Which books are most representative of each country?
April 4, 2007 11:26 AM   Subscribe

I plan to read a novel from every country. Which books are most worthwhile, both as a means to gain the truest insight into the soul of each land, and also from a literary standpoint?

I have a long-term ambition to read one literary novel, in English, from (almost) all of the nations on earth. For years, the books I've read have been written, almost exclusively, by white, upper-middle-class American and British authors. I want to expand the breadth of this reading dramatically. I cannot name a single writer or novel from Mongolia, Indonesia, Somalia, Morocco, Brazil, etc etc, much less any of the literary gems from these countries.

So: which single novel from each nation is most revealing of the lifestyle, customs, struggles, history and national spirit of that country? I'm from Ireland, so I'd nominate James Joyce's 'Ulysses' without hesitation.
posted by Black Spring to Writing & Language (95 answers total) 173 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting question. May make a difference what period of history in some places.

For example, post-WWI Germany may be All Quiet on the Western Front. Post-WWII, The Tin Drum. Post WWI Czechoslovakia, I Served the King of England (ironically). Post-WWII, something by Kundera.

Those are all white guys though, you may be interested in something more exotic.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 11:47 AM on April 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


The fact that the people forced a playwright to be prime minister says it all.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:50 AM on April 4, 2007

You might have a hard time finding English translations of literature from certain countries and centuries, but I think this is an excellent goal. Norton has some useful web pages that might help. The one I linked to is organized by world region as well as historical period.

Japan: The Master of Go

China: Raise the Red Lantern
posted by mauglir at 11:53 AM on April 4, 2007

Colombia: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Mexico: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (this is not necessarily considered literature but the characters' ideas reminded me of my ancient great-aunts from Mexico)

Chile: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
posted by Soda-Da at 12:02 PM on April 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

India: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.

Canada: Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler.

You'll get answers all over the map on the U.S., I'm sure, so here's mine: A three-way tie between Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
posted by gompa at 12:02 PM on April 4, 2007

Lalex, you beat me to it! Gotta be fast here.
posted by alms at 12:03 PM on April 4, 2007

If you want a perspective on the country's past, the fighting, the strange ecology and lives that have touched it, I totally recommend Rebellion in the Backlands. It's some serious reading (first published in 1902, about 600 pages). Llosa (Peruvian) also wrote a fantastic novel of the same events, The War of the End of the World. But he's not Brazilian.

If you want to read what everyone else is reading, you should read Paulo Coelho. It's kind of fun, I guess, and light, but the point of any story gets kind of beaten into your head. Thankfully, they're short books.

Viet Nam?
Have you read Novel without a Name? The author's books have mostly been banned in her home country because of the frankness with which they deal with unpleasant issues. They mostly take place in and soon after the war with the US, not so much about present-day life.

If it doesn't have to be something "old" or "classic", I'd highly recommned Qiu Xiaolong. He writes mystery/suspense novels that take place in modern China, but explore a lot of the historical and cultural uniqueness that affect modern social issues. If you want to be picky, he's probably Chinese-American, but he does write in both languages.
posted by whatzit at 12:05 PM on April 4, 2007

This is not a country-specific answer, but you will be interested in these two links:
1. A World of Books: Annotated surveys of noteworthy books from the Library of Congress (US)
2. Words without Borders: The Online Magazine for International Literature
They've both been great links I bookmarked from Metafilter back in the day.

posted by whatzit at 12:09 PM on April 4, 2007

South Africa: Nadine Gordimer, probably The Conservationist or July's People
posted by junkbox at 12:10 PM on April 4, 2007

Algeria: The Plague, Albert Camus
Japan: A Brief History of Imbecility, Takamura Kotaro
Thousand Cranes, Kawabata Yasunari
posted by Alison at 12:12 PM on April 4, 2007

Well I don't know that any of his works are really representative of his native Portugal, but I've liked just about every one of José Saramago's books.
posted by JaredSeth at 12:16 PM on April 4, 2007

New Zealand: Keri Hulme, The Bone People
Kenya: Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Wizard of the Crow
posted by Prospero at 12:18 PM on April 4, 2007

I am currently hacking away at the Master of Go; it's good but I don't know if I would select Kawabata, or that particular novel of his, for a one shot deal. I'd go with Mishima's After the Banquet or maybe the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. For China I'd go with Gao Xinjian's absolutely jaw droppingly gorgeous Soul Mountain.
posted by The Straightener at 12:20 PM on April 4, 2007

