20 Timeless Spanish books you must read and why

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Spanish Novels

Spanish literature is rich and diverse, containing novels that have shaped the collective memory of Spaniards. For those eager to delve into this treasure trove of cultural heritage, here is a top 20 of classical Spanish books on the occasion of World Book Day. Many major literary works have also been translated into other languages, including English.

Whether you choose poetry, historical novels, or contemporary stories, this list will undoubtedly contain something that will captivate you. Each book is a window into the rich and diverse world of Spanish literature. Together, these works provide numerous insights into the complex and not always cheerful past of the country. The stories range from profound personal journeys to complex social commentaries and are therefore ideal for gaining a better understanding of Spain and its people.

1.“Don Quijote de la Mancha” by Miguel de Cervantes

We start off with this cornerstone of world literature. The classic tells the story of the manic knight, his faithful squire Sancho Panza, and their timeless adventures. The book is a fundamental work in the Western literary canon and is often cited as the first modern European novel. Don Quixote has had a profound influence on the development of the narrative genre. The book delves deeper into concepts such as reality versus madness and the subjectivity of human perception. Although it begins as a satirical look at the knightly romances of the time, it evolves into a profound exploration of personal ethics and societal ideals. This book is widely available in English, including here for free.

2.“Bodas de sangre” by Federico García Lorca

Bodas de Sangre, Yerma, and la Casa de Bernada Alba is a dramatic story about love, betrayal, and death, depicted in Lorca’s poetic and expressive style. You can find an English translation on Amazon here.

3.“Los santos inocentes” by Miguel Delibes

This gripping work by Miguel Delibes outlines the harsh life of a family of farmworkers and their struggle against social injustice in Extremadura. The book offers a profound social commentary on class relations and the poverty in which farmworkers lived during the 1950s and 1960s. The story follows the family of Paco, the ‘santo inocente,’ who, along with his family, works under particularly harsh conditions on a large estate. Delibes describes with great empathy and detail how the characters are exploited and abused by the land nobility. The novel criticises the feudal system in rural Spain, but also portrays human resilience and dignity under pressure.

4.“Inés y la alegría” by Almudena Grandes

“Inés y la alegría” by Almudena Grandes is the first book in the series ‘Episodios de una guerra interminable’ (Episodes of an Endless War). All five novels in the series can be read independently. It’s interesting that some characters return in multiple parts. In this part, the reader follows Inés, a young woman who becomes involved in the communist resistance against the Franco regime. This captivating novel explores the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and the indelible impact on its characters. The ‘grande dame’ of Spanish literature shows her ability to immerse the reader deeply in the lives of ordinary citizens within a well-documented historical context. ‘Inés y la alegría is also a tribute to the unknown heroes of the resistance. 

5.“Nada” by Carmen Laforet

“Nada” by Carmen Laforet is an award-winning Spanish novel that takes place shortly after the Spanish Civil War. It tells the story of Andrea, a young woman who moves to Barcelona to study at the university. She ends up in a gloomy and oppressive house with her grandmother and other relatives, who all struggle with their own personal demons and difficulties. “Nada” is known for its dark atmosphere and its exploration of themes such as alienation, loneliness, and the search for meaning in a chaotic world. It is often praised for its realistic depiction of a young woman fighting against social and personal limitations during a time of political oppression. The English translation is available here.

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6. “Réquiem por un campesino español” by Ramón J. Sender

This work, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, is a powerful commentary on injustice and betrayal. ‘Réquiem por un campesino español’ takes place in a small Spanish village on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. The book explores themes such as betrayal, guilt, and the impact of politics on personal relationships. It also sharply criticises the role of the church and its leaders in supporting oppressive regimes. It is a moving work that powerfully shows human suffering and moral dilemmas in times of conflict. The work is still available in English.

