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Originally published Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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More worlds in words

Novels by Patrick Chamoiseau, Gabriel García Márquez and R.K. Narayan illuminate people and places beyond our borders.

We want to hear from you about fiction that illuminates a whole country or society. To kick the discussion off, here are six such novels that made a powerful impression on me. Go to, search the author name Patrick Chamoiseau, and add your comments:

In translation:

"Texaco" by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov (1992, translation 1997). One of the glories of international literature: a novel set in a Martinique shantytown slated for demolition, where residents with long memories try to fend off their fate with their own storytelling alternatives to the Caribbean island's official history — from its slave-era past to the troubles of the present.

"The Autumn of the Patriarch" by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa (1975, translation 1976). "One Hundred Years of Solitude" still offers the best introduction to this Latin American writer. But the labyrinthine "Patriarch" is his ultimate statement about dictatorship. It features a protagonist so corrupt he even sells the sea he thinks of as "his" to the Americans, leaving a "dusty plain" in its place.

"Cities of Salt" by Abdelrahman Munif, translated by Peter Theroux (1984, translation 1987). Set in the 1930s, this revelation of a novel chronicles the first Western oil explorations of the Arabian peninsula, as seen through the eyes of Arab oasis dwellers who might as well be witnessing an invasion from Mars. Here is the scoop on how our entanglement with the oil-rich Middle East got started, presented in a way you won't find anywhere else.

Written in English:

"Search Sweet Country" by B. Kojo Laing (1986). Nigerians Ben Okri ("The Famished Road") and Amos Tutuola ("My Life in the Bush of Ghosts") are the acknowledged biggies of West African fiction. But this debut novel, a neglected masterpiece, puts Ghana on the literary map in a big way as it portrays a society where bush medicine and witchcraft happily coexist with Datsuns, computers and academic research.

"Talkative Man" by R.K. Narayan 1986). Almost any of Narayan's tales can usher readers straight into the heart of small-town India. But this novella — my first encounter with Narayan — remains a favorite. Its title character/narrator is an aspiring journalist who has spent his life "mainly in eating, breeding and celebrating festivals." When a Western-looking stranger comes to town, TM (as he's called) thinks he's found his scoop.

"The Crocodile Fury" by Beth Yahp (1992). Tash Aw's worthy "The Harmony Silk Factory" is the Malaysian novel that's made waves in recent years. Still, this debut novel, about an animist "ghostchaser" grandmother and a Christian-convert/ ex-prostitute mother fighting over the soul of their teenage daughter/granddaughter, sticks in my mind as an equally memorable read. Covering three generations of family history, it evokes colonial and post-colonial cultural collisions in cadences as vivid as a folk tale's.

Michael Upchurch:

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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