Turkey: something by Orhan Pamuk. For your purposes, I think either The Black Book or Snow. I like The Black Book more, but I think critics tend to favor Snow. They both partly deal with the notion of Turkish identity in the face of Western influences, but if you were going for something more historical and less contemporary, maybe something by Yasar Kemal would be more appropriate.
posted by juv3nal at 12:21 PM on April 4, 2007

It seems like people are picking either recent late 20th century picks or famous classics. Which are you more into? Would you rather read Tale of Genji or the Master of Go, Dream of the Red Chamber or Soul Mountain?

juv3nal - Pamuk just put out a new english translation of Black Book. I had the previous translation, but it's said to be not as as good. Do you know anything about this?
posted by kensanway at 12:28 PM on April 4, 2007

One Hundred Years of Solitude wins in a landslide!
posted by nathancaswell at 12:28 PM on April 4, 2007

Portugal: Seconding Saramago but I did not like reading it in English. Something about his writing style, or the translation, made me leave History of the Siege of Lisbon in an airplane seat pocket after struggling through 30 pages of it. And I never ever abandon books.

And if you read Metafilter, isn't it obligatory to be reading Miguel Esteves Cardoso?
posted by whatzit at 12:29 PM on April 4, 2007

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami for Post WWII Japan?
posted by nathancaswell at 12:29 PM on April 4, 2007

This has potential to be a great thread, by the way.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:30 PM on April 4, 2007

Wow, that LoC link is great, whatzit! This section is pretty much exactly what the poster's looking for, at least for that selection of countries (aside from Russia, for which the choice is truly bizarre, maybe on the principle that everybody knows about the Great Russian Writers already). The first listing, Argentina, has exactly the book I was going to recommend (Sarmiento's Facundo), and as I went down the list I kept seeing more I would have mentioned myself. One substitution, though: for Brazil you should definitely read Jorge Amado. Start with Cacao or The Violent Land if you like grim realism, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon or Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands if you prefer the jovial magical-realist end of the spectrum, and if you like what you find, keep reading. He provides a real panorama of Brazilian history and society (though rural and small-town rather than Rio/Sao Paolo).
posted by languagehat at 12:34 PM on April 4, 2007

juv3nal - Pamuk just put out a new english translation of Black Book. I had the previous translation, but it's said to be not as as good. Do you know anything about this?

No I didn't know there was another one, I've read/got the same old one you had assuming there are only the two. I'd read other people knocking the old translation as well, but frankly it didn't bother me. The Black Book is one of my favorite books ever.
posted by juv3nal at 12:35 PM on April 4, 2007

Good luck finding the Great Timorese Novel
posted by parmanparman at 12:35 PM on April 4, 2007

Iceland: something by Halldor Laxness, maybe Iceland's Bell; or the sagas (eg Egil's saga) which make for remarkable reading.
Japan: Tale of Genji?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:36 PM on April 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Regarding Orhan Pamuk, I thought Istanbul was pretty insightful. I read it while I was in Istanbul & it really made me see the streets differently. (I wish I had a dollar for every time he used the word "melancholy," though. Serious overkill.)

For Egypt, I would say something by Naguib Mahfouz. Although I really thought A Border Passage: From Cairo to America--A Woman's Journey was very enlightening and well written. Mahfouz's writing is wonderful but it took me a little time to really get into it... so be patient if you start reading his works.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:37 PM on April 4, 2007

Since you asked, Mongolian novels by Galsan Tschinang. I saw him speak last year, very impressive.
posted by Rumple at 12:39 PM on April 4, 2007

Less-confident nominations:
New Zealand: The Bone People by Keri Hulme?
Australia: The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway?
both give a strong sense of place, but I'm not sure how truly representative they are of the countries.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:40 PM on April 4, 2007

Cuba: Three Trapped Tigers by Infante

Senegal: God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembene

England: The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns
posted by OmieWise at 12:44 PM on April 4, 2007

Botswana: Though I'm sure there are "heavier" works, Andrew McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe stories are illuminating and thoroughly enjoyable.
posted by annaramma at 12:46 PM on April 4, 2007

How about, from Kyrgyzstan: The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, by Chingis Aitmatov.
Daghestan's not a separate country, nor is Gamzatov a novelist, but My Daghestan is a fun, and unusual, book.

