South America has produced some literary giants in the past century; writers and poets who have become known worldwide for their arresting styles, lyrical language and strong political sentiments. Many of the classic South American authors below were part of the Latin American literary “boom” of the ’60s and ’70s. Although many new and emerging authors are still putting Spanish writing on the literary map, here are a few oldies but goodies that you should read before anything else.
Jorge Luis Borges – Argentina
Borges’ stories are hard to categorize, as he touched on a variety of themes and techniques in his writing. Well read and intellectual, he is known as one of Latin America’s greatest writers and incorporates into his work several reoccurring themes—time, philosophy, mirrors, imaginary books, religion, and labyrinths, among others. Borges is said to be the forebearer of the Latin America magical realism, although many of his greatest fans say he was not a magical realist at all. He is most well-known for his compilations of short stories in two books, Ficciones (Fictions) and El Aleph (The Aleph).
Julio Cortazar – Argentina
Cortazar is probably best known for his large collection of fantastical short stories that span three volumes. He is well recognized as a leading figure of the Latin American literature boom in the 1960s and ’70s. After a trip to Cuba in 1962 he transformed into a strong political activist for human rights and leftist causes, supporting Salvador Allende’s presidency in Chile and the Sandanista movement of Nicaragua. His stories and style are at once funny, fantastical, contradictory, and based on the everyday life of the marginalized classes that he has a particular affinity for.
Alfonsina Storni – Argentina
One of the foremost female poets of Latin America, Alfonsina Storni won various literary prizes during her lifetime and contributed to magazines and newspapers such as Caras y Caretas, Nosotros, Atlántida, La Nota, and La Nación. She bucked the social conventions of her time as a single mother and became famous for her poem Tú me quieres blanca (You want me white) about the underlying inequality of the expectations of women to be pure and spotless while men got to live a life of sensual pleasure.
Mario Vargas Llosa – Peru
Vargas Llosa was a skilled writer of many genres—comedies, thrillers, and even historical novels. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2010 and was one of the most prominent members of the Latin American literature boom in the ’60s and ’70s. Vargas Llosa is the only living member of this list besides Isabel Allende and he continues—now in his 80s—to contribute essays and criticisms in Spanish-language magazines and newspapers around the world, including Mexico’s famous literary magazine, Letras Libres.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Colombia
Said to have been influenced by the stories of his grandparents, Garcia Marquez has produced some of the most well-known literature in Latin America and is considered one of the great literary figures of all time across the globe. Garcia Marquez studied law and journalism in Bogota and published his first novel at just 18 years of age. He is best known for his epic story One Hundred Years of Solitude that follows a family in Colombia throughout several generations, and is acclaimed worldwide as one of the best works of Latin American literature to date.
Isabel Allende – Chile
Allende, niece to president Salvador Allende who was ousted in a 1973 military coup, published her first major novel in 1982 while living in Caracas, Venezuela. House of Spirits was critically acclaimed and is a part of the “magical realism” tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She has gone on to produce a popular body of work that includes Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, and the Daughter of Fortune.
Roberto Bolaño – Chile
He was called the voice of his generation, and died much too young for many fans and literary colleagues. Bolaño was born in Santiago de Chile but spent the majority of his childhood and adolescence in Mexico City where he passed his time in the public library. In Mexico, he and a group of other local poets created the infrarrealismo movement, a process he would narrate in quiet possibly his most famous book, The Savage Detectives, written several decades later. Bolaño was only 50 when he died in 2003, and the final work that he left behind, 2666, went on to win the Salambó prize the following year for best Spanish novel.
Gabriela Mistral – Chile
The 1945 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mistral was only the fifth woman in history to receive it. She grew up poor in Chile but worked as an educator most of her life and ended up traveling all over Latin America and Europe. She was good friends with Pablo Neruda and one of the first people to recognize his immense talent. She suffered much heartache and sadness in her life due to the deaths of several loved ones, and translated this into her poems that touched on love, loss, and nature. Her face is on the Chilean 5,000 peso bill.
Jorge Amado – Brazil
Jorge Amado published his first book at only 18 years of age and was a co-founder of the Academia de los Rebeldes, or the Rebel Academy. He was a militant communist and spent years in exile in both Argentina and Uruguay. Amado went on to become one of Brazil’s most famous writers of all time and is known for his books El país del Carnaval, Mar Muerto, Los subterráneos de la libertad, Gabriela, Clavo y Canela, and Tienda de los Milagros.
Pablo Neruda – Chile
This Nobel Prize for Literature recipient is probably best known for two collections of poems: Twenty Love Poems and Song of Despair, and 100 Love Sonnets. But this Chilean poet was extremely prolific and left behind a large body of work for all who love poetry to enjoy. Highly political, Neruda was involved in various political movements throughout his lifetime, such as Chile’s communist party and the Republican faction of the Spanish civil war. He lived in Argentina, Chile, and across Europe, was married three times, and died in his home country in 1972 from prostate cancer.