UBC experts on what to read when you’re stuck at home — French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Catalan edition

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To keep you entertained during this period of physical distancing, UBC professors compiled a list of worthwhile reads originally written in the languages of French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan.

From coping with historical plagues to dealing with relationships during times of crisis, discover how literature from the past is still strikingly relevant today.

English translations are available for the majority of these texts, so don’t be afraid to explore titles beyond your language of knowledge or subject area.

Happy reading!

For those of you looking for some literary immersion during the pandemic, here are some suggestions of French language novels. The list has been split according to the mood you are looking to foster: pensive or hopeful. — Dr. Vincent Gélinas-Lemaire

PENSIVE

To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie) by Hervé Guibert, 1990

France

This 1990 novel is based on the life of the author, who would soon die of AIDS at 36 years old. The book is broken into more than a hundred fragments, some grim and technical, some others drunk with hope. By reading between the lines, one would recognize famous figures of the times, such as Michel Foucault and Isabelle Adjani, both friends of Guibert, as well as recurring characters who we know from the author’s other books and his photographs. The title refers to Bill, a well-connected friend who promises, but never delivers, a revolutionary cure for AIDS. From one of the best writers of his times.

Learn more about the text available in French (2019) or English (1995, translated by Linda Coverdale).

Suggested by Vincent Gélinas-Lemaire.

Oscar de Profundis by Catherine Mavrikakis, 2016

Canada

This recent novel, by a literature professor from the Université de Montréal, imagines the city ravaged by a devastating plague that targets the wretched and the poor. As for the rich, they have fled to the suburbs and listen to pop music to distract themselves from the violence. Oscar, the novel’s protagonist, plays a central role in this diversion, that of a global superstar. This decadent hybrid of Wilde and Bowie basks in the end of the world by extracting and owning the best remnants of opera, architecture, literature. A brilliant work of erudite science-fiction.

Learn more about the text available in French (2016).

Suggested by Vincent Gélinas-Lemaire.

Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau, 1992

France (Martinique)

This 1992 epic novel from Martinique is already well established as a classic. It follows multiple generations of the family of Marie-Sophie Laborieux, from the period of slavery to the present. All characters share a fight for a permanent place in the world, which they will establish by building a home that could survive the attacks of nature, colonialism and bureaucracy. A grand work to learn more about the history, geography, culture and traditions of the island.

Learn more about the text available in French (1994) or English (1998).

Suggested by Vincent Gélinas-Lemaire.

HOPEFUL

The Way of the World (L’Usage du monde) by Nicolas Bouvier, 1963

Switzerland

This 1963 travel narrative by the Swiss writer and journalist Nicolas Bouvier is full of optimism and wonder. It follows the author and his friend, the painter Thierry Vernet, as they travel the post-war world from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan, with long stops in Greece, Turkey and Iran. Other journals by Bouvier touch on his travels to India, Japan, Korea, Ireland. All display a rare ability to take in foreign cultures with curiosity but without falling into the tropes of orientalism. A dose of pure energy.

Learn more about the text available in French (1963) or English (1994, translated by Robyn Marsack).

Suggested by Vincent Gélinas-Lemaire.

Plague and Cholera (Peste & Choléra) by Patrick Deville, 2012

France

Winner of the 2012 Prix Femina, this novel follows different periods of the life of Alexandre Yersin, the French bacteriologist who discovered the bacillus of the plague in 1894 and helped create a serum and manufacture it in Southeast Asia. Deville’s book flows between important historical events, including both World Wars, explores science in the age of Pasteur and keeps its momentum with tales of adventure and travel. For those who are curious about the hectic and competitive dawn of modern medicine.

Learn more about the text available in French (2012) or English (2014, translated by J.A. Underwood).

Suggested by Vincent Gélinas-Lemaire.

The Heart (Réparer les vivants) by Maylis de Kerangal, 2014

France

This French novel, which was made into a movie (Heal the Living) in 2016, turns a tragedy into an uplifting tale of survival. Instead of focusing on a single character, the narrative follows a heart as it is transplanted between bodies and lives on. De Kerangal is known for her uncanny ability to immerse her readers into technical worlds (bridge engineering, cooking, cinema). She focuses here on the physical and psychological challenges of the transplant process, doing so with care and sensitivity.

Learn more about the text available in French (2015) or English (2016, translated by Sam Taylor).

Suggested by Vincent Gélinas-Lemaire.

Eclogues (Églogas, 1543) by Garcilaso de la Vega in Selected Poems of Garcilaso de la Vega: A Bilingual Edition, translated by John Dent-Young, 2009

Spain

This Golden Age poet-soldier’s popularity has endured without interruption throughout the centuries because of the enchanting musicality and vibrant depictions of nature that characterize his work. The three Églogas (Eclogues) transport readers to an Edenic setting where the harmony of the landscape is a counterpoint to the lover’s laments, engaging all the senses and emotions with its lyrical beauty. Though the pain of unrequited love and the grief of loss are inherent in this world, the enduring harmony of nature beckons us to fill our hearts with its peace.