Languagehat, from the top of the text of that link: "This third version of A World of Books focuses on works identified by the Library's area specialists as being classics in their own cultures and influential works that an American audience may have overlooked." If you have overlooked Zinovieva-Annibal, I highly recommend The Tragic Menagerie.
posted by pamccf at 12:52 PM on April 4, 2007

Norway: Knut Hamsun's Hunger.

And how about Wide Sargasso Sea for Dominica. Or Jamaica, since it's set there.

On preview: A "heavier" work for Botswana would be Mating, by Norman Rush. Great, great book.
posted by slenderloris at 12:53 PM on April 4, 2007

Lesotho: Chaka, by Thomas Mofolo.
posted by pamccf at 12:53 PM on April 4, 2007

Norway: I see on preview that Hamsun has already been mentioned, but I'll comment anyway :)

Since you asked for novels I'd have to recommend Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, it's well-written, well researched and I think captures the spirit of medieval Norway exquisitely.

Another Norwegian Nobel Prize in Literature Laureate (Undset won in 1928) worth considering is Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, some of his works appear to be available from Project Gutenberg.

If you are willing to consider plays, then one of Henrik Ibsen's plays would be an obvious choice, or maybe even one of Ludvig Holberg's works .
posted by esilenna at 1:01 PM on April 4, 2007

I'll respectfully disagree with Gompa's suggestion of Barney's version. It is a great novel; but not Mordecai's best, which would be Solomon Gursky was here or Duddy Kravitz; nor even the "Great Canadian novel."

Charter members of the CanLit canon? The stone angel (Laurence); Surfacing (Atwood); In the skin of a lion (Ondaatje); Fifth business (Davies); Roughing it in the bush (Traill); The tin flute (Roy); Two solitudes (McLennan); Duddy Kravitz was here (Richler).

I'd argue that the definition of the Great Canadian Novel is that there is no great Canadian novel. Our literature is not unitary in the sense of describing the ultimate Canadian experience. Rather, CanLit describes the many varieties of the Canadian experience.

But that's not a helpful definition for someone looking to read one book from Canada.

So, if you want a book that:
  • Is concerned with Great Canadian Truths (ie winter and hockey);
  • Has been read by/is known about by a large segment of the population;
  • Has been praised for its insight into Canada;
  • Is obsessed with the French/English divide (while ignoring the more problematic white/aboriginal divide), ie reflects our governing neuroses,

    You could do worse than going with Roch Carrier's The hockey sweater. (link).

    The Leafs suck.

  • posted by docgonzo at 1:03 PM on April 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

    South Africa: My Traitor's Heart
    Canada: In The Skin of a Lion

    2 favourites about my two countries... actually damn come to think of it MTT isn't actually a novel. Maybe somethiing by Coetzee then - Disgrace
    posted by Flashman at 1:04 PM on April 4, 2007

    Spain: Don Quixote (greatest book ever!)

    Although these days it's actually two books, and you don't really miss anything if you skip the second one, which was writen a dozen years later)

    Canada: Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan
    posted by furtive at 1:09 PM on April 4, 2007

    Brazil: surely something by Jorge Amado, like Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.
    posted by hydrophonic at 1:12 PM on April 4, 2007

    Sierra Leone: Abioseh Nicol's "Two African Tales"
    Antigua: Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John
    Lebanon: Venus Khoury-Ghata's A House at the Edge of Tears
    posted by mattbucher at 1:23 PM on April 4, 2007

    For native Native U.S. authors, I'll nominate Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich. Or Love Medicine, also by Erdrich.

    I've also loved The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. It's short stories, not a novel.

    Oh - can't forget Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony.

    I'd argue that these books will show you a different "nation" than the one you've likely read about in books by canonical "American" authors, and if you haven't read them, you really should.
    posted by rtha at 1:26 PM on April 4, 2007

    India: Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.

    Iceland (and only because I'm reading it now and many people have said it is one of Iceland's greatest works): Halldor Laxness' Independent People.
    posted by greggrappone at 1:33 PM on April 4, 2007

    West of Kabul, East of New York is a great memoir.
    posted by radioamy at 1:34 PM on April 4, 2007

    Heinemann's African Writers series might give you a place to start for a few African countries.
    posted by pamccf at 1:39 PM on April 4, 2007

    Languagehat, from the top of the text of that link: "This third version of A World of Books focuses on works identified by the Library's area specialists as being classics in their own cultures and influential works that an American audience may have overlooked." If you have overlooked Zinovieva-Annibal, I highly recommend The Tragic Menagerie.

