50 Great Hispanic Novels Every Student Should Read
September 1st, 2011 by Staff Writers
Hispanic Heritage Month is coming up (September 15 to October 15), so there is no better time to celebrate the culture by picking up a novel by some of the greatest writers in its history. Hailing from South and Central America, Spain, the Caribbean and the United States alike, they offer insights not only into Hispanic traditions and norms, but some issues central to humanity itself — like time, love, mortality, passion and personal identity.
Here, we’ve collected 50 books that are a great place to start your exploration of Hispanic literature. Whether you’re a college student majoring in Latin American studies, Spanish or something else entirely, these novels are great reads that are sure to stick with you well beyond this coming month’s celebrations.
There would be no Hispanic literature without Spain, so here are some of its best novels.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Hapless Alonso Quixano is an aging man, obsessed with books on chivalry. As he delves further into them, losing sleep and his sanity, he embarks on his own quests as a knight. A title that frequently tops list of best novels ever written, it’s a must-read for any college student.
Three Exemplary Novels by Miguel de Unamuno
Not a novel proper, but a series of shorter novellas, this work is perhaps one of the best written by the Spanish novelist, philosopher and playwright. Don’t skip the prologue, as many feel it is the best part.
The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo Jose Cela
Written in 1942 by Nobel Laureate Cela, this book caused an uproar when it was released and subsequently ended up banned. Why? The novel was part of the tremendismo genre, which is marked by extended and frequent violent scenes. Not for the faint of heart, it is nonetheless a great work of literature.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
This bestselling novel is set in post-Spanish Civil War Barcelona and focuses on a young boy who becomes entranced by a book he finds in a secret, old library. This leads him to seek more works by its enigmatic author — with interesting results.
All Souls by Javier Marias
At first glance, this novel appears to be about nothing much at all — no murder, no intrigue — yet for the careful reader, all of these elements are bound up in the subtle prose. While fiction, it caused uproar at Oxford and Cambridge, as many professors thought the characters had been based on them.
A Heart So White by Javier Marias
With a title drawn from Macbeth, this ambitious novel chronicles the life of Juan, who is struggling to both understand and hide the past (his own and his father’s) from himself.
The Rats by Miguel Delibes
A leading literary figure in Spain after the Civil War, Delibes’ work made a splash both in his native Spain and abroad. One of his literary masterpieces, The Rats, builds a story around small autobiographical anecdotes surrounding a small Castilian village that has disappeared.
The Innocent Saints by Miguel Dilibes
Sometimes translated as The Holy Innocents, this 1981 novel follows the destruction of a rural Spanish family who suffer under caciques — ruthless local leaders who use their power to sway politics in their favor.
Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas
Drawing on characters like Meville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, this novel addresses some big questions in literature and life alike. Told through the point of view of a hunchback who himself cannot write, this award-winner is a great choice for any student of literature.
Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones
Falcones isn’t a novelist by profession — he’s actually a high-profile lawyer — but you wouldn’t know it by reading this. Set in 14th century Barcelona at the height of the Inquisition, it traces the building of the Santa Maria del Mar Cathedral and the life of one young boy as he grows into a man during those tumultuous times.
Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas
Blending real life with imagination, this novel follows a political prisoner during the Spanish Civil War. He survives through miraculous circumstances, and his story is told through the lens of a modern-day journalist investigating his life.
Time of Silence by Luis Martin Santos
Spanish psychiatrist and writer Santos rose to fame with the release of this novel, considered one of the 20th century’s greatest Spanish novels. It draws heavily on the literary devices employed by James Joyce, like stream of consciousness and interior monologues, to tell the story of a doctor accused of killing a woman who dies while he tries to help her. With sex and death central to the novel, it was considered racy in 1962 and ended up censored. It was not put out in full until almost 20 years later.
A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Munoz Molina
Part history, part mystery and part love story, A Manuscript of Ashes follows a young man who goes into hiding in his uncle’s country home to escape Franco’s police. There, he discovers a steamy love triangle, a murder and, potentially, a literary masterpiece.