Learn more about the bilingual text available in English and Spanish (2009).

Suggested by Elizabeth Lagresa.

Macho Camacho's Beat (La guaracha del Macho Camacho) by Luis Rafael Sánchez, 1976

Puerto Rico

A playful, irreverent novel perfect for these times of quarantine, as it portrays a range of characters who are all confined or trapped in one way or another. The novel opens on “Wednesday, at 5 o’clock,” as “The Heathen Chinky” is waiting in her apartment in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for her lover, Vicente, to visit. Also waiting at home is Vicente’s wife, Graciela. Vicente, however, is stuck in traffic, as is Benny, Vicente’s son, as well as the passengers of a crowded bus, and, of course, the reader. A traffic jam provides time to listen to the radio, to reflect, but also to rage. A roller coaster of a book, a delightful tale, and a linguistic tour de force in a magnificent translation.

Learn more about the text available in Spanish (2000) or English (2000, translated by Gregory Rabassa).

Suggested by Arturo Victoriano.

The Time of the Doves (La plaça del Diamant) by Mercè Rodoreda, 1962

Spain

The hardships of a working-class woman, with two children, struggling through the period of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona, might not seem the most appropriate novel to recommend during a global pandemic. Yet this masterpiece of Catalan literature shows that there is beauty in the ugliest of times, and that joy flourishes again after hardship. Written by Mercè Rodoreda while she was in exile in Switzerland, this unforgettable text, poetic and full of symbols, is a tribute to the resilience and strength that resides within us all.

Learn more about the text available in Catalan (1984) or English (1986, translated by David H. Rosenthal).

Suggested by Anna Casas Aguilar.

Fever Dream (Distancia de rescate) by Samanta Schweblin, 2014

Argentina

This short novel feels like it should be an easy read. Indeed, it can be inhaled in one sitting, as the mesmerizing narrative makes it impossible to put down. Shortlisted for the 2017 International Booker Prize, it comprises a dialogue between Amanda, a woman recovering in a hospital bed who wants to know what has happened to her young daughter, and a strange little boy, David, who seems to have the answers to Amanda’s concerns. As the narrative progresses, these two mysterious storylines—what happened to Amanda’s daughter and the reason behind David’s abnormality—are gradually entwined. The halting dialogue between sick woman and a young boy creates a hauntingly surreal world that, even more hauntingly, becomes part of the reader’s reality.

Learn more about the text available in Spanish (2015) or English (2017, translated by Megan McDowell).

Suggested by Tamara Mitchell.

Signs Preceding the End of the World (Señales que precederán al fin del mundo) by Yuri Herrera, 2009

Mexico

“I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched.” But the story that follows this opening line shows that its protagonist, a young woman named Makina, is ever lively and resourceful. Carrying a message for her missing brother, and a package entrusted to her by a narco, she has to undertake the all too common trek through Mexico and across the border to the United States and an uncertain future on the other side. Death constantly shadows this journey, but at the end of in this poetic, allusive, and beautifully-written text we see a glimpse of how it may perhaps be conquered, at least for a while. Anyhow, the end of the world might not be all bad: some of us may feel that whatever world is to come can’t be any worse than the one we know now.

Learn more about the text available in Spanish (2010) or English (2015, translated by Lisa Dillman).

Suggested by Jon Beasley-Murray.

For the complete list of recommended Italian literature, click here.

The Betrothed (I promessi sposi) by Alessandro Manzoni, 1840

Italy

Unfolding against the backdrop of the bubonic plague of 1630, which hit Northern Italy in the wake of one of the many wars unfolding in Europe at the time, I promessi sposi is an invaluable reading during today's coronavirus pandemic. It contains very detailed and instructive depictions of the goings-on in Milan at the time, down to the panic and superstitions associated with a terrifying phenomenon that people did not have the tools to understand. That part is still quite lively and current today: fear of the unknown, and the (logical) reactions and (illogical) overreactions that are part and parcel of human experience in similar contexts.

Set in 1600s Milan — at the time a lowly province under the heel of the then-Spanish Empire — it mixes (a) a cloak-and-dagger love story with (b) pious exhortations humbly to submit to the Will of the Providence (of course providentially embodied in the Catholic Church), and with (c) an almost obsessive harping on the virtues and merits of Manchester-style free-market capitalism. (This view was not an entirely illogical 19th-century pipedream, triggered as a reaction to the corruption and inefficiency of 17th-century feudal Spain.)

