The best pieces of literature in any language are timeless and universal.
They endure because of their unique ability to appeal to the human experience that we share, regardless of country, culture and time period.
These works are written in an artful manner combining compelling storytelling with well-crafted descriptions—all while simultaneously pointing towards the moral compass inherent within each and every one of us.
As far as Spanish literature goes, the most powerful novels and short stories can appeal to native speakers as well as those who are learning the language.
Why Read Classic Spanish Novels?
As noted above, classic novels in any language are defined by their ability to stand the test of time—and they can only do so by transcending their culture and time period. They connect to something deep within us all. They reflect on the life experiences, emotions and conflicts that most people go through or can relate to in some way.
This means that they are easier for language learners to connect with.
For example, in “El amor en los tiempos del cólera” (Love in the Time of Cholera), you will read descriptions such as el olor de las almendras amargas (the smell of the bitter almonds) drawing you into the scenes with familiar sights, sounds, tastes and smells. The author combines the bittersweet nature of this image with the pain inherent in love, which is a concept we can all relate to.
In addition to the universality inherent with their themes, the best Spanish-language authors add a touch of culture either from Latin America, Europe or a combination of the two. They may focus on a particular region or subculture. These authors set their stories in a distinct place and time, and you will feel immersed in it.
One such example is Gabriel García Marquez, who wrote historical novels that can teach you about what life was like at a certain place and time. Additionally, his writing can even give you a sense of what words were used within a certain culture. Again, you can see examples of this in Marquez’s classic “El amor en los tiempos del cólera,” which takes place in the Caribbean region of Colombia.
Smart Language Lessons
In order to advance your command of the Spanish language, it is important to read as much as you can. Once you get past the beginning stages of learning the language with a grasp on basic verb conjugation and common words, you will only improve by putting your knowledge to good use.
In this blog post, we will be focusing on ten classic stories that have helped to define the language and art, appealing to readers of several levels, including intermediate and advanced Spanish speakers of all ages.
We would recommend that you take notes on these books as you read them, marking down or highlighting words that catch your eye. Following this exercise, look up these words in your dictionary or thesaurus and pay close attention to how the author uses them in order to bolster your command of the language.
The 10 Best Spanish Novels to Stir Your Heart and Open Your Mind
1. “Corazón tan blanco” (A Heart So White) by Javier Marías
This Spanish novel penned by Madrid native Javier Marías was a defining literary work of the 1990s.
“Corazón tan blanco” delves into the life of a married man. The story uses flashbacks to tell us about his past, which includes a tragedy that occurred before he was born and that would affect his entire life.
The novel ultimately focuses on what it means to be married and the pain inherent in being in love.
One of the iconic passages of the novel is the following:
Contar deforma, contar los hechos deforma los hechos y los tergiversa y casi los niega, todo lo que se cuenta pasa a ser irreal y aproximativo aunque sea verídico, la verdad no depende de que las cosas fueron y sucedieron, sino de que permanecieron ocultas y se desconozcan y no se cuenten.
La única verdad es la que no se conoce ni se transmite, la que no se traduce a palabras ni a imágenes, la encubierta y no averiguada.
This passage speaks to the imperfect and biased nature of memory, as telling (contar) a story changes and twists the facts (deforma los hechos y los tergiversa). Marías uses these words to describe the human element to the telling of a tale—the telling always takes you one step farther away from the truth.
One of these verbs—deforma—reminds us of the nature of deformity, which can be a physical imperfection, and uses it to define storytelling here.
Take another close look at this line:
…la única verdad es la que no se conoce ni se transmite, la que no se traduce a palabras ni a imágenes, la encubierta y no averiguada.
In this segment, the humanity in telling a tale is further explained. The real truth is not “known” or “transmitted” or “translated.” All of these words are human functions that change the facts through the human interpretation of the truth.
