Inca’s, Aztec’s, gold. The continent of South America sparked the fantasy of many people. Europeans who dreamed of cities made of gold, lands inhabited by giants, and mystical sirens luring in sailors. South America is a continent full of stories and mysicism, as several ecological zones and civilizations past and present. The Andes has been inhabited for at least 7000 years, and several of the ancient tribes have left their mark in stories spoken and written till today.
The history of literature in South America is a very unique mixture with many similarities to the ancient oral traditions that remain of value in modern times of Africa, and the written traditions that intertwined with it as is known in ancient Europe and Asia.
The ancient oral traditions of South American’s diverse people and tribes serve an as important role in modern days as it did for the ancient peoples. The role of the oral storytelling and -sharing is to not only perserve history but also serves as a way to give shape and form to modern cultural identities. South America’s written tales are known to have been used for thousands of years as well. These written sources -discovered on paper as well as carved into stones- have been recovered during several archaeological excavations. And as with other ancient written languages, it has shown to be a problem to translate or even interpret the so-called codices. Many of the tales were lost as the Spanish conquistadors burned most codices of the Maya’s in 1500, as they did not understand the books or the pictures painted in them. And during the same period, they started forcing the indigenous people into total assimilation resulting in a devastating loss of knowledge. Because of this, and due to the lack of a “Rosetta Stone” of Mesoamerican symbols, most of the remaining few Mesoamerican codices have yet to be translated and ongoing academic discussions have led to more contradicting interpretations than answers.
Due to the immense loss of native people, and the massive moves of others towards the South American countries through the Transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, South America became a unique mixture of different literary traditions that are still discovering their unique voices. Through these movements a whole array of poets, composers, writers, and other artists settled on the continent and brought with them their histories and tales. The epic form of poetry, the European romantic ballad, and the unique songs of those of African descent showed to be an ideal form for many first generation “new citizens” of South American. It coincided with the recollection of the remaining Aztec’s, who recorded poetry written in Nahuatl in a rare occassion where the Spanish clergy -in proper monastic tradition they were taught in Europe- used their power and knowledge of the written word to record local tales and knowledge. While most of these historical sources were lost over time, either by being destroyed on purpose or by natural occurances, the memories remained in literary traditions of “European blooded”soldiers wrote poems in this style while they fought 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 its own scars.
As most South American countries speak the Spanish language, South American books can be distributed through most of the continent as well as in North America and parts of Europe. This language connection creates a connection between people that cannot be seen anywhere else. 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 across on multiple platforms. 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, and 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.
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.