Inca’s, Aztec’s, gold. The continent of South America is riddled with stories and mysticism. The continent is riddled with several ecological zones, as well as civilizations past and present. The Andes has been inhabited since at least 7000 years, and several of these peoples have left their mark in stories spoken and written.
While oral traditions serve a similar role amongst the diverse South American tribes as it does in African, by not only perserving history but to serve as a way to give a certain form to cultural identity as well, written tales are known to have played an important role for thousands of years as well. Written sources, on paper as well as carved into stones, have been recovered after hundreds of years. The biggest problem with these so-called codices is that they are still only partly translated, or even interpreted. Many of the stories are unknown, and even more have been lost in time as these books were produced on materials that wither away when exposed to water, sun, wind, or other natural phenomenons. The other issue there is with so-called Mesoamerican codices, is that the meaning of many symbols are yet unknown as well as the ongoing rivalries between researchers. Different tribes, and therefore different codices, are treated differently. Some are seen as art historical objects while others are studied in the field of epigraphy, resulting in different meanings and different approaches in translating the scarce amount of remaining codices in the world.
In more recent times, the Spanish colonists have played an important role on South American storytelling and literature starting with the Spanish conquistadors who, in 1500, burned most existing codices of the Maya’s as they did not understand the books or the pictures painted in them.
However, even after causing such a tremendous loss, South American literature has benefitted from the Spanish as well. As most South American countries speak the Spanish language, South American books can be distributed through most of the continent. This language connection is one of the reasons South America is the largest part in the area known as Latin America. Through the colonial movements, poets, componists, and all kinds of writers arrived in South America where they settled in large cities. As the Renaissance was at its peak in Europe at the time, the words brought along on those ships were inspired by this era as well as they entered South America and started to settle there.
Especially the epic form of poetry showed to be an ideal form for many South Americans. Soldiers wrote poems in this style while they fought in battles and wars against other colonists as well as native people. This form of poetry, and other writings created as a remembrance of battle, have developed further as countries fought for independence and native peoples fought for their rights. Within two centuries, South America lost its rather classic European skin and developed its own based on its own struggles, and its own battles and scars.
Nowadays, Spanish based literature is written in all kinds of forms on the continent. Some is part of a larger, more European based movement, but as Spanish is a language spoken in many countries in the world it is also a great way for indigenous writers to get their words and ideas across. Surrealism has had a strong hold on many South American writers, and they often use different styles to support the uniqueness of the many countries, the many peoples, the many terrains that exist on one continent. To reach as many readers as possible, novels, poetry, as well as literary essays are published and presented side by side to talk about cultures possibly long forgotten and yet still visible in literary traditions and ancient ruins.
Many books created on the South American, have an element of struggle and war connected to them, as well as that they have been written by writers who were formed by styles that have their origins in Europe but developed in a unique way on a different continent. Loaded with meanings that are often raw or presented in a surreal way, every single one is worth your time and some space on your bookshelves. So choose the country, and see where you can travel to from the comfort of your couch.
To read about other continents, and find out about different countries, return to Read Around the World.