Within the novel itself, this section adds tension to the story due to the fact that the protagonist is essentially trying to discover the truth, but all he has are fragments from tales told by multiple characters. Ultimately, the facts shape up and we shape the facts with perspective.
2. “Niebla” (Mist) by Miguel de Unamuno
“Niebla” is one of the defining novels of Miguel de Unamuno’s career, focusing on a young man who seeks meaning in his life following the death of his mother. He befriends a young woman and attempts to win her affection but faces a number of obstacles in the process. The novel explores the hardships of love, youth and the search we all embark on to find a purpose to live.
Here is a fragment that will capture your attention:
Si sientes que algo te escarabajea dentro, pidiéndote libertad, abre el chorro y déjalo correr tal y como brote.
De Unamuno’s beauty with the Spanish language and sentimentality is at its best in phrases such as this one, which roughly translates to: “If you feel that something skitters within, begging for freedom, open the jet and let it flow out.” The quote speaks to the light inside that makes us feel alive. The author asks us to open up the part of us that gives us meaning and let it all pour out, like a jet or stream.
The words de Unamuno uses are notable as they speak to the human spirit in a manner that is quite visceral and tied to nature. The word escarabajea, used to describe “skittering” here, is a verb that plays off the word escarabajo, which is the Spanish word for beetle. The idea of something skittering inside is a physical sensation of something that is poking at us, begging to get out.
Additionally, the idea of opening up the chorro, which is a word often used when talking about a liquid jetting out of a small hole, connects emotional release with the physical sensation of bleeding. The verb brote from brotar means “to sprout,” which reinforces the idea of opening the blockage within yourself and growing your own happiness.
The protagonist of the story searches deep within himself to find his reason for living throughout the story, and de Unamuno adds depth to this concept with his vocabulary choices. The author’s word choices teach us how to add a physical dimension to our writing so that everything feels more real and tangible. There is a reason why this author is so well known for his luscious phrases.
3. “El obsceno pájaro de la noche” (The Obscene Bird of Night) by José Donoso
Chilean author José Donoso was one of the preeminent writers of the magic realism movement, which is an iconic part of Latin American history, combining traditional fiction with magical elements.
In this 1970 novel, the author examines how obsession and the anguish that comes with it leads to suffering, including physical manifestations of our fears. “El obsceno pájaro de la noche” uses allegory to depict deep psychological turmoil in a person.
Here is an iconic quote from the book:
No sabía cuál era la realidad, la de adentro o la de afuera, si había inventado lo que pensaba o lo que pensaba había inventado lo que sus ojos veían. Era un mundo sellado, ahogante, como vivir adentro de un saco tratando de morder el yute para buscar una salida o darle una entrada al aire y ver si era afuera o adentro o en otra parte donde estaba su destino.
In this scene, we see the man’s slow descent into madness, where he is unsure what reality is and whether or not his mind was deceiving him. The key part of this part revolves around the concept of a world that is:
sellado, ahogante, como vivir adentro de un saco tratando de morder el yute para buscar una salida.
(sealed, suffocating, like living inside a sack trying to bite the jute to find an exit.)
This excerpt is a prime example of how Donoso uses an image to depict an emotion. The protagonist’s desperation is ahogante, which comes from ahogar (drown), and he is trapped in a cage that only exists in his mind due to circumstances. His teeth are attempting to bite yute (jute), a strong fiber he cannot escape by those means.
Donoso describes the suffocating nature of the situation and uses a metaphor that is as harrowing as its period of time. The fantastical elements of magical realism often add an element of terror that makes the reader shiver in their own skin.
4. “El criticón” by Baltasar Gracián
“El criticón” is a novel of a bygone era, released over three parts in 1651, 1653 and 1657. Along with “Don Qujiote” and “La celestina,” this Baltasar Gracián novel is considered to be one of the three iconic works of classic Spanish writing.