7. “Corazón tan blanco” by Javier Marías

‘Corazón tan blanco’ is a deeply psychological novel about secrets, lies, and the inescapable burden of the past. The book has been translated into over thirty languages and has given Marías international fame and appreciation. The book follows the life of Juan, an interpreter who struggles with the knowledge of a dark family secret involving his father and his multiple marriages. The novel is praised for its literary quality and profound exploration of the inner worlds of its characters. The story reflects on the inability to ever truly know what is going on in someone else’s mind, and how the past continues to influence the present. Javier Marías’ work has been translated into many languages, and “Corazón tan blanco” is one of his most read and respected works. It is available in English translation here

8. “Cinco horas con Mario” by Miguel Delibes

“Cinco horas con Mario” by Miguel Delibes is a profound and critical novel from 1966 that examines the social and political tensions in Spain during the sixties. It is an intimate monologue in which a woman reflects on her life and marriage after the death of her husband, while she watches over his dead body. The story takes place over a single night. The monologue reveals Carmen’s conservative and bourgeois values, which starkly contrast with Mario’s more progressive views. These contrasts shed light on the cultural and political division of Spain at the time. The story exposes the hypocrisy and limitations of the middle class in the Franco era. It remains an important work in Spanish literature, not only as a literary piece but also as a social document. A second-hand copy of the English translation Five Hours with Mario can be found here.

9. “Episodios nacionales” by Benito Pérez Galdós

Benito Pérez Galdós was a writer of novels, plays, and articles. He is considered the most important Spanish writer of the nineteenth century. Episodios nacionales is an extensive series of books consisting of four cycles of ten novels each and an unfinished fifth of only six books that brings the Spanish history of the 19th century to life through the eyes of its many colourful characters. A part of the series is available in English here.

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10. “Lágrimas en la lluvia” by Rosa Montero 

‘Lagrimas en la lluvia is a futuristic detective investigating a series of mysterious deaths in a dystopian society. Various books by this author and journalist with a long track record at the newspaper El País have been translated into English. Among them are ‘Tears in Rain.  

11. La busca” by Pío Baroja

A vivid portrait of life in Madrid at the beginning of the 20th century, seen through the eyes of a young immigrant. Pío Baroja belonged to the Generation of ’98 and is considered the most characteristic novelist of this socially critical generation. The novel provides a raw and realistic portrayal of city life at the beginning of the 20th century. It also offers a bleak picture of the social problems and the struggle for existence in the Spanish capital. Through the eyes of the main character Manuel and the various people he meets, Baroja paints a picture of the socio-economic hardships and often hopeless situations of the working class. Baroja’s style is characterised by a direct and unpolished narrative that exposes the complexity and harshness of life in the city. 

12. “El capitán Alatriste” by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

El capitán Alatriste is an adventure series consisting of seven novels published since 1996. The stories are based on the adventures of Diego Alatriste y Tenorio. He is an experienced soldier from the Third of Flanders who lives in poverty in 17th-century Madrid and rents out his sword to anyone who needs it. The stories are full of duels, political intrigues, and heroism. Arturo Pérez-Reverte is a prominent Spanish writer, journalist, and commentator. He worked for over twenty years as a war correspondent before dedicating himself fully to writing. Click here to order Captain Alatriste in English.

13. “Niebla” by Miguel de Unamuno

An existential novel that explores the boundaries of fiction and reality. Miguel de Unamuno challenges readers to think about their own existence. De Unamuno (1864-1936) was an influential Spanish writer, thinker, and rector of the University of Salamanca. There, he was dismissed and temporarily exiled because of his political beliefs and criticism of the Franco regime. Unamuno’s best-known works are “Niebla” (Mist) and “La tía Tula” (Aunt Tula), which explore themes of individuality, personal conflict, and the search for meaning. Here you can order ‘Fog’ in English.

