As we’ve started to plan each new destination I’ve been delighted to find how much there is to be curious about each new place, country, region. The task of “knowing” a place is of course impossible in the short few weeks we will often have. To gain a bit more context for sights, conversations, further exploration, I set a goal of reading at least one fiction and one non-fiction work for each country we visit on this trip.
In this first “books I’m reading” I share some new-to-me books from my travels over the last 3-4 weeks. Perhaps you’re looking for new reading material? Or have some suggestions for my future reading based on our itinerary? Maybe you read these books too and want to discuss further. I look forward to finding out!
Our first stop was Chile and so I started with a book by the well known Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende, who I hadn’t read to date. The House of Spirits was a fascinating read on various levels. On one level is the deeply drawn characters themselves, several generations of a single family, the Truebas. On another level is the social and political change experienced by this family over the generations, changes that give glimpses of the actual history of Chile and helped me find new questions to investigate. Bonus: magical realism.
If you’re intrigued but don’t have time to read, they apparently made it into a movie in 1993. Bonus: Antonio Banderas and Winona Ryder.
On our first long bus ride, I zoomed out a bit and read Rebecca Solnit’s meditation on wandering and memory, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I’ve been a fan of Solnit’s journalistic pieces but yet to read any of her books. This one is deeply personal and yet also takes on an every-woman quality. I think you need at least one meandering book on each big life voyage you take, and I felt fortunate to start this one provoked by her question: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” Like a wise, wild-lived, and well-read friend, Solnit was great company on a beautiful ride down the central coast of Chile.
As we headed further south to the Northern parts of Patagonia I delved into Bruce Chatwin’s classic early piece on the region. It’s a dude book, if you knew what I mean (Hemingway is my analogy), or at least it felt that way after reading the more introspective Solnit. But some of his character descriptions are wonderful and even at times hilarious; you begin to visualize the dress and manner of the various peoples he encountered. And it’s an exciting piece of travel writing that made me think about the metaphorical, but also literal (Butch Cassidy!), connections between Patagonia and the American–scratch that–US West.
One of our first few days in Argentina coincided with the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the coup that began a period of what we call in the US “The Dirty War.” The Argentines commemorate the victims of the rampant executions and forced disappearances of that time on the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice.
Only a few years before began the murderous regime of Pinochet in Chile. We went to one of the Human Rights museums in each country and the experience was very sad and moving, something I will perhaps tackle in a blog later.
To better grasp the feeling of young Argentines and Chileans, children of this generation, I read books of memory by the acclaimed contemporary writers Patricio Pron, of Argentina, and Alejandro Zambra, of Chile. If you have time to read both I recommend it. But, if you only have time for one, I recommend read Pron. My opinion on the matter is sociological, as Pron’s family’s experience was closer to the disappeared as they were more politically engaged, but I also enjoyed his writing style. Pron also posts on his website his father’s reaction to the narrative composed by his son, and clarification of details as he remembers them first hand.
Years ago when I was studying Spanish in Guatemala my Spanish teacher told me I needed to read Eduardo Galeano to understand the Guatemalan experience. Having seen the book recently in the Managua airport and on bookshelves on this trip, I decided this was finally the time to read Open Veins of Latin America. It’s a work of political economy published 1971– so mere years before the dictatorships just mentioned. It takes a very critical eye on the US’s involvement in Latin America, so many US readers will likely bristle, be warned. It’s also dry, even for a sociologist. However, if you’re a fan of alternative historical perspectives (People’s History of the United States etc) you will find it an interesting lens for understanding the Leftist view on the relationship between the US and Latin America.
Still up for me, by Bolaño and Cortázar: