Most Obscure from My Shelves – the Latinos

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

For someone who proclaims to be mad about Brazil and keen to learn more about Latin American culture in general, I don’t actually own a lot of books from that part of the world. During my years of Ph.D. study, I was fortunate enough to be in an office right next door to the Department Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, so I borrowed heavily from their library and became enamoured of Clarice Lispector, Jorge Amado, Borges, Cortazar and many more. The ones I do own are not really obscure, but I did manage to find some that are special to me for various reasons.

Mario Vargas Llosa: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (transl. Helen R. Lane)

Appropriately enough, my first choice is the Nobel Prize winning Peruvian author who lectured briefly at the very department where I was completing my informal Latin American literature education. Vargas Llosa is well-known for his serious political books, but the one I chose here is a racy, humorous, deliberately madcap account of him falling in love with and courting his aunt-by-marriage, Julia, much to the horror of the rest of the family. She became his first wife, and they went together to Europe, where he embarked upon his literary career. She later wrote her own version of the story, because she claimed that Vargas Llosa minimised the part she played in assisting him in his literary efforts. Nevertheless, despite its biased view of events, it is a brilliant example of the vitality and verve that I particularly love about Latin American literature. It is this closeness to popular culture, the use of vernacular, the candid expressions of sexuality and everyday street life that I enjoy much more than the more ethereal magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or heavy symbolism of Paulo Coelho.

Diego Trelles Paz: Bioy

Unintentionally, my second choice is also Peruvian. Although I haven’t read it yet, it is the translation (in French, by Julien Berree) of a political thriller, exploring the troubled 1980s in Peru under the increasingly dictatorial regime of Fujimori. It’s a book that my kind-hearted niece, who had accompanied me once to the Quais du Polar in Lyon and knew my passion for crime fiction, bought for my birthday. She met the author in Paris and got him to sign it for me in French and Spanish: ‘This super-special edition of my novel is dedicated to Marina Sofia for her birthday. I hope you like it and that it scares you! Happy birthday, good health and rock’n’roll!’ Oddly enough, although all of my friends know how crazy I am about books and reading, it’s the only present of this nature that I have ever received. I really don’t know why I haven’t got stuck into it yet…

James Woodall: A Simple Brazilian Song

This is not a novel, but a journey through the music of Brazil, especially the music of Rio, with a particular emphasis on Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso, two of my very favourite musicians. Part musical analysis, part biography, part travel memoir, it is a book which does its best to capture the hypnotic, insistent beat of the samba and bossa nova. Through its music, this journalist also tries to convey the complexity of this beautiful, contradictory, often infuriating yet always colourful and enticing country.

This book is precious to me because it reminds me of my youth, when I thought the world was my oyster and that I was going to do anthropological research in the favelas of Rio or Bahia. I bought this at the time when I first came to London and was being mistaken for a Brazilian because of my long hair, love of dancing and uninhibited manner. I thought I was going to learn capoeira and celebrate carnival with the samba schools in London. I even briefly contemplated going to Brazil for a post-doc position. I gave up on that, but I insisted on going to Brazil for my honeymoon and my love for the country has outlasted my love for the husband.



16 thoughts on “Most Obscure from My Shelves – the Latinos”

        1. I now have a UK keyboard (after a few years of French), but I think it’s the autocorrect and I just didn’t spot it when proofreading.

  1. I remember enjoying Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter years ago and just might dig it out again. I’m with you, absolutely, on the magic realism front, the one thing guaranteed to put me off in a blurb.

    1. Ha, glad to see I’m not the only one who finds magical realism irksome (at least occasionally). I had a quick glance through Vargas Llosa’s book again as I was writing this post and it made me want to reread it properly…

  2. What a lovely post. I think Aunt Julia (which I very much enjoyed) may even still be on the shelves. I enjoyed reading about you as much as the books. Books are so much part of who we are as well as our history. And, though sorry for the inevitable disappointments life brings, your final sentence led to a great guffaw. Beautifully expressed, wonderful in its terseness

    1. I can’t help but bond with people over the books they have on their bookshelves and love to hear more about why they keep some books, why some are so well-thumbed, others barely touched etc. Yes, they often tell the story of our lives (especially with inscriptions, things you’ve underlined, bookmarks you find lost within). I still have a beautiful painting of Salvador de Bahia to remind me of my one and only visit to Brazil!

      1. It’s why ereader seems so BLAND compared to the book you have and hold in your hands, stuffed with various scraps of paper as bookmarks, underlined etc by hand – they hold the physical, in real, energy of the moment of read, and you can absolutely sense your own past – or, even, with wonderful second hand books, another life within the pages. Underlining and adding notes in Kindle is vapid by comparison, and all those ’49 other people highlighted this’ is NOTHING beside one other person’s underline in a second hand book, which always makes my heart beat a llittle faster. A really WELL read book is a sheer delight

        1. Exactly. I can remember exactly when and where I bought a book (which is seldom the case with ebooks), and I’ve found such poignant inscriptions or comments in the margins…

  3. Very glad to see you have the Llosa, Marina Sofia. It reminds me of my undergraduate studies (I studied Spanish). You’ve got some other interesting gems, there, too! I really like it that you’ve kept some of these for a while. Obscure or not, it’s nice to have old friends around…

    1. Ah, it must have been fun to read some of these authors in the original! That’s why you keep an eye out for South American crime fiction and the like…

  4. What a lovely dedication – it beats the ‘best wishes ….’ kind of thing that so many authors do now at signings.
    I’m with you on magical realism – it’s just not my cup of tea which is why I think I’ve struggled with authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez

  5. i tried Vargas Llosa years ago & couldn’t get on with him, but Aunt Julia sounds fun so I’ll give him another try! I also adore Caetano Veloso so I’ll seek out A Simple Brazilian Song.

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