This work is an epopeya, which is an epic form of literature that revolves around a hero, ultimately serving as a tale of morality. “El criticón” comes from the word crítica (critique, criticism) and titles a philosophical discourse of sorts that reflects Gracián’s pessimistic view of society through the eyes of two men: the naïve Andrenio and the wise Critilo.
Todo cuanto inventó la industria humana ha sido perniciosamente fatal y en daño de sí misma: la pólvora es un horrible estrago de las vidas, instrumento de su mayor ruina, y una nave no es otro que un ataúd anticipado.
One of the work’s biggest arguments is how technology has a negative effect on society, which is one of the reasons why Gracián has a cynical view of the future. In this quote, he notes that all inventions from industria humana (human industry) have been perniciosamente fatal (perniciously fatal), including la pólvora (gunpowder) and una nave (a ship) which he calls un ataúd (a coffin).
Gracián’s command of the language is basic, direct and effective. Instead of dancing around a subject, he treats his protagonists as philosophers that serve a didactic purpose: showing what is right and wrong.
It is no surprise that “El criticón” is one of the pieces that is fundamental to the Spanish language, as these ideas remain as relevant today as they were back then. The author’s decision to use simple language ensures that his work can still be read centuries later by those seeking to learn Spanish through a tale of morality.
5. “La breve y maravillosa vida de Oscar Wao” (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) by Junot Díaz
This Junot Díaz novel was written in English, but the Spanish translation is just as good.
“La breve y maravillosa vida de Oscar Wao” is a contemporary piece of literature that examines what it is like to be a Dominican and first-generation American. Both the protagonist Oscar Wao and the author fit this description, as Díaz uses his own personal story to craft a work of fiction that hits close to home.
Even in the English version of the novel, Díaz uses a series of words that are not only Spanish, but also ones that are inherently Dominican. He brings up the ciguapa, which is a mythological woman in the Caribbean country’s folklore. The being is beautiful to some, horrifying to others and it originates from the taínos, the indigenous people of the Dominican Republic.
The word cibaeña is also present several times, referring to a person from El Cibao, which is a region in the northern part of the country. The word chacabana makes an appearance as well, which refers to a shirt that is common in the Caribbean, Central America and some South American countries.
Throughout the novel, you will learn many words that teach you about Spanish culture, while also reading the work of a talented author who gives you insight into what it is like to be raised in a Dominican household. Díaz helps the reader connect with the beauty and liveliness of the Caribbean nation while helping to expand your vocabulary. You will even get a peek into the effects of politics on society, as the book takes place during the Dominican Rafael Trujillo dictatorship that lasted for 31 years in the middle of the 20th century.
6. “El general en su laberinto” (The General in His Labyrinth) by Gabriel García Márquez
García Márquez is one of the most celebrated Latin American authors the world has seen, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. The Colombian author delivered once again with “El general en su laberinto,” one of his later works that was published in 1989. This book focuses on a fictional general meant to represent Simón Bolívar, the leader and liberator of Colombia, in his last days which were plagued by disease.
The work ultimately shows us how even the most noble of men can succumb to the limits of the body, but the general who is portrayed in this fictionalized work does not lose any of his honor or passion for freedom, a right he fought for his entire life. Here is one of the best parts of the novel:
Hasta su desnudez era distinta, pues tenia el cuerpo pálido y la cabeza y las manos como achicharradas por el abuso de la intemperie. Había cumplido cuarenta y seis años el pasado mes de julio, pero sus ásperos rizos caribes se habían vuelto de ceniza y tenía los huesos desordenados por la decrepitud prematura, todo él se veía tan desmerecido que no parecía capaz de perdurar hasta el julio siguiente.
This section uses descriptive words to give us a vivid idea of what this man looked like at age 46, when he was essentially on his deathbed. He is naked with a pallid body and hands that were achicharradas, which is a term used to describe fried chicken or pork, due to the wrinkled look of them. His huesos (bones) were desordenados por la decrepituda prematura (in disarray due to the premature decrepitude). His entire appearance is described as being desmerecida (unwarranted).
