Around the World in 8 Books

Books have the ability to transport us into different worlds, from fantasy to fiction set in other countries and eras. After being inspired by Anne Morgan’s “A Year of Reading the World“, I decided to diversify my reading list. Other places and cultures have always interested me – and I’m guessing you too – since these are the main reasons why we travel, but for the times when we have to stay at home, books are a good way of doing a spot of armchair globetrotting by reading work from writers the world over.

A book stand in Istanbul

If you’re looking for some inspiration to diversity your reading, but you’re overwhelmed by Anne Morgan’s reading list from every country in the world, you can read around the world in 8 books. Some of these are big names you’ll have heard of (making it easy to get hold of if you’re a novice at novel nomadry) and others less well known.

Colombia

García Márquez billboard in Aracataca: “I feel Latin American from whatever country, but I have never renounced the nostalgia of my homeland: Aracataca, to which I returned one day and discovered that between reality and nostalgia was the raw material for my work”.—Gabriel García Márquez. Photo by Zero Gravity.

Let’s start our literary journey in Latin America with Nobel Prize Winning author Gabriel García Márquez. His magical realism has taken the literary world in by a Leaf Storm, with his magnum opus One Hundred Years of Solitude, a multi-generational story set in the fictional Colombian town of Macondo. With its long paragraphs and intricate language, this is a challenging novel to start with, which is why I’d recommend Love in the Time of Cholera as a starting novel. This love story set in an unnamed Caribbean town is so vivid you can reach out and touch the mango tree, only don’t get your pet parrot caught up there.

Trinidad & Tobago

Moving across the Caribbean to Trinidad & Tobago to the home of another Nobel Prize

Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul – photo by Faizul Latif Chowdhury

Winning writer, V.S. Naipaul. Although born on the Caribbean, Naipaul heralds from an Indian immigrant family, and his magnum opus A House for Mr. Biswas, captures the daily life of the Indo-Trinidadian community. A story about unfortunate Mr. Mohun Biswas, who seems to be cursed from his infancy with bad luck, this epic novel spans his entire life from birth to death, capturing what may seem to be a story about an ordinary man, but extraordinarily told. Naipaul’s ability to capture a place and its people is what sets this novel apart from others. His later novels and books transport you away from the Caribbean into Africa, like his novel In a Free State.

Morocco

Morocco has its abundance of great writers, from Bensalem Himmich to Laila Lalami, but Mohamed Choukri’s gritty tales from the streets of Tangier in the 1930s left an impression on me. Echoing writers like Henry Miller, Choukri’s graphic depictions of drugs, sex and the underbelly of Moroccan street life is gripping. His books For Bread Alone and Streetwise are autobiographical, the latter focusing on his journey to learn to read and write as an adult. A must read to immerse yourself in the “Down and Out in Tangier” experience in the 30s, as you can smell the kif waft around the dive bars of Tangier.

Nigeria

Nigeria is a key hub in the African literary scene, with writers such as Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. After hearing Adichie’s TED talk on needing more diverse stories, I became interested in her work and read Half a Yellow Sun, a story wrapped around the Nigerian-Biafran War in the 1960s. The story is told from three points of view, Olanna, a beautiful woman from Nigerian high society who falls in love with Odenigbo, a revolutionary academic, Ugwu who is Odenigbo’s houseboy and Richard, a British expat who is lovers with Olanna’s twin sister. The narratives themselves cover a range of perspectives, from the village boy to the educated Olanna, and also from the outsider eyes of Richard. The evocative story interweaves Nigerian history with a human one, capturing the essence of Nigeria from various perspectives. I have to say, this novel has piqued my interest in Nigerian literature, that I now have a long reading list of books to add to my evergrowing list.

Hungary

Hungarian literature came into vogue in the New York literary scene back in 2013, although being partly Hungarian myself and living in Budapest, I’ve always been interested in Hungarian books. While I still find it hard to read Hungarian like a native speaker would, there are plenty of great Hungarian books in translation. Magda Szabó’s The Door hit the contemporary literary world with her tale about mysterious old cleaning lady Emerence, along with Laszló Krasznahorkai’s Sátántango. The latter is a claustrophobic story about a village in rural Hungary in the communist era. It’s a novel where paragraphs don’t exist but contribute to the feeling of isolation and neurosis in the village. It’s a complex book where literary technique helps to conjure up the feeling claustrophobia and isolation. It’s not an easy read, but it’s gritty and powerful for those who like something dark. Or Nobel Prize winning author Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness is another choice, a powerful novel set in the backdrop of the Holocaust, told from 14-year old György, a young Jewish boy sent to a concentration camp.

Turkey

Miniaturist art in a shop in Istanbul, recalling the echoes of “My Name is Red”.

Move towards the bridge between Europe and Asia into Istanbul with Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, an intense historical murder mistery. The story intertwines the narratives between its protagonists, mostly Istanbul’s miniaturists, artists who worked on book art, as they try to unravel the mystery behind the death of the miniaturist Elegant Effendi. The love Pamuk has for his native city comes out through the novel, but if you feel seduced by Istanbul, you can read Pamuk’s own narrative and stories about the city in Istanbul. However, if you want to move towards the Eastern side of Turkey, Snow is another classic from the Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

India

2016 was the year I really, really got into Indian literature. While I’ve always loved

In the backwaters in the world of Arundhati Roy’s “God of Small Things”.

Salman Rushdie’s work, I wanted to expand and read more books by Indian writers.

I got immersed in the world of a murderous, social climbing driver in Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, found myself in the magical realism of Arundhati Roy’s Kerala in The God of Small Things, and the intergenerational story up in the Himalayas with Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss.

Then, I was ready to tackle Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy – a novel longer than War and Peace.

Initially daunted by this tome weighing a kilo (I’m old school and need to read real books), I managed to soar through Lata’s journey to find her a husband in the backdrop of recently independent India. It’s a saga where you get swept up into the lives of its characters and you never want it to end. I have admit, I can’t wait for A Suitable Girl to come out later this year!

Japan

And finally, over to Japan, the home of Murasaki’s Tale of Genji, the first modern novel written 1000 years ago. But for any beginner of Japanese literature, Haruki Murakami is perhaps the best known one to begin with. His own branch of magical realism will take you into the underworld of Tokyo, quite literally at times, to a place where cats talk and the strange becomes ordinary. From A Windup Bird Chronicle to Kafka on the Shore, I find Murakami’s fiction compelling and beautifully surreal.

Haruki Murakami Novels – photo by nappa

Of course there are almost 200 countries and many authors from them worth reading. One of my goals for 2017 is to read more international books from more countries. What are you favourite international writers and books?

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