An Introduction to Peruvian Literature Translated to English

| © Biblioteca Real de Copenhague/WikiCommons
Manuel Orbegozo

Ever since Spanish became their official language, Peruvians have cultivated the art of narrative and poetry extensively as a way to depict life in a country marked by deep social contrasts, hierarchies and a thirst for power. Here’s a list of Peruvian books translated into English that you can find on Amazon today.

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Mario Vargas Llosa – Conversation in the Cathedral

The literary production of Peru’s most celebrated writer and the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been widely translated to multiple languages. Conversation in the Cathedral might just be his finest work. Vargas Llosa intertwines stories and voices in a complex narrative technique to tell the story of a corrupt nation under a military dictatorship, while examining the relations between social classes and the breakdown of his country, all summarized under his famous introductory question “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?”.

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Front cover of Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa

Alfredo Bryce Echenique – A World for Julius

A World For Julius is the story of a boy who is born into a rich Peruvian aristocratic family in the 20th century, and his discovery of a world beyond the walls of his family’s palace. With autobiographical traces, Bryce Echenique’s post-Latin American boom novel exposes, critiques and makes fun of the bubble where decaying Peruvian aristocrats who ignore the harsh reality of poor Andean migrants live in, becoming a reality check for the protagonist who learns from his servants and college experiences that life is not a frivolous social party.

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Ollantay is an Inca play with unknown origins. It tells the story of an Inca warrior’s forbidden love for the daughter of the Inca ruler Pachacutec, causing a war that puts the entire empire in jeopardy. Academics have debated whether Ollantay is proof of pre-hispanic theater, or a later adaptation of an Inca tale to Spanish theater.

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César Vallejo – The Black Heralds

There are blows in life, so powerful…I don’t know!

Blows as from the hatred of God; as if, facing them,

the undertow of everything suffered

welled up in the soul…I don’t know!

Cesar Vallejo was a vanguard poet who wrote from the caverns of his tormented soul. Unrecognized while alive, Vallejo is now considered the great Peruvian poet of all times. Published in 1919, The Black Heralds is a modernist text where he explores the origins of pain while dwelling in guilt and abandonment. Fortunately, his complete poetry has been translated into English and it can be found here.

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Cesar Vallejo in Nice, France, 1929 I

José María Arguedas – Yawar Fiesta

Yawar Fiesta takes places in Puquio, an Andean town where the racial clash between indigenous peasants, mestizos and white landlords, takes place at a local festivity that faces a ban from the national government. Arguedas, one of the most important diffusers of the Indigenism literary movement in Peru, wrote this brilliant book with an original use of a voice that mixes Quechua syntax and Spanish language. Arguedas’s overall work is crucial for understanding the complexity of Peru’s Andean people, as well as the culture clashes and the corruption of modernity.

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Inca Garcilaso de la Vega – The Royal Commentaries of the Incas

Described as the first biological and cultural mestizo, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega was born during the clash of two worlds. The son of an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador, he received a formal education in both cultures before moving to Spain forever. The Royal Commentaries of the Incas is a fascinating chronicle that has served as an important historical document that describes Inca history and culture before, during, and after Spanish colonization.

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Portrait of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega I

César Calvo – The Three Halves of Ino Moxo

This novel is about the physical and spiritual search for Ino Moxo, a powerful Amazonian brujo or shaman, who saved the indigenous people from annihilation. Through the use of Ayahuasca, a native medicinal plant that causes hallucinations, Calvo and a character believed to be his cousin embark on the search for ancient wisdom in the heart of Peru’s diverse cosmogonies and myths, which could be one’s own inner search after all.

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Claudia Salazar Jiménez – Blood of the Dawn

This novella is about the personal tragedies of three women (an urban journalist, a terrorist and an indigenous woman) who suffer throughout the disastrous Peruvian government’s war against the Shining Path guerrilla in the 80s and 90s. Salazar Jiménez’s novella was highly praised by the New York Times and BBC Culture. A great book that sheds light into women’s experiences during a time of blackouts and massacres.

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Santiago Roncagliolo – Red April

Roncagliolo won the Alfaguara Prize in 2006 with this detective fiction, establishing him as one of the most notable writers of post-terrorism conflict literature in Peru. Red April is the story of a district attorney who, in 2000, travels to Ayacucho, the most affected Andean region during the war against the Shining Path, to investigate a series of murders that will lead him to find out the horror of war isn’t truly over.

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Front cover of Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo

Carlos Yushimito – Lessons for a Child Who Arrives Late

This book gathers some of the most representative and finest work of Carlos Yushimito. These short stories written with a precise prose and lyricism, take place in between reality and fantasy, where the protagonists, mostly children-like, will encounter death and love in settings like a favela in Brazil. One of the short stories titled “Oz” is about a robot designed to win every chess game it plays, until it begins to gain life and wonders about death, all while its inventor loses hope and his memory.

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Alonso Cueto – The Blue Hour

This thriller by Alonso Cueto received the Herralde Award, a prestigious literary prize given by Anagrama ‘s publisher, the mythical Jorge Herralde. The Blue Hour is the moving yet suspenseful story of a lawyer who finds out about his father’s violent crimes during the war against the Shining Path, after meeting a woman who’d been a victim of his.

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Front cover of The Blue Hour by Alonso Cueto

Daniel Alarcón – Lost City Radio

Here’s a remarkable Peruvian-American author who writes his books in English and then translates them to Spanish. Lost City Radio is the story of Norma, a popular radio host who reads the names of people who went missing during a civil war to reunite families. But Norma also has a missing husband whose whereabouts begin to clear up when a boy from the jungle delivers a list of names to the station.

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Beings: Stories from Peru

This compilation of short stories has gathered some of the most notable Peruvian writers from the 20th century, in which stands out the writing of Luis Loayza and Julio Ramón Ribeyro, two of the greatest Peruvian short story writers of all times.

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