What are some national novels and poems?
July 1, 2013 1:27 PM   Subscribe

A while back, I read Noli Me Tángere by José Rizal, which is sort of the national novel of the Philippines. I've just borrowed The Knight in the Panther's Skin from the library, which is seen as "Georgia's national epic". What are some other national novels? (I've seen the Wikipedia national epics list, but I'd prefer novels to epics, I think, unless they are really outstanding.) If you have particular translations/editions to recommend that'd be great as well.
posted by Jahaza to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
While there are a wealth of great novels and novelists out of Nigeria, Things Fall Apart is undoubtedly their original "national novel."

Don Quixote for Spain, possibly.
posted by duffell at 1:35 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertões/Rebellion in the Backlands (wikipedia) is often referred to as the "national epic of Brazil."
posted by Unified Theory at 1:44 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd go for James Joyce's Ulysses for Ireland. Ireland has a wealth of literature, but only Ulysses permeated the national psyche to the extent of giving rise to an annually celebrated day.
posted by meronym at 1:53 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work as the voice of Columbia. Love in the Time of Cholera or 100 Years of Solitude.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:54 PM on July 1, 2013

Robert Burns, a Scottish poet, is celebrated with his own holiday. Not a bullshit holiday, either--a good many Scots celebrate Burns Night and throw Burns Dinners. Afraid I can't help you with a specific poem he's known for, however; my familiarity is only passing.
posted by duffell at 1:58 PM on July 1, 2013

Japan's The Tale of Genji is on the wikipedia page, but it's a novel (some say the first, ever, anywhere). I'd say Romance of the Three Kingdoms (also on the wikipedia page, also a novel) qualifies as China's.

On a more contemporary note, Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj would be my pick for national novel of Thailand.
posted by seemoreglass at 1:59 PM on July 1, 2013

Everyone who visits Barcelona seems to read The Shadow of the Wind, so perhaps it is the novel of Catalonia.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:04 PM on July 1, 2013

Not entirely sure this counts, but when I lived in the Czech Republic in the mid-90s, most of the Czechs I spoke to thought the WWI satirical novel The Good Soldier Svejk was essential for understanding the Czech national psyche.
posted by tiger tiger at 2:07 PM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Kalevala for Finland, though it is also on the Wikipedia list you mention above.
posted by jquinby at 2:25 PM on July 1, 2013

Response by poster: Not entirely sure this counts, but when I lived in the Czech Republic in the mid-90s, most of the Czechs I spoke to thought the WWI satirical novel The Good Soldier Svejk was essential for understanding the Czech national psyche.

That's exactly the sort of thing that counts!
posted by Jahaza at 2:41 PM on July 1, 2013

I dimly remember a teacher saying that Le Chanson de Roland was the national epic of France.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:49 PM on July 1, 2013

'Bridge Over the Drina' by Ivo Andric for Serbia. It chronicles the history of a bridge through a few centuries to the fall of Ottoman rule there. It's beautiful and austere, and also the only novel I've ever read that made me feel like I might actually throw up, due to one description of graphic violence. I would probably read it again anyway though. It's really good. Andric won the Nobel, if that sort of thing impresses you.
posted by TheRedArmy at 3:44 PM on July 1, 2013

India is too large a nation to have just one of these, but Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie is a solid contender - it's about the children who were born at the exact moment of India and Pakistan's freedom/Partition and how their lives and struggles mirrored those of India and Pakistan.
posted by lunasol at 3:59 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

For Canada, I recommend anything by Stephen Leacock ("Canada's Mark Twain"). Very, very funny stuff, almost completely forgotten today. :(
posted by priskyprisky at 5:09 PM on July 1, 2013

Leacock is a bit musty for Canada. Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here was an attempt at an epic Canadian novel and isn't a bad read.