14. “Cañas y barro” by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez

‘Cañas y barro’ provides a vivid depiction of life in a fishing village in the Albufera at the end of the 19th century, with themes of love, struggle, and social change. The novel is an important work within naturalism, a literary movement that emphasises the influence of environment and heredity on human behaviour. Blasco Ibáñez uses the setting and characters to criticise social inequality and the difficult living conditions of the poor population groups in Spain. The author also provides rich descriptions of the landscape.

15. “La ciudad de los prodigios” by Eduardo Mendoza

An epic tale of personal and urban transformation in Barcelona between the two world exhibitions of 1888 and 1929. The historical novel provides a panoramic view of the social and economic transformations in Barcelona during this period, including industrial expansion and increasing social unrest. Mendoza blends historical facts with fiction and creates a vivid image of the city and its inhabitants. Additionally, he explores themes such as power, corruption, and social struggle. “La ciudad de los prodigios” is appreciated for its rich descriptive language and its ability to capture the spirit of an era. The English translation ‘The City of Marvels’ is available here.

16. “La cabeza del cordero” by Francisco Ayala

‘La cabeza del cordero” is a collection of short stories that explore the personal and collective traumas of the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Ayala focuses the stories in this collection primarily on themes such as injustice, moral ambiguity, and the human condition against the backdrop of the civil war. Furthermore, Ayala’s stories are known for their concise, clear style and the ability to raise profound philosophical questions about justice, guilt, and redemption. “La cabeza del cordero” is appreciated for its literary quality and its insightful look at the complexity of human nature.

17. “Los gozos y las sombras” by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester

‘Los gozos y las sombras’ is a trilogy of novels written by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester. In this book, this Spanish professor and writer provides a rich description of life in a Galician village prior to the Spanish Civil War, full of political and romantic intrigues. Torrente Ballester weaves personal and political intrigues and provides a profound critique of the social and political realities of the time. The series is appreciated for its layered characters, atmospheric descriptions, and the sharp analysis of human nature and societal changes. “Los gozos y las sombras” is considered one of the most important works in 20th-century Spanish literature.

18. “Tiempo de silencio” by Luis Martín Santos

“Tiempo de silencio” is an influential Spanish novel written by Luis Martín Santos. It was published in 1962. The book is considered a turning point in Spanish literature due to its innovative style and structure. The story takes place in Madrid in the 1950s and follows the life of Pedro, a young doctor who becomes involved in a tragic incident that profoundly changes his life and his perspective on society. The novel is known for its critical view of Spanish society under the Franco regime, with themes such as isolation, oppression, and the failure of communication at the forefront.

19. “La familia de Pascual Duarte” by Camilo José Cela

“La familia de Pascual Duarte” is one of the most striking works of Spanish literature and an example of “tremendismo”, a literary genre that focuses on the most brutal and raw aspects of existence. The book played a significant role in the literary scene of post-war Spain. The story is written in the form of an autobiography. Herein, Pascual Duarte, a farmer from Extremadura, describes his life from his cell where he awaits his execution. The novel explores themes of fatalism, violence, and the inherent cruelty of human existence. Pascual’s narrative provides a raw and sometimes shocking depiction of rural life in Spain at the time. Cela’s style is direct and unadorned. Eventually, this novel helped Camilo José Cela win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1989.

20. “La Celestina” by Fernando de Rojas

“La Celestina” by Fernando de Rojas is a classic work written at the end of the 15th century. It is considered one of the most important precursors of the modern novel. Calisto, a young man of noble birth, falls in love with Melibea, a young woman from a higher social class. Initially, she rejects his advances, so Calisto seeks help from the old and manipulative matchmaker Celestina. This ultimately leads to a series of tragic events. ‘La Celestina’ stands out for its profound psychological development of the characters. Furthermore, it offers a realistic portrayal of human emotions and conflicts in rich and vivid dialogues. The book provides sharp criticism of the social and moral issues of the time. Such as the corruption of the clergy, the hypocrisy within society, and the complex dynamics of social classes. The Celestine is still available in English.

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