Álvaro Enrigue's story collection Hypothermia explores identity and isolation through the eyes of garbage collectors, professors, and outcasts. It's also loosely based on Dante's Inferno. Enrigue picked 10 books that took inspiration from books that came before them.
In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, Jorge Luis Borges tells the story of a writer who set out to reproduce Don Quixote de la Mancha without consulting the original text written by Cervantes. “He did not wish to compose another Quixote” –says Borges– “but the very Quixote itself. Needless to say he never set himself to the facile task of mechanically transcribing the original; it was not his intention to copy it.” In Borges’ story, Pierre Menard dedicates years to writing thousands of pages on his recollections of the novel and by the end of his life he achieves success: he reproduces two and a half chapters from Cervantes’ book without having copied them. In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” Borges, himself a voracious reader, responds to a question which typically torments writers: Do books emerge from our experience or do they come from other books? The following is a list of great literary works which have set out to modify our reading of other, earlier ones.
1. 2666, by Roberto Bolaño - Set in the border city of Santa Teresa, Roberto Bolaño’s magnum opus tells the story of a community so degenerate that it develops a horrific new extreme sport: murdering women. The story 2666 tells is true. It is based on Huesos en el desierto (Bones in the Desert), Sergio González Rodríguez’s work of investigative journalism, so much so that the author is one of Bolaño’s characters. Editorial tip: Huesos en el desierto is not yet translated into English.
2. Our Lady of the Assassins by Fernando Vallejo - This novel is a fiction masquerading as non-fiction. Fernando Vallejo narrates, in the first person, a story of love with a hired assassin in the Columbian city of Medellín. An astute reader will be able to discern that Vallejo’s novel comes not purely from real life but from books: his Medellín is based on Dante’s Inferno. In literature, form almost always equals content.
3. Where the Air is Clear by Carlos Fuentes - In Where the Air is Clear, Carlos Fuentes composed a polyphonic portrait of Mexico City amid the growth and modernization brought on by the economic boom of the 1950’s. The novel can be read as a jazz interpretation –free and in a Mexican key– of John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer.
4. Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo - Perhaps the most powerful novel of modern Mexico, Pedro Páramo is written in conversation with an American book: Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Much as Masters tells a town’s history through the poetic epitaphs of its inhabitants, the reader of Pedro Páramo hears the history of Comala through the voices of its dead. Now buried in the cemetery, they relate the misfortunes which condemned them to be lost, tormented souls. Rulfo’s novel is a zombie story avant la lettre.
5. Ulysses by James Joyce - The well-known inspiration for Ulysses is made clear by the title itself: Joyce’s novel is based on Homer’s Odyssey, under the ever-fascinating premise that all of Odysseus’ extraordinary adventures can be experienced by a modern man in a single day, provided that the writing consists of his mental activity.
6. Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas - Some great works of fiction have been reinterpreted through other great works of fiction, which have, in turn, been recreated in yet other novels: a triple somersault. In Dublinesque, Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas inverts the terms of Joyce’s Ulysses and tells the story of a man who, after living a hyperkinetic life like those of Odysseus and Leopold Bloom, resolves to never leave his room again and to reduce his mental activity to a minimum. Before turning into Telemachus –the hero who does nothing– he decides to hit the streets of Dublin one last time to celebrate Bloomsday.
7. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - A book that everyone has read –or at least must pretend to have read– and which is based on another one, even more classic: Don Quixote. Few phrases have been quoted more than Flaubert’s: “Madame Bovary, that’s me.” If the author identified perhaps a little closely with his character, it’s also true that the wife of Doctor Bovary is a feminine incarnation of Don Quixote de la Mancha: he lost his mind reading novels of chivalry while she lost hers reading romance novels.
8. Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes - As interesting as the intersection of experience and reading found between Madame Bovary and Don Quixote is the fact that in the late 20th Century an English writer thought that Mrs. Bovary, who was Don Quixote, who was Flaubert, was, also, Julian Barnes. Flaubert’s Parrot is an amphibious book in which what appears to be a personal essay about Flaubertian writing is gradually, delicately transformed into an extremely sad novel in which the differences between character, author, and narrator are less clear than they appear at first glance.
9. Foe by J.M. Coetzee - In the mid-1980’s, J.M. Coetzee wrote a short, singular novel titled Foe. It tells the story of a woman shipwrecked on a desert isle; there she witnesses the final years in the life of a sailor named Cruso and his slave Friday. Once rescued, Susan Barton tries to convince Daniel Defoe that he should write her story. The novel is a meditation on the art of writing from perhaps the greatest writer of our time.
10. Friday by Michel Tournier - In the mid-sixties, twenty years before the publication of Foe, French writer Michel Tournier published Friday, a bold rewriting of Robinson Crusoe in which he questions the myth of the enlightened colonizer by imagining a shipwrecked sailor who ends up understanding that the civilized man is Friday, and not himself. Friday was visionary in at least one sense: it may be history’s first environmental novel.