García Márquez uses a series of words that make the description of the man seem more like a corpse than a living and breathing human being. His skin is wrinkled like old leather, while his bones are in tatters and the appearance is an unseemly presentation for a man who did so much.
The author is attempting to show just how much Bolívar gave for his country by describing how worn out he is. Passages such as this one are why García Márquez is among the greatest writers of the 20th century.
7. “Las batallas en el desierto” (The Battles in the Desert) by José Emilio Pacheco
Mexican writer José Emilio Pacheco was also considered to be among the greatest writers of the 20th century. The North American wrote the short novel “Las batallas en el desierto,” in which a man named Carlos narrate his childhood, focusing on the social and political circumstances that marked his life.
He goes into detail to describe the six-year-long presidential tenure of Miguel Alemán and morality in Mexico during the 1940s, as well as how American pop culture influenced his life.
Here is a brief portion of his short novel:
Comenzaban las batallas en el desierto. Le decíamos así porque era un patio de tierra colorada, polvo de tezontle o ladrillo, sin árboles ni plantas, sólo una caja de cemento al fondo. Ocultaba un pasadizo hecho en tiempos de la persecución religiosa para llegar a la casa de la esquina y huir por la otra calle.
In this passage, Carlos is describing the cultural divide in the classroom as a child, which saw those of Jewish blood at odds with those who had an Arabic background. At break, they would go to the playground and embark in las batallas del desierto (the battles of the desert), which had this name because playing felt like warfare, even as a child.
The field they played at was a patio de tierra colorada (yard of red dirt), and he uses several other phrases to describe the scene, such as “volcanic or brick dust” with “no trees or plants.” Carlos and his friends would play in a “box of cement that hid a path made during the time of religious persecution in order to reach the house on the corner and flee down the other street.”
Pacheco is using his artistry to describe both the physical appearance of the location, as well as using descriptive words to note the social and political climate that existed in this land. It was as grim as warfare, or so he suggested.
“Las batallas en el desierto” effectively weaves the story he is telling with the political turmoil that marked Mexico during this time, especially in Carlos’ home. The novel is semi-biographical, but it is ultimately fictionalized to show a more complete image of what growing up in this town was like.
8. “Del amor y otros demonios” (Of Love and Other Demons) by Gabriel García Márquez
“Del amor y otros demonios” is the second Gabriel García Márquez selection in our list. This 1994 novel is another one of the author’s latter works, focusing on a girl living in the 18th century in America who is bitten by a dog, which gives her rabies. The novel sees her in a desperate situation, dying in her bed while she clings on to some hope that would relieve her of her situation.
Here is an excerpt from the novel:
Ustedes tienen una religion de la muerte que les infunde el valor y la dicha para enfrentarla,” le dijo. “Yo no: creo que lo único esencial es estar vivo.
This quote is particularly inspiring because it breaks down life into its essentials. Throughout the novel, the author forces us to face our own mortality, which is the most important and basic element of life. He comments on how the masses have a “religion de la muerte que les infunde el valor,” noting how religion adds value to every life through certain beliefs and values. The speaker stands contrary to this, noting that she believes the only important thing is being alive.
“Yo no: creo que lo único esencial es estar vivo,” speaks to a prevalent issue brought up by García Márquez often in his writing. Much like in “El general en su laberinto,” we see a character slowly wither away due to illness. While others are discussing the tribulations of life, she finds the essence of life in being alive, a simple privilege that we are all privy to but do not always appreciate. Any issues we may be dealing with in life seem small in comparison with death.
9. “El beso de la mujer araña” (Kiss of the Spider Woman) by Manuel Puig
Manuel Puig’s novel delves deep into the underbelly of crime in Argentina, depicting an ongoing dialogue between two cellmates who develop a friendship.
