, but presented a little differently). The Red Room is probably the only place where you'll see my middle name — so you don't confuse me with all those other Geoffrey Foxes out there.

    'Latinos' among us, since forever

    Here's a strong voice reminding us of something all Americans need to know.

    The Myth of the ‘New Wave’ of American Immigrants : Dispatches from Exurbia

    Thanks to LouBette Herrick for letting me know of Deborah Méndez-Wilson's blog. And for more reading on this topic, check out my Hispanic Nation: Culture, Politics, and the Constructing of Identity


    Cartoonists cartooned

    Here are my notes (recenty recovered from an old file) from the cartoonists panel at this long-ago conference in New York City. These guys exist to remind us that we can't understand anything about modern politics if we take our leaders seriously. 

    To see current work by Matt Wuerker, check out the Cartoonist Group; for "Tom Tomorrow," see This Modern World. Ted Rall's drawings and writings (he uses his pen both ways) are at his Rall.blog. Peter Kuper's work (some of it for The Nation) can be found at peterkuper.com ; I don't know why he looked so sour when I drew him. This stuff is supposed to be funny.