Learn more about the text available in Italian (2006) or English (1983, translated by Bruce Penman).

Suggested by Carlo Testa.

The Decameron (El Decamerón) by Giovanni Boccaccio, 1348

Italy

Written during the "Black Death" plague that reduced Florence's population by 60 per cent in 1348, this Italian Renaissance book by Giovanni Boccaccio teaches citizens how to maintain mental wellbeing in times of epidemics and isolation. For a look at how this 14th-century book relates to today's coronavirus outbreak, read André Spicer's article published on March 9, 2020.

Learn more about the text available in Italian (2007) or English (2011).

Suggested by Daniela Boccassini.

The Second Midnight (La seconda mezzanotte) by Antonio Scurati, 2011

Italy

With themes of recurrent pandemics, climate change, Chinese hegemony, nostalgia for the golden age, and failure of the Italian state and of the Italic male, this book takes charge of the crisis of our world by telling a story of men marching against the destructive wave of history — one to become a father, the other to become free — in a book not only set in the future, but aimed at the future. It is set in the year 2092, when Mediterranean Europe has plunged into an equatorial climate, its ancient nation states under Chinese hegemony.

Learn more about the text available in Italian (2011).

Suggested by Gaoheng Zhang.

My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale) by Elena Ferrante, 2011

Italy

The first book in the popular Neapolitan Novels, this book follows the lives of two perceptive and intelligent girls from childhood to adulthood and old age, as they try to create lives for themselves amidst the violent and stultifying culture of their home – a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, Italy, after WWII.

Learn more about the text available in Italian (2011) or English (2012, translated by Ann Goldstein).

Suggested by Luisa Canuto.

Boredom (La noia) by Alberto Moravia, 1960

Italy

La noia, the story of a failed artist and pampered son of a rich family who becomes dangerously attached to a young model, examines the complex relations between money, sex, and imperiled masculinity. This powerful and disturbing study in the pathology of modern life is one of the masterworks of a writer whom, as Anthony Burgess once remarked, was "always trying to get to the bottom of the human imbroglio." (source: Amazon)

Learn more about the text available in Italian (1999) or English (2004, translated by Angus Davidson)

Suggested by Giorgio Jacova.

If This is a Man (Se questo è un uomo) by Primo Levi, 1947

Italy

With the moral stamina and intellectual pose of a 20th-century Titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose. He was profoundly in touch with the minutest workings of the most endearing human events and with the most contemptible. What has survived in Levi's writing isn't just his memory of the unbearable, but also, in The Periodic Table and The Wrench, his delight in what made the world exquisite to him. He was himself a "magically endearing man, the most delicately forceful enchanter I've ever known." - Philip Roth

Learn more about the text available in Italian (2005) or English (1987, translated by Stuart J. Woolf).

Suggested by Elena Zampieri.

The Book of Disquiet (Livro do Desassossego) by Fernando Pessoa, 1982

Portugal

The greatest Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, well-known for his multiple literary personas, wrote this masterpiece under his heteronym Bernardo Soares in the 1920s. This evocative and brilliant collection of poetic fragments is melancholic and existential. The book offers poignant reflections which are treasures to be cherished in times of uncertainty and when we need hope.

Learn more about the text available in Portuguese (1990) or English (2017).

Suggested by Alessandra Santos.

The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis (Contos Completos de Machado De Assis), translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, 2018

Brazil

Considered the most important writer from Brazil, Machado de Assis was ahead of his time. He lived and wrote in the late 19th century and very early 20th century, but his concerns are easily considered contemporary. In stories that question identity, hierarchy and social habits, the author offers kaleidoscopic perspectives on what constitutes reality. His sharp social observations, irony and rich sense of humour can be a healing balsam during isolation.

Learn more about the text available in Portuguese (2003) or English (2018).

Suggested by Alessandra Santos.

Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson, 2015

Brazil

This is a prize-winning translation of possibly Brazil’s best writer, Clarice Lispector. In the collection of her complete short stories written from the 1940s to the 1970s, there is something for everyone. Lispector’s unique style and existential themes leave lasting impressions. The stories poetically and boldly ask questions about life and death, suffering and pleasures, and ultimately about what it means to be human.

Learn more about the text available in English (2015).

Suggested by Alessandra Santos.

Sleepwalking Land (Terra Sonâmbula) by Mia Couto, 1992

Mozambique

Perhaps the most well-known writer from Mozambique, the great Mia Couto weaves tales of colonial struggles and human fragility in this 1992 novel. This prize winning book tells a story of sickness and of civil war unrest. The book reveals power struggles, and how important relationships are during moments of crisis.

Learn more about the text available in Portuguese (1992) or English (2006, translated by David Brookshaw).

Suggested by Alessandra Santos.


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Published June 1, 2020