A Reddit User Asked People To Choose The Book That Best Represents Their Country & The Answers Are Incredible
There's a reason why comparing books to windows — or doors, or portals — to other worlds is such a common metaphor; literature is both a transformation and transportation, the journey itself and the boat that takes you through it. And as books often reflect the countries from which they come, there seems a constant competition to name the one book that represents your country.
Yesterday, Reddit user /r/mjmc521 posted a simple question on the /r/books Reddit board: "What book do you think would best represent your country or would be considered 'The Great (Country) Novel,'" they asked. "I feel like for some countries there are fairly easy choices, like for the Philippines...Noli Me Tangere, Spain with Don Quixote, and Iceland with Independent People. What are your thoughts on these and other countries?"
Readers from across the world flocked to answer the ever-debatable question, from Kenya to Indonesia, Serbia to the United States, of what one, singular book fully embodies the spirit of an entire country. Of their country. Is it a novel? A collection of short stories? A play? And who writes it? Who reads it?
It's a tall order, and it's important to acknowledge that a number of the suggested books are by men. And particularly in the United States category, white men. Another trend? The majority of books were written at least 50 years ago. These results, and their implication —‚that we place a greater significance on works by a specific subset of the population - is hardly a secret in the publishing world.
And as you consider which book you would pick as #1 The Most [Insert Country] Ever, consider that when we give a leg up to one narrative, marginalized voices are subsequently lost in the annals of history. What stories were told, or sung, or shouted, and never made it to a country's ears?
Argentina: 'Things We Lost In The Fire' by Mariana Enríquez
Things We Lost In The Fire, as you will soon notice, sits apart from the majority of this list for several reasons: it's new (published in 2017), it's a collection of short stories, and it's by a woman (Mariana Enríquez). The book's recommender, /r/Takumo-N, does note that the book provides a portrait of "contemporary Argentina," but a searing, poignant and perfect one, chronicling a country haunted by the ghosts of military dictatorships, corruption, and violence.
Canada: 'Two Solitudes' by Hugh MacLennan
"Two solitudes," a common Canadian phrase, refers to the lack of communication between English- and French-speaking Canadians. It sprang from Hugh MacLennan's 1945 novel of the same name, which charts the struggle of Paul Tallard, son of a French Canadian father and an Irish immigrant mother, to reconcile his two identities, separated by language, religion and culture.
Iceland: 'Sjálfstætt fólk' by Halldór Laxness
Translated as "Independent People," Sjálfstætt fólk by Halldór Laxness is an epic novel first published in the 1930s. The protagonist, Gudbjartur Jonsson, who buys his freedom from the local bailiff, becomes "Bjartur of Summerhouses," and sets out on a journey to true independence, is considered an Icelandic cultural symbol for his unwavering fortitude, stubborn independence and "armour of scepticism."
India: 'Malgudi Days' by R. K. Narayan
Malgudi Days, a short story collection first published in 1943, was so popular in India that it was adapted into a 1980s television series. Narayan spent nearly 40 years compiling his portraits of small-town India, and in his introduction to the collection, he writes of his home country, "The writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story."
Indonesia: 'Beauty is a Wound' by Eka Kurniawan
Ireland: 'Angela's Ashes' by Frank McCourt
"Ireland loves a bit of misery," wrote recommender /r/VI-66. And perhaps they're right: Frank McCourt's memoir of his tough childhood in Ireland opens with, "It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
Kenya: 'The River Between' by Ngūgī Wa Thiong'o
The 2008 novel by prolific Kenyan writer Ngūgī Wa Thiong'o chronicles love and loss, and the deep cultural wounds that form when Christian missionaries work to outlaw female circumcision, culling a community at the foot of Mt. Kenya irreparably in half.
Montenegro: 'Gorski vijenac' by Petar II Petrović-Njegoš
Written in the 1840s, Gorski vijenac (The Mountain Wreath), is both a poem and a play. Scenes within the epic poem are played out as dialogues and monologues, and center around an alleged event that occurred in the 1700s: the mass murder of Montenegrins who had converted to Islam, known as "The Inquisition of the Turkicized."
The Philippines: 'Noli Me Tángere' by José Rizal
Noli Me Tángere, which translates to "don't touch me," is required reading for high school students throughout the Philippines, and for good reason: the novel, originally published in Spanish but now more commonly read in either English or Tagalog, was written in the late 1800s and chronicles the colonization of the Philippines by Spain.
Serbia: 'Na Drini Cuprija' by Ivo Andric
Na Drini Cupria (The Bridge on the Drina) by Ivo Andric spans four centuries, using the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, built in the 1500s by the Ottoman Empire, as the central figure — and witness — to generations of residents and their lives. Andric himself served as Yugoslavia's ambassador to Germany in the early years of WWII. He was eventually put under house arrest, and wrote Na Drini Cupria, along with two other novels, while confined to a friend's apartment for three years.
United States: 'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck
While there were several books mentioned throughout the discussion of The Great American Novels — To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee), The Road (Cormac McCarthy), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson) and Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain) all made the list — the title that was mentioned over and over again was Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, the 1939 novel chronicling the Joads family and their struggle to survive the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.