“El beso de la mujer araña” almost reads like a play, as most of it consists of dialogue. The piece explores homosexuality in the 1970s (the novel was published in 1976), which was one of the most important decades for same-sex rights in Argentina due to a civil revolution in the nation.
Here is a piece of dialogue, from one convict (Valentín) to the other (Molina):
Y prometeme otra cosa… que vas a hacer que te respeten, que no vas a permitir que nadie te trate mal, ni te explote. Porque nadie tiene derecho a explotar a nadie… Molina, prometeme que no te vas a dejar basurear por nadie.
This passage is a beautiful part that speaks to the soul. Valentín is talking to his friend regarding life after jail, as well as life in general. Valentín asks him to promise him that Molina will make people respect him, “que no vas a permitir que nadie te trate mal, ni te explote” (you are not going to allow anyone to treat you poorly or exploit you). The value of a human being is at the crux of this novel and Valentín speaks to his friend in a direct manner, expressing tough love. We are all worth the same, we have all made mistakes and we all deserve respect.
He ends by telling Molina to promise him: “no te vas a dejar basurear por nadie.” The word basurear means to “treat someone like trash,” which is a sign of both the beauty and the grit that the two characters have developed in jail. They need to be tough in order to survive, even on the outside.
10. “En el tiempo de las mariposas” (In the Time of the Butterflies) by Julia Álvarez
Another Dominican author, Julia Álvarez, rounds off our list. The English translation of “En el tiempo de las mariposas” is excellent, and a good film adaptation featuring Salma Hayek was released in 2001, but the original Spanish version is a work of art that you should read at some point in your life.
The novel helps to advocate the advancement of social rights as it is a narration of the three Mirabal sisters who stood up to Dominican dictator Trujillo during his tyranny, which was especially harsh on women who were assaulted on a regular basis.
Here is a piece of this Álvarez novel:
No solo mi familia hacía una gran demostración de lealtad, sino todo el país. Ese otoño, de vuelta en el colegio, recibimos nuevos libros de historia con un retrato de ya saben quién grabado en relieve en la tapa, de modo que hasta un ciego se daba cuenta a quién se referían todas esas mentiras. Nuestra historia ahora seguía el argumento de la Biblia. Los dominicanos habíamos aguardado durante siglos el advenimiento de Nuestro Señor Trujillo. Era un asco.
One of the sisters, Minerva, is speaking about the role of Trujillo in the country. The narration of the sisters and their analysis of what is going on in the country helps to paint the picture of the rebellion and irreverence that marked their character. She notes how her family and the rest of the country would perform “una gran demostratión de lealtad” (a great demonstration of loyalty). He would persecute those who opposed him, hunting down those who spoke out against him or did not play by the rules in any way.
Minerva adds gravity to her statement by noting that, due to the way the country had to follow Trujillo blindly, Trujillo was essentially made into a god. All history books were replaced with new ones that had images of the dictator, and their lord and savior now was “nuestro Señor Trujillo. Era un asco” (our Lord Trujillo. It was disgusting).
The Mirabal sisters were outspoken and proud to say what no one else was willing to say, and it is because of this fact that they were executed. But it is also because of this fact that they have been immortalized in Dominican lore, serving the role of the figures that gave the suppressed country a voice. And Álvarez does a great job of bringing their story to life with the powerful manner in which they spoke.
These are ten of the most popular and most influential pieces of literature ever written by the masters of the Spanish language. It is worth paying attention to how well these authors combine the thematic concerns of their work with the way in which they write.
Sometimes, all it takes is one or two verbs or adjectives to make a passage a beautiful one either by appealing to human emotion in one way or another.
Additionally, some of these writers use their homeland to give you a broader sense of how diverse and vast the Spanish language is. They use words that correspond to the culture they grew up in with the intent of showing you the words that were important to them as a child, which ultimately shaped the way they think and wrote.
Which novel are you going to read first?
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