All Roads Lead to Austen, by Amy Elizabeth Smith

I could just hear the pitch for this nonfiction book: a literary travel book like the huge bestseller by Elizabeth Gilbert, but going to double the number of countries and, instead of a vague goal of finding yourself, a fascinating goal of gauging reactions to Jane Austen's books, thus pulling in the legion of Austen fans. Its subtitle is A Year-Long Journey with Jane.

Although I haven't read the Gilbert book, I was intrigued by Smith's premise. Austen's novels, which she herself called “miniatures”, provide witty commentary on a narrow band of society: English landed gentry of the early 19th century. To say her plots are basically romances is to say that Joyce's Ulysses is the story of an ordinary day. Her books remain popular 200 years later because her characters capture our imagination; they are universal without being stereotypes. Austen's eye for detail gives readers a sense of living within that world. And we can delight in her linguistic wiles, used to delicately and subtly skewer pretension.

Easy enough for us in the Anglo-American world, but how would Austen's books resonate with Latin American readers? This is the question Smith set out to answer, taking a year to travel in Central and South America, leading book groups and teaching a course based on three of Austen's novels.

Her qualifications are excellent: an inventive writing and literature professor at a small university in California who has her Austen students do creative projects instead of a final paper, resulting in such mashups as Northanger Abbey in rhymed heroic couplets. She found that her students react personally to Austen's characters, saying that they know plenty of Mrs. Bennets or wanting to “dope slap” Marianne. Smith had even started studying Spanish, and wisely begins her year with an intensive language course in Guatemala. Other countries she visits are Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, and Mexico.

Smith's other quest was to identify the Austens of these countries. Readers in the U.S. unfortunately get little exposure to authors of other countries, the only exception being England. Even major Canadian authors cannot get recognition in the U.S. Only if an author wins the Nobel Prize or is vehemently promoted by someone powerful in the U.S. literary world will we even hear about them. So I loved this idea. She gives us lists of authors she learns about from each of the six countries and a little about each, but not the kind of literary commentary that made Reading Lolita in Tehran interesting to me. Still, I now have a much longer TBR list and there is a little more detail on her web site. She also runs across one of my favorite books, El Pinto de Batalles by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

Her writing carries us through this light, entertaining memoir. She enlivens humorous descriptions of her adventures with details of local color such as feeding iguanas in Ecuador or attending a boxing match in Mexico. She gives us just the right amount of herself, enough to enjoy and participate in her reactions without overwhelming the story. I love that she allocates so much space to the people who join her book clubs and course, giving us their reactions and thoughts in their own words. I also love the diversity of the groups: from society matrons to working-class folks to academics. They provide her with plenty of recommendations for authors from their countries.

What Latin American authors have you read?

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