Just because English is one of the most global languages in the world it doesn't mean that things produced in other countries aren't as valuable and fulfilling.
As an English literature student I devoted several years of my life to reading books in English, and even when I finished my degree, I became so used to it that I continued reading novels in this language. I know this is going to sound kind of stupid, but this pattern changed one day when I was playing a drinking game with friends that was about naming things of a given category. If you didn’t answer or if you repeated something someone had already said, you'd have to have to drink. So one of my friends wanted to make himself look so important, so the category was "books written in a foreign language." We all started saying some classics but there was a point when I really didn’t know what else to answer. I felt so bad that I couldn’t name as many books written in my mother tongue, which is Spanish, as I could name in English, so I decided to change that and start reading things that were written in other languages. These are seven books that are either on my list of all-times favorites or from recent discoveries.
Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino (1952-59)
I’m cheating a little bit with this one, since Our Ancestors is actually a trilogy, but they're so good and so easy to read that you’ll really devour them in less than a week. The collection includes The Cloven Viscount, The Baron in the Trees, and The Nonexistent Knight. You might have an idea of what they're about due to the titles, but the plot isn't exactly as it seems. The three books take the forms and rules of the classic literary genres, but in a very modern (I’d say ahead of its time), comical, and parodical way. The one I recommend the most is the first one. It tells the story of a viscount who ends being split into two after receiving a very strong blow from a cannoball. The narrative is so great and the jokes and comical situations so irreverent that I bet you’ll end up reading the other ones.
Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo (1955)
Although Octavio Paz is often considered the best Mexican writer of all times, I think that title belongs to Juan Rulfo. With only three published books, he managed to create amazing stories of high literary quality that also portray the cultural heritage of Mexico in a subtle and humble way, unlike our friend Paz does. Pedro Paramo tells the story of a man who arrives to a small town looking for his father, a man he doesn’t know anything about except for his name. As he arrives his and the whole town’s macabre story gets unveiled through amazing narrative hints and resources. Definitely a masterpiece of Latin American literature.
A Personal Matter by Kenzaburō Ōe (1964)
A 27-year-old man receives a phone call of the doctor, who has just delivered his first son. After going to the hospital he finds out that his son was born with a brain hernia and that his life expectancy is very low. The novel is an extremely crude and dark analysis on what it is to become a parent and more importantly when there’s a disability involved. Bird, the protagonist, goes through a difficult emotional breakdown, not only because he’s been questioning if having a child was something he really wanted, but also because he foresees what’s going to be with his life if the baby survives, how his dreams and plans will be shattered, to the point that he even hopes the baby dies as soon as possible. As I said, quite a dark story, but still it's written so good that it’ll trap you in its pages.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1982)
Kundera’s novel has become a classic of contemporary literature. It tells the story of a woman battling between her love for her husband and the pain she has to endure because he's a womanizer. The strange coexistence between the man, his wife, his lover, and his lover’s lover not only gives us a very interesting narrative plot, but it also sheds light on the artistic, social, and intellectual life of Czechoslovakia during the brief months of the Prague Spring, during the Soviet domination of the country. If this wasn’t enough, the novel takes some philosophical principles to make us question whether we should really take life that seriously. All in all, this is a well-rounded novel written by a master author.
Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas (2001)
This is probably one of my favorite novel of all times. Taking the ancient battle of Salamis between Greeks and Persians, Cercas alludes to the Spanish Civil War and how it should be remembered nowadays. It tells the story of a "fictionalized" Javier Cercas obsessed with the mystery of how a Fascist writer and prominent figure of the Spanish Falange managed to escape his own execution when a Republican soldier (from the other side) saves him. The book becomes a sort of historical crime novel where we accompany the protagonist in his investigation, only to be left to decide whether the last trail solves the mystery.
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (2001)
A solitary man, the narrator, befriends an architectural historian at the Antwerp train station during the sixties. As the story evolves, we start knowing about this man who was born in Czechoslovakia and sent to Britain as a refugee during World War II, where a preacher and his wife adopt him. When his parents die, Jacques Austerlitz decides to trace back his origins, so he travels to Prague to meet a man that was once a close friend to his biological parents. The novel becomes a real portrait of the lives of these children who were too young to really remember or understand what was going on and why, despite being saved from a terrible death, there was still something inside them that died with the families they had to leave behind.
Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño (1996)
Once again Roberto Bolaño proves why he is one of the best Latin American writers of all times due to the way he constantly deals with social and political themes, intertwining them with fantastical fictional plots. The protagonist of Distant Star, Arturo Belano (Bolaño’s recurrent alter-ego) becomes acquainted with a man named Alberto, a recurrent attendant of some poetry clubs in Chile. After Pinochet’s coup d’etat, Belano starts suspecting that this man might be connected with the new regime and that his interest in poetry is only a façade to get information. As Belano starts researching, he finds out that this man’s name is actually Carlos Wieder, an aviator of German ancestry.
Books are definitely a window to other realms, cultures, themes, and realities. Although sometimes we tend to focus on a genre we enjoy or even on books written in our mother tongue, sometimes taking a look at what’s been written outside what we know can give us a really wide notion of how the world works and the huge diversity that’s out there.
Here are other books you should take a look at: