Top ten South American reads: a literary trip

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Fiction was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale. -Gabriel García Márquez.

Dreaming of distant South American shores, but still saving for your airfare? Well, why not let your imagination take flight in the meantime, and tap into our top ten reads from this inspiring continent. Before you know it, you'll be lazing on Copacabana Beach, hiking Peruvian mountain trails, delving into Colombian backwaters or sizzling in Santiago…

Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina, 1944)

Borges' influence on 20th-century Latin American literature cannot be overstated. His painstaking, paradoxical ficciones are a blend of essay and story, blurring the line between myth and truth, and wreaking merry metaphysical mayhem. This is his most famous anthology, and an ideal introduction to his work.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Jorge Amado (Brazil, 1966)
Brazil's best known and most loved author, Jorge Amado set many of his novels in Salvador, and this funny, saucy little number is no exception. So vividly does he evoke the city's sights, sounds, smells and sensuality that you'll be ready to catch the next flight there. True to its title, the book centers on a woman named Flor and her two husbands. To reveal any more would be to spoil the fun…

I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (Paraguay, 1974)
A classic example of that uniquely Latin American literary genre, the dictator novel, this powerful book is a fictionalized history of 19th-century Paraguayan despot José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco. An unforgettable study of the relationship between language and power, its impact was such that Paraguay's dictator at the time, General Stroessner, banned Roa Bastos from ever returning to his homeland.

The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende (Chile, 1982)
Chile’s most famous contemporary literary export, Isabel Allende weaves ‘magical realism’ into enchanting, wildly popular stories with historic references. The House of the Spirits chronicles the eventful history of four generations of the Trueba family. A work of jaw-dropping imagination, it also paints a moving picture of the 1973 military coup that resulted in the death of the author's cousin, President Salvador Allende, in Santiago.

Death in the Andes, Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru, 1993)
Vargas Llosa proves yet again why he's the world's best, with this masterpiece that is part detective thriller, part social critique. A cop from Arequipa is sent to the mountains on a mysterious case, and encounters everything from the Shining Path and gruesome pre-Incan rituals, to his sidekick's delirious tales of love. Lines between civilization and savagery, superstition and reality, are blurred; the atmosphere of violence past and present is poetically oppressive.

Santa Evita, Tomás Eloy Martínez (Argentina, 1996)
Another intriguing blend of history and fiction, this sequel to Eloy Martínez's hit, The Perón Novel, traces the surreal travels of Evita’s embalmed corpse (not to mention her copy corpses), as army officials try to dispose of it in such a way that it can't be used by the Peronists to further their cause. Captivating, comic and convoluted, this is a challenging but rewarding read. Forget that schmaltzy musical!

News of a Kidnapping, Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia, 1996)
Magical realism's maestro returns to his journalistic roots with this literary nonfiction novel. News of a Kidnapping relates a series of ten secuestros ordered by Medellín cartel boss, Pablo Escobar, in protest against an extradition treaty struck between the Colombian and US governments. There are none of GGM's trademark whimsical flourishes in this intense, intricate and unflinching depiction of recent Colombian history, but you won't care.

The Dark Bride, Laura Restrepo (Colombia, 1999)
Sayonara is queen of the prostitutes in La Catunga, the red light district of remote Colombian oil town, Tora. The Dark Bride unfolds many years after Sayonara's glory days, taking the form of a journalistic investigation into the legendary whore's enduring mystique. This delicious work, by prize-winning novelist Restrepo, reads like a dream while providing a compelling glimpse into a Colombia rarely imagined.

Marching Powder, Rusty Young (Australia, 2004)
Penned by an Australian, this fascinating book introduces us to the bizarre parallel universe that is San Pedro Prison in La Paz. Young was backpacking in Bolivia when he read about 'unofficial' tours of this notorious prison in his, ahem, Lonely Planet guide, and decided to go along. There, he met Thomas McFadden, an English inmate serving time for selling coke. What comes next is one wild ride!

A Window in Copacabana, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Brazil, 2005)
The prolific Garcia-Roza has been likened to Rio de Janeiro's Raymond Chandler; and Inspector Espinosa - his loveable, bookish protagonist - to the kind of detective Gabriel García Márquez might dream up. High praise indeed, and completely warranted. This novel, about a series of police murders, is a fine example of the author's trademark quirky plotting and wry humor. And naturally, our hero soon finds himself distracted by a sultry seductress or two…

Of course, this list is just the infinitesimal (and necessarily biased) tip of the gigantic iceberg that is South American literature. What are your favorite books from the region? Anyone know any great Venezuelan or Ecuadorean novels? Who wants to come to Rio for Carnaval next year?!