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This list is taken from the Colombian magazine Semana’s list of the best 100 Spanish-language novels of the last 25 years. The list was published in 2007.
1. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
“In their youth, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall passionately in love. When Fermina eventually chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is devastated, but he is a romantic. As he rises in his business career he whiles away the years in 622 affairs–yet he reserves his heart for Fermina. Her husband dies at last, and Florentino purposefully attends the funeral. Fifty years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again. ”
2. The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
From the Publishers Weekly review:
“This wasn’t an enemy he could defeat like the hundreds, the thousands he had confronted and conquered over the years, buying them, intimidating them, killing them.” So thinks Rafael Trujillo, “the Goat,” dictator of the Dominican Republic, on the morning of May 30, 1961 a day that will end in his assassination. The “enemy” is old age at 70, Trujillo, who has always prided himself on his grooming and discipline, is shaken by bouts of incontinence and impotence. Vargas Llosa divides his narrative between three different story lines. The first concerns Urania Cabral, the daughter of one of Trujillo’s closest associates, Agustín Cabral. She is 14 at the time of the Trujillo assassination and, as we gradually discover, was betrayed by her father to Trujillo. Since then, she has lived in the U.S. At 49, she impulsively returns on a visit and slowly reveals the root of her alienation.”
3. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
In the novel that established his international reputation, Roberto Bolaño tells the story of two modern-day Quixotes—the last survivors of an underground literary movement, perhaps of literature itself—on a tragicomic quest through a darkening, entropic universe: our own. The Savage Detectives is an exuberant, raunchy, wildly inventive, and ambitious novel from one of the greatest Latin American authors of our age.
4. 2666 by Roberto Bolano
Three academics on the trail of a reclusive German author; a New York reporter on his first Mexican assignment; a widowed philosopher; a police detective in love with an elusive older woman–these are among the searchers drawn to the border city of Santa Teresa, where over the course of a decade hundreds of women have disappeared. In the words of The Washington Post, “With 2666, Roberto Bolaño joins the ambitious overachievers of the twentieth-century novel, those like Proust, Musil, Joyce, Gaddis, Pynchon, Fuentes, and Vollmann, who push the novel far past its conventional size and scope to encompass an entire era, deploying encyclopedic knowledge and stylistic verve to offer a grand, if sometimes idiosyncratic, summation of their culture and the novelist’s place in it. Bolaño has joined the immortals.”
5. News from the Empire by Fernando Del Paso
One of the acknowledged masterpieces of Mexican literature, Fernando del Paso’s News from the Empire is a powerful and encyclopedic novel of the tragic lives of Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, the short-lived Emperor and Empress of Mexico. Simultaneously intimate and panoramic, the narrative flows from Carlota’s fevered memories of her husband’s ill-fated empire to the multiple and conflicting accounts of a broad cast of characters who bore witness to the events that first placed the hapless couple on their puppet thrones, and then as swiftly removed them. Stretching from the troubled final years of Maximilian’s life to the early days of the twentieth century, News from the Empire depicts a world of both political and narrative turbulence, and is as much a history of the advent of modernity as a eulogy for the corrupt royal houses of Europe.
6. A Heart So White by Javier Marias
A Heart So White is a breathtaking novel about family secrets, winner of the 1997 Dublin IMPAC Prize for the best novel published worldwide in English, and arguably Javier Marías’s masterpiece. Javier Marías’s A Heart So White chronicles with unnerving insistence the relentless power of the past. Juan knows little of the interior life of his father Ranz; but when Juan marries, he begins to consider the past anew, and begins to ponder what he doesn’t really want to know. Secrecy—its possible convenience, its price, and even its civility—hovers throughout the novel. A Heart So White becomes a sort of anti-detective story of human nature.
7. Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas
In Bartleby & Co., an enormously enjoyable novel, Enrique Vila-Matas tackles the theme of silence in literature: the writers and non-writers who, like the scrivener Bartleby of the Herman Melville story, in answer to any question or demand, replies: “I would prefer not to.” Addressing such “artists of refusal” as Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Duchamp, Herman Melville, and J. D. Salinger, Bartleby & Co. could be described as a meditation: a walking tour through the annals of literature. Written as a series of footnotes (a non-work itself), Bartleby embarks on such questions as why do we write, why do we exist?
8. Santa Evita by Tomas Eloy Martinez
Nothing could be stranger than the true story of Eva Peron, who began her career as a B-movie actress, won the love of a dictator and the adoration of a nation, and, in death, achieved virtual sainthood status. Out of these facts, Eloy Martinez has crafted a work of fiction that is at once tragic, savagely funny, perversely erotic, and intellectually provocative.
9. Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me by Javier Marias
From the Kirkus review:
“Another intriguing psychodrama of sex, guilt, and social satire from the prize-winning Spanish author whose fiction in English translation includes All Souls and A Heart So White (both 1996). First published in 1994, this novel (which has itself won major international literary awards) explores the engagingly dysfunctional mind and heart of Victor Frances, a successful screenwriter, and a bland usurper of things and people that don’t belong to him–not unlike Shakespeare’s Richard III (the source of Mar¡as’s exceedingly witty title). The novel begins with a bang, so to speak, when Victor’s mistress Marta De n dies of a heart attack in bed, precluding their usual lovemaking–and it then spins off into amusingly unpredictable directions as Victor observes Marta’s funeral from a safe distance.”
