Spain is a vast literary landscape, the birthplace of the novel. I believe that to understand a country, you must read its writers (Hemingway was not a Spanish writer). Here a few novels — all well-known and many best sellers — available in English translation that give some insights into Spanish life. Note: some of my favorite novels by Spanish authors have not been translated.
Don Quixote /Miguel de Cervantes
Published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote is considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish literary canon and it regularly appears high on lists of the best literary works ever written. Credited as the first modern novel, it is heart-breaking, humorous and timeless.
Cervantes drew on his own life — exiled from Madrid, he became a chamber assistant to a cardinal in Rome, then a soldier in the Spanish navy. After being captured by pirates he was a galley slave for five years until a ransom was paid for his freedom.
Blood and Sand / Vicente Blasco Ibáñez
Born in Valencia, Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (29 January 1867 – 28 January 1928) was a journalist, politician and best-selling Spanish novelist. There is a timeless quality about his work and Blood and Sand creates an engaging portrayal of Spanish life and traditions, something that distinguishes all of the author’s writing. The novel tells the story of Juan Gallardo, a bull fighter who rises from poverty to unprecedented heights of riches and fame. As a reader you can enter the bullring with Juan, with his wounds, conflicts and superstitions.
Note: Casa-Museo de Blasco Ibáñez (Museum and House of Blasco Ibáñez) is located on Carrer Isabel de Villena in the city of Valencia. It is a beautiful Greek Revival house, once owned by Blasco Ibáñez, facing the Mediterranean.
The Time of the Doves /Mercè Rodoreda
Mercè Rodoreda (10 October 1908 – 13 April 1983) has been called the most important Catalan novelist of the postwar period. A classic of modern Catalan literature, The Time of the Doves is considered by many critics as one of the greatest novels written about the Spanish Civil War — it is the story of Natalia, whose personal history mirrors that of many living and dealing with the Second Spanish Republic and the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona. Gabriel García Márquez called The Time of the Doves: “The most beautiful novel published in Spain since the Civil War.”
The original Catalan title for the book, La plaça del Diamant, is named after a square in Barcelona’s Gràcia district.
Southern Seas/ Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
Barcelona detective Pepe Carvalho investigates the death of a powerful businessman, found stabbed to death at a construction site after missing for a year. The mystery takes place during Spain’s Transición—the post-Franco transition to democracy—on the eve of Barcelona’s first municipal elections and detective Carvalho travels through the criminal underbelly of Barcelona to find the killer.
The Shadow of the Wind / Carlos Ruiz Zafón
A literary thriller that has gained an international audience, In The Shadow of the Wind centers around the discovery of a forgotten book that leads to a hunt for an elusive author who may or may not still be alive.
A follow-up, The Angel’s Game, is a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind. The Angel’s Game is set in Barcelona during the 1920s and 1930s and follows a writer who is approached by a mysterious figure to write a book.
Cathedral of the Sea / Ildefonso Falcones
A epic of 14th-century Barcelona where its poorest inhabitants are building, stone by stone, a magnificent church to overlook their harbor during the worst days of the Inquisition. This is the “Cathedral of the Sea”, Santa Maria del Mar: a church to be built for the people by the people.
No visit to Barcelona is complete without a visit to the inspiration for the novel, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar in the Ribera district. Built between 1329 and 1383, it is an outstanding example of Catalan Gothic.
The Time in Between / María Dueñas
The story begins in 1936, just before the Spanish Civil War. Seamstress Sira Quiroga is left abandoned and penniless by her lover in Morocco. Gifted and determined, she becomes a successful couture designer, sought-after by the wives of German Nazi officers. Sira becomes involved in a dangerous political conspiracy, passing information to the British Secret Service through a code stitched into the hems of her dresses.
Death On A Galician Shore / Domingo Villar
The body of a sailor washes up in the harbor of a small fishing port in the northwestern province of Galicia. Detective Inspector Leo Caldas from police headquarters in Vigo is sent to sign off on what appears to be a suicide. But soon things come to light that turn this into a complicated murder case.
The Frozen Heart / Almudena Grandes
A sweeping epic saga about the Spanish Civil War. The Frozen Heart is a journey through the war that tore Spain apart and how it still haunts the Spanish today.
The Siege/ Arturo Perez-Reverte
Set in Cádiz, 1811. While the city is under siege from the marauding French army, a serial killer is on the loose. Each murder takes place near where a French bomb has just fallen and police commissioner Rogelio Tizon tries to predict the killer’s next move.
I admit I was especially interested in this novel because of the setting: Cádiz is one of my favorite cities.