    Ah, excellent point; I missed that "overlooked" part (though it doesn't really explain the list—The Bridge on the Drina is overlooked?), and I'll look for The Tragic Menagerie. Thanks!

    Two points people might consider in answering:

    1) If you've only read one book from a country, you really don't have much standing to suggest it as the book "most revealing of the lifestyle, customs, struggles, history and national spirit of that country" (not aiming this at anyone in particular, just mentioning it).

    2) This is really more valuable for countries with little-known (abroad) literatures; I would guess the poster has a decent handle on the biggies.
    posted by languagehat at 1:47 PM on April 4, 2007

    Australia: A Fortunate Life by Albert B. Facey
    posted by bigmusic at 1:51 PM on April 4, 2007

    I just started volunteering at 826CHI, and they have a book club called Globiblio. Each month's book is from another country, and when the group meets, everybody brings a dish to eat from that country. You might want to check out the reading list for ideas. This month's book is from New Zealand, it's called Potiki, and apparently the author (Patricia Grace) is a certified, real life Maori. So, there you go right there.
    posted by buriednexttoyou at 2:25 PM on April 4, 2007

    Ghana - The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born - Ayikwei Armah
    Ghana - The Dilemma of a Ghost - Ama Ata Aidoo
    posted by ramix at 2:30 PM on April 4, 2007

    Guinea - The African Child by Camara Laye. Not a novel, but the book won the Prix Charles Veillon in 1954 and is apparently one of the earliest books from Francophone West Africa. For a novel, Camara Laye's Radiance of the King.
    posted by n'muakolo at 2:47 PM on April 4, 2007

    Good points, languagehat. I would never suggest that someone could suggest one book that epitomizes Czech literature, or that I really know shit about Czech society and culture. I'm just a mark for Vaclav Havel's plays.
    posted by roll truck roll at 2:55 PM on April 4, 2007

    I'm not sure it really represetns Hungarian culture per se, but Journey by Moonlight is a great Hungarian novel, and has a real "Hungarian-ness" to its outlook. I'd recommend it over Eclipse of the Crescent Moon.
    posted by wandering steve at 3:04 PM on April 4, 2007

    Regarding NZ's contribution, I'm not a big fan of the bone people (yes, without the capital), even though it won the Booker. Potiki is a pretty good alternative, although Janet Frame is damn good as well.
    posted by Paragon at 3:06 PM on April 4, 2007

    While Things Fall Apart is an excellent book about the introduction of colonialism and tribal life in Nigeria, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun is an excellent novel about the Biafran war. It was just released last year.
    posted by rabbitsnake at 3:16 PM on April 4, 2007

    For Russia, the matter's a little complicated (although I haven't read Zinovyeva-Annibal).

    I would say:

    Timeless Russian Spirit: definitely Goncharov's Oblomov, or Venedikt Erofeev's Moscow to the End of the Line.
    Soviet Russia: Emphatically not Solzhenitsyn, but I would say The Master and Margarita; others will disagree.
    Contemporary Russia: Viktor Pelevin, Generation P (published in the US as Homo Zapiens).
    posted by nasreddin at 3:19 PM on April 4, 2007

    Or, an even better pick for Soviet Russia would be Ilf and Petrov's The Twelve Chairs. I don't know how I could forget that.

    For Argentina, I think I would read Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, but maybe punkbitch would think otherwise.
    posted by nasreddin at 3:22 PM on April 4, 2007

    boo. i say for canada, the obvious choice is as for me and my house by sinclair ross.
    posted by wreckingball at 3:41 PM on April 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

    One of Italo Calvino's compilations of short stories (I enjoyed "Difficult Loves", among others). Perhaps his retelling of Italian Folktales? (the book is "Italian Folktales")
    posted by hopeless romantique at 3:45 PM on April 4, 2007

    Also, I second Kundera.
    posted by hopeless romantique at 3:47 PM on April 4, 2007

    Morocco :

    New - Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami.

    Older - Love with a Few Hairs by Mohammed Mrabet.
    posted by Liosliath at 3:54 PM on April 4, 2007

    In addition to Italo Calvino, you might want to look at Umberto Eco. They're both fairly popular authors there, and their books are generally nice reads.

