A Literary Guide to the World

The Salon has a great collection on literary destinations of the world. Some of those that interested me appear below.

Russia: Ken Kalfus provides a backdrop to the contemporary Russia and goes on a nostalgic trip to the past when great literature was written. A couple of remarkable insights:

Alienation, the struggle for a decent life, really bad weather — the universal themes of this vast nation’s literature make us all feel Russian at one point or another…

During the Soviet era, literature was an occupation slightly less dangerous than coal mining

And also this one from Nobokov:

In his notes to “Anna Karenina,” collected in his “Lectures on Russian Literature,” Nabokov recalls that one day when he was a small boy, he and his father encountered an old man on a street in St. Petersburg. The elder Nabokov knew the man, chatted briefly with him and then, after they parted, told his son, “That was Tolstoy.” We don’t know which St. Petersburg street so briefly channeled this confluence of talent.

Unfortunately, Kalfus does not discuss the contemporary literature coming out of Russia, nor some of the recent discoveries from the past, most notably Andrei Platonov.

Chile: A very comprehensive introduction to the literature from Chile, but leaving out, for some reason, one writer who has been making waves in the last decade, Roberto Bolano.

The crazy character of this wondrous land shines in the poems of Pablo Neruda, while its strife under Pinochet is captured best by José Donoso and Patricia Verdugo…

A country not quite like any other: thousands of miles long and never more than a few hundred miles wide, isolated from the outside world by the cordillera de los Andes to the east and the most turbulent ocean on this planet, ironically called the Pacific, roaring to the west. As if Norway and the Gobi, Oregon and Italy, the Alps and Nantucket, had been compressed into one small nation, a land that doesn’t fit into a novel, a land that demands the delirium of poetry. No wonder Chile is known as “un país de poetas.”

A land of poets.


Benjamin Kunkel discusses Borges, Bruce Chatwin, Cortázar, César Aira, Manuel Puig, Marguerite Feitlowitz’s “A Lexicon of Terror” and Edwin Williamson’s “Borges: A Life”.

That he misses out Tomás Eloy Martínez is rather unfair.

From Borges to Bruce Chatwin, the rich and moody literature of South America’s most European nation reflects its homeland’s squandered potential…

And this sense of an Argentina constantly delivered, against its will, into the desolation of reality may also do something to explain why the most moving lines in Borges’ poetry are always those uncharacteristic ones in which the imagination fails and the elaborate structures collapse. To a would-be lover he writes: “I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.” To himself he says: “And I don’t know how time can pass/ I who am time, and blood, and pain.” And when at last he goes blind, as his father before him did, he says: “Soon I will know who I am.”


In this place where the bizarre is banal and nothing is quite what it seems, it’s no surprise that the literature will blow your mind…

In front of tourists, Mexicans become consummate actors. They’ll say just about anything to enchant you, to make you lose your mind. This, after all, is a country where the bizarre becomes routine. Not surprisingly, foreigners return again and again as if hypnotized. Their account of life en el México profundo is as captivating as it is untrustworthy.

Ilan Stavan decides to focus less on the literature from Mexico, and more on the writing by Europeans including Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”. This is rather unfortunate since there is so much of literature from Mexico that is of international stature. Mariano Azuela’s” The Underdogs” manages to find a passing reference, as does Juan Rulfo’s “The Burning Plain”, though not his more famous “Pedro Paramo”.

China: “To understand the last century of this vast Far Eastern country, look to the moving stories of Lu Xun, a celebrated memoir of the Cultural Revolution and an engaging, concise history.”

Rest of the World (nothing on South Asia except for Afganisation. Though in the “Middle East” category)

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5 thoughts on “A Literary Guide to the World

  1. very interesting bhupinder, thanks!!

    and they left out prague and vienna? two places i really want to go once 😦

    the guide is short on asia. even middle east, in which people in US are most interested, is not there. may be its too dangerous?

  2. Lots of places have been missed out. I would add Budapest and Peru, at the very least. Perhaps these will come later.

    India too is a glaring omission, but the fact is that only the literature written in English is likely to be covered. Those writing in Indian languages are unlikely to find mention.

    Even among the countries covered, I think the quality is uneven, and there are some glaring omissions as I have indicated in my post. Though one should not make much of it, since these are Travel companions, and limited by that perspective. But still…

    Middle East: I doubt if many Easterners will want to go there for the next few years, and that should actually encourage literature from that region.

  3. It is surprising how few books we see coming out of middle east here in the west, when there is so much curiosity about the place among the general public. A thoroughly pointless book like Reading Lolita in Teheran becomes a bestseller and gets reviewed in every single place just because it is set in Teheran, I wonder why publishers are not following up with its success.

    Also the novel Kite Runner (which i suspect is only a popular potboiler not having read it myself) became a bestseller just because it was set in afghanistan.

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