I've read that Halldor Laxness's Independent People is supposed to be the key modern Icelandic novel.
posted by zadcat at 5:23 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could make a case for The Leopard as a major Italian epic, but it certainly stands as the big Sicilian story (short of The Godfather...).
posted by zadcat at 5:26 PM on July 1, 2013

I would nominate José María Arguedas' Los Rios Profundos/Deep Rivers as Peru's national novel for its insight into the uneasy relationship between Spanish and indigenous cultures that is the driving force for 500 years of Peruvian history.
posted by drlith at 5:52 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've heard people characterize The Betrothed like that for Italy, because it's commonly taught and supposedly paradigmatic for modern Italian as a language, and With Fire and Sword for Poland for reasons of nationalism/patriotism. I have no idea how current or meaningful those impressions are, though.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:18 PM on July 1, 2013

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton for South Africa.

I don't know what the national novel for Australia would be. I would vote for The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey but that is no doubt controversial. Regardless, it is a great book that knocks down many of the cultural shibboleths Australians hold dear. My other option for Australia would be My Place by Sally Morgan, because that's where many white Australians first learnt about our country's shocking indigenous history.
posted by goo at 9:45 PM on July 1, 2013

Actually, I think this is a very loaded question for indigenous or colonised people, and maybe you can't get the free answers you're looking for because of that- regardless, those are the novels I would personally choose to represent different aspects of Australia's cultural history. Other people may choose differently.
posted by goo at 9:59 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

For Vietnam, it's The Tale of Kieu (Truyện Kiều), now about 200 years old. It's based on a seventeenth-century Chinese novel and is set in China, just as The Knight in the Panther's Skin is set in the greater Persian world; both Vietnam and Georgia were living in the cultural shadow of greater empires and used the familiar settings and tropes of imperial literature to make their points.

I'm not sure everyone here is quite getting the gist of the question, which is not "What are some foreign novels you think give a good sense of a country?" but "What are some national novels and poems?"—i.e., works that are widely accepted within a national culture as serving as a common source of characters, quotes, and national identity, as Homer did for the ancient Greeks and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin has done for Russians for almost two centuries. (Assuming I am correctly understanding what Jahaza is after.)
posted by languagehat at 11:02 AM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dream of the Red Chamber. One of China's four great novels.
posted by Carius at 11:12 AM on July 2, 2013

The Bronze Horseman (poem) for Russia. I remember one of my professors telling me that every Russian, starting in grade school, could recite the opening lines--like 'Fourscore and seven years ago' for Americans.
posted by orrnyereg at 11:38 AM on July 2, 2013

Do you want novels that capture cultural identity, or novels that are famous and/or considered an epic in the nation in question?

I'm not sure Australia has a novel-- anything wrapped up in national identity tend to be poems like, AB Patterson's 'The Man from Snowy River' and Waltzing Matilda or Dorthea Mackeller's My Country.

As for actual novels, I can't say there's one that particularly captures Australian nationality as a whole, or that anyone considers an epic. What I mean by that is, almost everyone has heard of the above poems generally, at least by name. They're famous and they're taught in schools. They're very patriotic from a (very narrow) colonial perspective. But in terms of novels, famous in a similar manner, I can't really think of anything that is very well known and/or resonates on a similar wavelength to the poems. Especially to the average person. There are great Australian novels, (and authors), but I'm not sure any one could be called an 'epic' nor could anyone agree on it, probably.

Possibly The Magic Pudding. It's a very famous Australian Children's book, that is not as well known today as it used to be, but is well known over a certain age group.

As far as novels go, there are a couple -- but I'm not sure people remember them or if they do, they're not talked about much. The Shiralee is a good book, and beautifully written. There's also Picnic at Hanging Rock which is more famous, but the movie is more famous than the novel, at this point.

From an indigenous perspective, I am seconding "My Place" but there's also Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence which was also made into a movie.

I am nthing 'I Promessi Sposi' (The Betrothed) for Italy. I haven't read it but it gets bandied about a lot on the Italian media. A lot. I hadn't even heard of it prior, but it was explained to me that it's a big deal over there. And obviously, there's also La Divina Commedia, which probably goes without saying.
posted by Dimes at 12:42 PM on July 2, 2013

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