    One classic that deals with the issue of Italy during WWII is Una Questione Privata (A Private Affair) by Fenoglio; I'm not sure whether the English translation is any good as I was required to read it (very, very poorly) in Italian. I'm not sure whether it's still an issue at all, but for a long time the war, and Italy's relationship with fascism, was a focal point of Italian literature and cinema, so A Private Affair would definitely be relevant, as would Eco's Focoult's Pendulum (which touches on the student climate in Northern Italy during the 60s-70s, although I know little of this history myself).
    posted by Deathalicious at 4:36 PM on April 4, 2007

    Poland: Bruno Schultz's Streets of Crocodiles. (Can't speak to it being representative, though.) You could also try Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird."

    [Ending my shout-out to the Poles.]
    posted by sfkiddo at 4:46 PM on April 4, 2007

    Tibet: Tales of Uncle Tompa The Legendary Rascal of Tibet
    posted by DenOfSizer at 5:44 PM on April 4, 2007

    And I'd submit The Flounder, by Gunter Grass, for Germany.

    And Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.
    Also, and 'scuse the caps, this link will help you
    posted by DenOfSizer at 5:53 PM on April 4, 2007

    For an Italo Calvino that feels very Italian I can't recommend Marcovaldo enough.
    posted by Paragon at 6:18 PM on April 4, 2007

    Norway: anything by Hamsun
    posted by fondle at 7:09 PM on April 4, 2007

    >James Joyce's 'Ulysses'
    Ack, no. I'd suggest An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) by yer man Myles Na Gcopaleen (Flann O'Brien).

    posted by zaphod at 7:10 PM on April 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

    Ignoring languagehat's suggestion that maybe you should be quite familiar with a country & its literature to make a recommendation, I offer the following. These are the books that I consider to have given me useful (real or imagined) insights into various countries.

    I doubt that many countries would have individual books that are somehow "most representative", so these are ones that are either loaded with detail, cover specific historical periods or events, play upon mythologies, or just have a kind of general feel that I associate with those places, especially the places I have physically visited.

    India: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.
    Brazil: The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa
    Dominican Republic: The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
    Angola: South of Nowhere by Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portuguese writer)
    Colombia: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    Morocco: For Bread Alone by Mohamed Choukri
    Vatican City: The Bible by various authors
    Egypt: something by Naguib Mahfouz (disclaimer: haven't read any, but understand these to be *the* novels about Cairo)
    Siberia: Once Upon the River Love by Andrei Makine (um, maybe Siberia isn't sovereign, but this is deserving)
    Norway: Mysteries by Knut Hamsun
    South Africa: Disgrace by J M Coetzee
    Russia: The Master & Margarita, which is about the most awesome book in the universe
    Pakistan: Shame by Salman Rushdie
    Mozambique: The Murmuring Coast by Lidia Jorge (Portuguese writer)
    Mexico: Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo
    Tanzania: Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah
    Argentina: The Lizards Tail by Luisa Valenzuela

    There must be some others that I cannot recall this very second - mostly African, Latin American & Eastern European.

    I offer no advice on biggies like Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Japan etc.

    I will specifically recommend against The Plague by Albert Camus for Algeria - this is really just an overburdened metaphor for France's experience with the Nazis.
    posted by UbuRoivas at 7:13 PM on April 4, 2007

    Seconding rtha's Native American recommendations, particularly Ceremony and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven. However, much as I love Alexie's short stories and novels -- "Lone Ranger" is what first made me fall in love with his work -- I think his poetry is even stronger than his prose. Try First Indian On The Moon or The Summer of Black Widows. Or go read his recent "Avian Nights" online, since it hasn't appeared in print outside of limited-edition chapbooks yet.

    I'd love to hear what I_Am_Joe's_Spleen or other Kiwis have to recommend for New Zealand, but I definitely enjoyed the much-recced The Bone People.

    For Russia, I am in hearty agreement on The Master and Margarita. I love Bulgakov and that is surely his masterwork.

    As for Denmark and Greenland, my username probably betrays my deep fondness for Peter Høeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow.
    posted by Smilla's Sense of Snark at 7:47 PM on April 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

    Oh, Ben Okri: The Famished Road.

    Not sure exactly where this is set, but maybe Kenya...? African magic-real, basically.

    Gotta comment as well: there is such an utter wealth of great Indian literature that India, like Japan and others, really requires a recommendation of a dozen books, at least. Most would go for Midnight's Children because it is a massive book, in scope & style, and covers, metaphorically, Indian history since independence right up until I think the late 80s. Mistry's A Fine Balance is similarly ambitious and is right up there, if a little melodramatic. Personally, I think his short stories in Tales from Firozsha Baag present a wonderful series of snippets of everyday life in urban India, lacking the slightly pompous grandiosity of AFB.