The City of Marvels by Eduardo Mendoza
Written in the picaresque style, The City of Marvels combines fantasy and history to vividly paint Barcelona at the turn of the century, caught between two disastrous World’s Fairs. At the center of the novel is Onofre Bouvila, an unscrupulous young man who dives headfirst into the city’s seamy underbelly.
The Life Story of the Swindler called Don Pablos by Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas
Perhaps more often referred to as El Buscon, this picaresque novel was written around 1600 and takes a satirical look at Spanish life, following a swindler who wants to learn and become both virtuous and a gentleman.
Usurpers by Franscisco Ayala
This classic book contains seven short stories that focus on the theme of power, often in a highly negative and cautionary manner, with characters alluding to real-life figures.
Nada by Carmen LaForet
Sent to live with her crazy (not in the charming sense) relatives in post-Civil War Barcelona, the young girl at the heart of this novel is weighed down by more than just her family. The oppressive politics of the time, which, while never mentioned directly, are always looming in the background.
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
While this is not a novel, but a collection of short stories, we couldn’t leave it off this list of great Hispanic literature. Ficciones is not an easy read, but well worth the effort to learn more about one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.
Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig
The name might be familiar to you through the Broadway production based on the novel. The book is almost entirely a dialogue, with no indication of who is speaking, and multiple plots and subplots can make it a challenging read, but the story at its heart makes it all worthwhile.
Artificial Respiration by Ricardo Piglia
Delving into complex issues of philosophy and political history, this book has been called one of the most important works of Latin American literature to come out in the past few decades.
Santa Evita by Tomas Eloy Martinez
Many Americans may not realize that the body of Eva Peron was preserved after her death, like that of Lenin, Mao and Stalin. This book masterfully blends the real life history of the political leader’s corpse with the magic, myth and superstition she still elicits.
Rayuela by Julio Cortazar
This classic of Latin American literature centers on Horacio Oliveira, an Argentinean writer living in Paris with his mistress. But when she disappears and his hedonistic stay in Paris comes to an end, everything is thrown into a tailspin.
The Witness by Juan Jose Saer
Cannibalism (as well as anthropology and semiotics) are at the center of this book. A young boy who — the only survivor of a raid on his tribe — lives with his captors and sees firsthand their often strange daily existence.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
Based on Bolano’s own life and experiences as a writer, this book follows a young literati through Mexico, Barcelona, Israel and Libya.
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Released to critical acclaim, this novel is unarguably one of Bolano’s best. It is, however, a long book. At over 900 pages, it may take you awhile to get through the engaging story.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
This novel helped rocket Allende to literary stardom — and for good reason. Based on a letter she was writing to her dying grandfather, it traces several generations of the Trueba family, employing the magical realism made so famous by writers like Marquez.
Ines of My Soul by Isabelle Allende
Packed with romance, politics and heroism, this novel tells the story of Dona Ines Suarez, a real life conquistadora in the 16th century.
The Obscene Bird of the Night by Jose Donoso
Regarded by many great authors and artists as one of the best works of Spanish language literature ever created, this book is well worth any bibliophile’s time. It is not an easy read, but it is an engaging one, exploring the darker side of magical realism.
Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
Learn more about life in the Dominican Republic during the final days of Trujillo’s brutal and bloody rule in this novel interweaving the tales of three characters: the daughter of his secretary of state, a group of assassins and the cruel dictator himself.
The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa
Peruvian author Llosa tells the story of a man (based on a real life friend) who leaves civilization behind and becomes a storyteller for a group of Indians, drawing on many stereotypes and myths even the most educated have about native peoples.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
If you read only one Hispanic novel on this list, this would make a great choice. Winning Marquez the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 (and many other awards as well), it is considered one of the greatest works of modern lit.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One of the most acclaimed novels of the 20th century, this romantic tale centers on a young man who falls hopelessly in love with a woman, never wavering in his passion for her — even when she marries.