10. El Desbarrancadero (“The Edge of the Abyss”) by Fernando Vallejo
From Publishers Weekly:
“A Colombian-born writer based in Mexico City, Vallejo received considerable worldwide recognition when his last novel, La virgen de los sicarios (Our Lady of the Assasins was made into a film by the acclaimed Barbet Schroeder. Just as dark as La virgen, this semi-autobiographical novel is set in the author’s native city, Medell!n. The narrator (called Vallejo) returns home after a prolonged absence to attend to his most beloved brother, Dario, an AIDS patient whose health is slowly deteriorating owing to his alcohol and marijuana use. Vallejo indulges in digressions into past memories that they both share, which include endless adolescent partying and homosexual love affairs. La Muerte (Death), the character around whom the narrative ultimately revolves, appears throughout, touching different members of Vallejo’s family and finally becoming his worst enemy.”
11. Our Lady of the Assassins by Fernando Vallejo
From Publishers Weekly:
“This slim, cynical novel by a well-regarded Colombian writer is an unsparing exploration of Medell¡n, Colombia’s second largest city and the infamous stronghold and resting place of drug lord Pablo Escobar. The narrator is a “grammarian,” who has recently returned to his hometown after many years abroad and discovers it has become a living nightmare, where music blares constantly, funerals are less important than soccer matches and a wayward glance is likely to get you killed. In a virtually unbroken dramatic monologue, the narrator recounts a love affair he once had with Alexis, a teenage hitman who carries out revenge killings for rival drug gangs. Post Escobar, the hitmen are disorganized and undisciplined, and they wreak havoc on the city.”
12. The Witness by Juan José Saer
Le Monde: “Saer’s novel combines elements of the haunting metaphysical ambiguity of Jorge Luis Borges’ poetry and Graham Greene’s sensual description of the dark corners of the physical world and the human soul. The evocative imagery and ideas revealed in The Witness are not easily forgotten’ Washington Post ‘Let me make myself clear: The Witness is a great book and the name of its author, Juan Jose Saer, must be added to the list of the best South American writers.”
13. Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas
In the final moments of the Spanish Civil War, a writer and founding member of Franco’s Fascist Party is about to be shot, and yet miraculously escapes into the forest. When his hiding place is discovered, he faces death for the second time that day-but is spared, this time by a lone Republican soldier. The writer becomes a national hero and a member of Franco’s first government, while the soldier is forgotten. Sixty years later, Cercas’s novel peels back the layers of truth and propaganda in order to discover who the real hero was. Winner of the Independent Prize in Foreign Fiction.
14. Distant Star by Roberto Bolano
“The main character, observed by an unnamed narrator, in Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star is Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, who exploits the 1973 coup to launch his own version of the New Chilean Poetry: a multi-media enterprise involving sky-writing, torture, photography, murder, and verse. The unnamed narrator first encounters him in a college poetry workshop (where Ruiz-Tagle only has eyes for the beautiful Garmendia twins, Veronica and Angelica: unfortunately for them).”
15. Landscapes After the Battle by Juan Goytisolo
From Publishers Weekly:
“This engaging, gritty satire by Goytisolo, an outstanding Spanish novelist who left during Franco’s regime, offers a skewed tour of the tough new Paris street life radiating outward from the neighborhood of the Sentier metro. In 78 rapid-fire vignettes, the hero as monster’ in trench coat and felt hat sets out from his studio on the Rue Poissonniere to indulge in his ‘maniacal, obsessive, almost canine nosing about.'”
16. The City of Marvels by Eduardo Mendoza
From Publishers Weekly:
“Barcelona, chief city of Catalonia (historically a hotbed of anarchist and separatist activity) plays the role of a magical, protean character in this sprightly novel, a bestseller in Spain. The action spans the years between Barcelona’s two economically disastrous World’s Fairs of 1888 and 1929. Young Onofre Bouvila ventures from his parents’ provincial farm to work in the city, where he begins his political involvement by distributing revolutionary pamphlets on the fairgrounds. Aided by the giant Efren, he becomes a con-man who sells hair oil, serves underworld boss Don Humbert, arranges for rivals to be bumped off, and marries the Don’s lovely daughter, Margarita.”
18. El Testigo by Juan Villoro
From The Quarterly Conversation:
“Time proceeds at two speeds for Julio Valdivieso. The past overflows his present at a contemplative speed, a speed that allows for extended metaphors, nuanced conjectures, literary allusions, and an associative style of narration that can, for instance, start us with the embarrassed smile of Nieves, his cousin and first love, and then effortlessly transition into (i) a gypsy squirting breast milk at his wife Paola in Rome, (ii) his outings to a porn cinema in Leuven, (iii) a stanza from Ramon Lopez Velarde, (iv) Amphitrion’s visit to Tiresias, (v) a meditation on the principle of uncomfortableness in pornographic films, (vi) a playful masochistic refrain of Nieves, and (vii) the awkward smile of Julio’s favorite porn actress as sperm lands on her eyelid. Meanwhile, in the present, everyone in Mexico is trying to enlist Julio to their frantic plotlines. Julio resists these advances, although they will become unavoidable midway through the novel, in part because they explore so many unavoidable aspects of Mexican life, including the omnipresence of the drug cartels and the agonies of Catholicism, as well as more historical aspects like a Christian uprising against the revolution and Mexico’s national poet. The scope of El Testigo is tremendous. It isn’t surprising that Alvaro Enrigue at Letras Libres has called it The Great Mexican Novel. ”
19. Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatin
A strange plague appears in a large city. Rejected by family and friends, some of the sick have nowhere to finish out their days until a hair stylist decides to offer refuge. He ends up converting his beauty shop, which he’s filled with tanks of exotic fish, into a sort of medieval hospice. As his “guests” continue to arrive and to die, his isolation becomes more and more complete in this dream-hazy parable by one of Mexico’s cutting-edge literary stars.