    For something more simple & down to earth, I could also recommend Raja Rao's short novel Kanthapura from around 1930 for village life, caste & communal politics, the independence struggle etc. That's just another side of India.
    posted by UbuRoivas at 8:19 PM on April 4, 2007

    Damn you Smilla SOS, I read all the thread with hope that I would get to recommend Smilla's Sense of Snow.

    India: I would recommend Shantaram by Gregory Roberts.
    Sri Lanka: Anil's Ghost by Micheal Ondtaaje
    Iran?: Samarkand by Amin Malouf
    posted by dhruva at 8:24 PM on April 4, 2007

    haha! I was just considering Shantaram! A fantastic read.
    posted by UbuRoivas at 8:56 PM on April 4, 2007

    Colette for France.
    posted by brujita at 10:42 PM on April 4, 2007

    my vote for NZ is Once Were Warriors
    posted by Persimmon at 10:49 PM on April 4, 2007

    Back again. Noting that a lot of the recommendations (some of mine included) are books about certain countries but written by foreigners, I'm gonna give a general recommendation for Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. The guy has a phenomenal workrate, turning out consistently unputdownable books on nearly a yearly basis. What's more, they are meticulously researched, especially when 'fictionalising' specific historical events. Not confining his subject matter to Peru alone, you could probably learn about most Latin American countries if you pick your way through his work.

    More like "historical tidbits written up in a literary style" than fiction, Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire Trilogy is also a treasure trove of Latin American history, culture & politics.

    Collette for France? OK, I'll bite. Georges Perec: Life - a User's Manual.
    posted by UbuRoivas at 11:09 PM on April 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

    My China pick for novels in translation would probably be Ma Jian's Red Dust. The translator is his wife and they collaborated on the English version, which only makes it better IMO.
    posted by Abiezer at 1:21 AM on April 5, 2007

    Sharon Bakar, a bibliophile based in Malaysia, has complied a South East Asian reading list.
    posted by divabat at 6:21 AM on April 5, 2007

    I will specifically recommend against The Plague by Albert Camus for Algeria - this is really just an overburdened metaphor for France's experience with the Nazis.

    True, but I thought a lot of Algeria came through: the cafe culture, the dusty-hot weather, the confused mix of ethnic cultures. Camus was born in Algeria and has a good sense of the people and the place.

    Also, I want to clarify my choice of 'A Brief History of Imbecility'. I have a degree in Japanese literature and have read most of the canon in both English and the original Japanese. This is the only book that I have read that really explains the madness leading up to World War II Japan. It's really a non-fiction book of poetry, but each poem reads like an essay and each left me understanding a little bit more. I don't know why it isn't more widely read, but it is a real gem.

    If you are set on fiction try the following:
    1. Modern Japan: A Personal Matter Matter, Kenzaburo Oe (About the helplessness of a man whose wife has given birth to a child with potentially fatal deformities)
    2. World War II Japan: The Sea and Poison, Shusaku Endo (About a doctor forced to participate in the killings American POWs for science, based on a true story)
    3. Japan's struggle with Modernization: The Makioka Sisters, Tanazaki Junichiro (About a set of sisters dealing with a changing society as they try to cross the threshold into full adulthood/married life)
    posted by Alison at 6:22 AM on April 5, 2007

    Austria: The Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard (also called Cutting Timber)

    Wales: A High Wind in Jamaica by Hughes
    posted by OmieWise at 6:52 AM on April 5, 2007

    Response by poster: Fantastic responses everybody, thanks a lot. All these suggestions should keep me going for the next half-decade or so! Exactly what I was looking for.
    posted by Black Spring at 7:52 AM on April 5, 2007

    I second nasreddin's Russian recommendations: spot-on.

    Ignoring languagehat's suggestion that maybe you should be quite familiar with a country & its literature to make a recommendation

    Yeah, that was pretty dumb, and I regretted it immediately after hitting Post, especially when it occurred to me I don't think I've read any other Brazilian novelists besides Amado. Sometimes my fingers run away with my brain.
    posted by languagehat at 9:54 AM on April 5, 2007

    Here's a great list for Arabic literature.
    posted by languagehat at 2:46 PM on April 5, 2007

    Well, I'd argue that you'd need to read a lot in order to get a rounded perspective of a country. After all, a novel is a portrait, not a photograph. But i found "The Inheritance of Loss" to be a pretty interesting portrait of contemporary India. "Anna Karenina" speaks a lot about the gentry in 19th century Russia, as "Pride and Prejudice" does England.