The Queen of America by Jorge Majfud
Uruguayan author Majfud brings to life the tragic tale of a young girl dragged to South America by her father, undergoing heartbreak, rape, dictatorship and madness along the way.
A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti
Breusen, the character central to this acclaimed novel, escapes his dreary existence by channeling his consciousness into other people — some real and some imagined.
Agosto by Rubem Fonseca
Considered this Brazilian author’s best work, Agosto ("August" in English) documents Brazil’s tumultuous 1954 elections, blending fiction and history to illuminate one of the greatest political comebacks in the nation’s history.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
One of the bestselling books of all time, The Alchemist has been translated into hundreds of languages and read by people around the globe. It’s an inspiring tale of a young boy who follows his dream against all odds.
I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos
Paraguayan author Bastos fictionalizes the life of 19th century dictator Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia in this novel, showcasing his hunger for power and the cruelty with which he inflicts much suffering.
The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes
The author Ambrose Beirce joined Pancho Villa’s forces in 1914, never to be seen again. In this book, Fuentes imagines the story of what happened, dealing beautifully with subject matter like colonialism, love, death, war and culture clashes.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
When the man she loves marries her sister and she is forced to prepare the wedding dinner, young Tita expresses her passion, frustration and unhappiness through her cooking.
News from the Empire by Fernando Del Paso
A cautionary tale of empire building, this novel chronicles the disastrous reign of Ferdinand and Carlota of Belgium over Mexico.
The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier
Carpentier’s most celebrated novel, the story follows a composer as he journeys to a place utterly untouched by the outside world and studies primitive instruments and the meaning to their respective cultures. What he finds, however, is much deeper.
Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire
Eire’s story is not fiction, but a memoir of an event most Americans never even knew happened. In the early 1960′s more than fourteen thousand Cuban children were taken from their parents and deposited in Miami, leaving them to fend for themselves.
YO-YO BOING! by Giannina Braschi
The first novel written in Spanglish, this novel shifts between two both tongues, making it an accessible read for students studying Spanish language and literature. Energetic, full of pop culture references and relatable, readers will find this book a fun and engaging read.
The President by Miguel Angel Asturias
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, this novel tells the tale of a ruthless dictator and his schemes to rid himself of a political adversary. Set in Asturias’ native Guatemala, it draws heavily on his experiences as a diplomat and journalist to create a realistic and beautiful tale about life under an oppressive dictatorship.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
This short novel is perfect for rainy afternoon reading. Central to the novel is a young girl named Esperanza, who is coming of age in a Chicagoan Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhood. She flounders in desperation to leave her impoverished life behind and move on to bigger and better things.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Diaz’s novel is simultaneously a story about the doomed life of an awkward and geeky young man and a history lesson on the brutal dictatorship that shook the Dominican Republic.
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Part of a trilogy, this award winner has landed on many banned book lists for its depiction of witchcraft and violence. It’s an undeserved reputation for an incredibly important read that blends folklore, religion and coming of age issues into one beautifully written work.
In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Set in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo dictatorship, this novel tells a fictionalized version of real life events surrounding three sisters murdered for their roles in a plot to overthrow the government.
And the Earth Did Not Devour Him by Tomas Rivera
A compilation of short stories and vignettes rather than a novel proper, this collection helped expose many of the abuses and horrors faced by migrant workers in the 1940s and 1950s. Disturbing, tragic and beautiful, it is an essential read for anyone interested in Hispanic lit.
Llamame Brooklyn by Eduardo Lago
While Lago is a Spanish-born writer, he lives and writes in America, and this book chronicles his experience living abroad. Llamame Brooklyn (or Call Me Brooklyn) was inspired by Lago’s own time in the US. It details the life of a young man struggling to come to terms with his Spanish identity while residing in New York with his adopted family.
Argentine authors have produced some amazing works of literature. Here are just a few you should be sure to check out.
If you’ve never picked up a book by one of these iconic Chilean authors, September would be a great time to do so.
These authors hail from South American nations like Uruguay, Peru, Columbia, Paraguay and Brazil.
Learn more about Mexican history and culture through these amazing books.