    "Another Country" by James Baldwin is a really moving book about race and sex dysphoria and alienation in 1960s New York City.

    Shusaku Endo's "Deep River" told me a lot about Japanese culture, overlaid with India, as well. it was also an intensely moving book that meant a lot to me, personally - 6 japanese tourists in India confront their lives as their trip accidentally turns into a pilgramage to the holy Ganges River.

    +1 to avoiding Camus.
    +1 to Italo Calvino (Mr. Palomar sounds hilarious, I can't wait to read it. Invisible Cities was beautiful)
    +1 to One Hundred Years of Solitude

    An admirable pursuit, Black Spring. I've made an attempt, over the past two years of my life, to read a lot from non-white, non-American, non-European authors. While not as guided as your intentions, it has been extremely rewarding.

    Wish they taught better in schools.
    posted by entropone at 8:07 AM on April 6, 2007

    Oh! I need to add "Kite Runner" - sort of best-seller-y, but very good - set in Afghanistan, pre-Taliban.
    posted by entropone at 8:08 AM on April 6, 2007

    Finland: I'm no literature expert, unfortunately, but I feel fairly safe in recommending Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi. Published during a period of strong Finnish nationalism in the late 19th century, it was aggressively ridiculed for its "unflattering" depiction of Finnish people, and the harsh reception ended up driving the author insane.

    Today it's the one book that's force-fed to kids at school, with good reason. I originally managed to dodge that assignment, but later read it voluntarily, in one sitting.
    posted by Anything at 1:36 PM on April 6, 2007

    Armenia: Wounds of Armenia by Khachatur Abovian
    Azerbaijan: Ali and Nino by Kurban Said

    Black Garden by Thomas De Waal is also an excellent book if you want to know more about the current Nagorno Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
    posted by borjomi at 4:22 PM on April 6, 2007

    For Indonesia, I would suggest Pramoedya Ananta Toer's works. I did a study abroad program in college in Java and Bali. A parting gift from our program director was an English translation of "Child of All Nations". The story touched me so much and was the perfect gift to remember our experiences. Pramoedya's works were banned during the rule of Soeharto (and until his ousting) -- which made it even more significant.

    For China, "Story of the Stone" by Cao Xueqin is an exemplary piece of classical literature. While it was written in 1760's, the 5 volume story is a fine example of Chinese culture and society. While it doesn't describe the modern era of China, I'd say it illuminates the reader to a rich background to the rooted philosophy and character of Chinese culture and society. Brilliant and engaging story.

    Good luck in your pursuits, I wish you a pleasant journey.
    posted by loquat at 10:14 PM on April 7, 2007

    For Bosnia, and in a real sense, the whole of former Yugoslavia, then The Bridge over the Drina, by Ivo Andrić.
    posted by Rumple at 10:40 PM on April 7, 2007

    As much as I think Smilla's Sense of Snow is a fine novel and worth reading, I wouldn't recommend it as an iconic representation of Danish novels, if for no other reason than that many Danes are ambivalent about Hoeg's current position as the international face of Danish literature.

    My favorite Danish novel is Kongens fald (The Fall of the King), in which Johannes V. Jensen tries to put a date to the beginning of Denmark's long slide into small nation status. Hint: it happens in the 1500s. It always shows up in the lists of top ten national novels and the author eventually won a Nobel Prize. It also has the added bonus of a wide ranging style with marks of early Modernism and is less relentlessly downbeat than many other important Danish novels like Niels Lyhne, for example.
    posted by ga$money at 8:23 AM on April 8, 2007

    I recently became a fan of R.S Naipaul, and his brother, Shiva Naipaul, who grew up in an Indian (Asian, that is) community in Port of Spain, Trinidad. In particular I just started a book called "The Chip-Chip Gatherers" by Shiva Naipaul. I found this Amazon list where it was called "perhaps the best fictional rendering of E. Indian life in Trinidad". It may not be the most represetative look at Trinidad since it seems to focus on the Indian community which is only one of many cultures to inhabit the island, but perhaps still worth a look. It is the only Trinidadian (?) literature I have encountered so far.
    posted by PercussivePaul at 5:08 PM on April 8, 2007

    That's probably V.S. Naipaul, not R.S.

    Might as well throw in another recommendation for India: R K Narayan - a whole series of short novels centred on the fictional town of Malgudi. Lovely, down-to-earth glimpses of Indian life.
    posted by UbuRoivas at 4:56 PM on April 9, 2007

    Netherlands: De Avonden (The Evenings) by Gerard Reve.
    posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:14 AM on April 10, 2007

    David Tod Roy's translation of The Plum In The Golden Vase (Chin P'ing Mei) is a revelation, and he's still working on it (I'm waiting on pins and needles for Volume 4). It's one of the only foundational Chinese classics that doesn't seem to lose its zest in translation--I gotta admit, I was disappointed with The Dream Of The Red Chamber when I got around to reading it a couple years ago. But Roy's translation work somehow avoids all of the fruitiness that seems inevitable with Chinese classics. And it's got everything--lurid sex, moralizing through tight poetry, wicked plots, greed, luxury, decay. It's incredible.

    The case studies of ancient China are awesome too...as is Master Tung's Western Chamber Romance.

    For Japan, I'd go with Akutagawa's short story collection. Kawabata maybe. Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles, Ishiguro's A Pale View Of The Hills, Mishima of course of course (the tetralogy or The Temple Of The Golden Pavilion...Maybe Oe, but if anything because he miraculously DEFIES conventional Japanese language--no easy feat. Abe's The Woman In The Dunes or The Box Man (I haven't read Ark Sakura yet).

    French: Gerard de Nerval! I'm also partial to Genet, much more than the more famous Bataille and his ilk.

    German: Hm...controversial I know, especially lately, but Grass' The Tin Drum, still.

    American: There are a million very obvious ones, so partly to be contrary I'll suggest the overlooked Dawn Powell. My Home Is Very Far Away is an American classic, to me.

    It's iffy, but I might say Peter Carey for Australia/New Zealand. Oscar And Lucinda moved me in that whole "epic feeling personal histories getting lost beneath the weight of stuffier forms of history" way that Ondaatje's In The Skin Of A Lion does for Canada for me. Sigh.
    posted by ifjuly at 10:32 AM on April 11, 2007

    Oh! And duh...Pessoa of course for Portugal, Lorca for Spain.

    The Leopard for Italy.
    posted by ifjuly at 10:37 AM on April 11, 2007

    For India, you should try the following:

    Delhi by Khushwant Singh: It's a sprawling urban novel that captures all the facets and inconsistencies of India

    Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts: Awesome book about life in Bombay/Mumbai

    A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: A great look at the poor and downtrodden of India. Also, check out Family Matters. It's a novel that has great characterizations of middle class Indian family life.
    posted by reenum at 6:14 AM on April 23, 2007

    For India, I would second Shantaram and A Fine Balance. Both books really take you into the psyche of an Indian person.

    A Fine Balance takes you into the psyche of poor and middle class Indians. It is also a great history lesson about the national mood during Indira Gandhi's forced sterilization program.

    Shantaram has the best descriptions of Bombay I have ever read. It's worth reading for that reason alone.
    posted by reenum at 3:34 PM on August 3, 2007

    For today's Poland "Snow White and Russian Red" by Dorota Maslowska, although this must be one hard-to-translate book. Alternatively you could read anythng by Jerzy Pilch (especially his editorials) but he doesn't seem to get translated into English much.

    Classic Polish historical novels: Sienkiewicz's Trilogy: "Ogniem i Mieczem", "Potop" and "Pan Wolodyjowski"
    posted by barrakuda at 4:55 PM on December 4, 2007

    Too bad Israel isn't on here yet. I can't say I've read too much Israeli fiction, I'm more of an English reader, so I don't know of how much help I can be. I can highly recommend, however, Etgar Keret's short stories (The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, for example) or anything David Grossman or Amos Oz, simply because they're the most famous modern Israeli authors. If you're looking for more "classic" Israeli literature, per say, you can try A. B. Yehoshua's books, like the famous "The Lover".
    posted by alon at 4:09 PM on December 11, 2007

    For Israel, surely SY Agnon would be the best choice? Nobel Prize winner, "founder of modern Hebrew literature." Only Yesterday, his novel about the second Aliyah, is probably the best choice.
    posted by OmieWise at 6:00 AM on December 12, 2007

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