Anyone who travels is probably already more receptive than the average consumer to media from other countries, but there is often the hurdle of translation that needs to be navigated when it comes to television, music, and movies. Whether written in English or professionally translated, books from literary traditions around the world provide a kaleidoscopic and comprehensive look into cultures that can transport you from the comfort of your reading nook, maybe even inspiring and informing your next travel experience.
Many of the works on this list here are well-known and award-winning, but it also comprises other random bookshop finds from my own travels. I was inspired to put it together when I happened to look back and notice that I was reading more books by foreign authors than any from America — this is really just the tip of the iceberg, and not meant to be comprehensive at all. So come on a literary odyssey with me, and find your next favorite book for 2020.
Ian McEwan (U.K.)
Notable Works: Atonement, Saturday
A long and acclaimed career has made McEwan one of Britain’s most esteemed authors, rising into the literary elite when his novel Amsterdam won the country’s most prestigious book award, the Man Booker Prize, in 1998. Cinema enthusiasts may be familiar with his work already through the Oscar-winning Atonement, a 2007 film starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, and a young Saoirse Ronan. The novel (and film) tell the story of a family torn asunder by personal strife amidst the greater turmoil of World War II Britain, and are thematically concerned with the eponymous personal tribulation of atonement and related issues of loyalty, storytelling, and love.
The story of his novel Saturday is 24 hours in the life of a successful and reputable London neurosurgeon, busy confronting the conflicting feelings of entering the latter stages of his life. His picture-perfect family, home, and career are set against the backdrop of an increasingly tumultuous 21st-century world, where terrorism, war, and climate change dominate the public consciousness. While both of these novels tell deeply British stories, McEwan’s writing here is transcendent and speaks to universal, modern truths without being too preachy or on-the-nose. Reading them will teach you as much about yourself as it does about the world, making for my favorite type of story.
Olga Tokarczuk (Poland)
Notable Works: Flights, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Well-known in her native Poland, Tokarczuk cemented her place in the pantheon of 21st century novelists by winning the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, after her book Flights won the International Booker Prize that same year. A fragmentary novel, it comprises more than 100 vignettes of “philosophical ruminations on modern travel.” But this book earns its place on this list through more than just the virtue of being expressly about travel — it is also intensely psychological, revelatory, and intimate, in the same way as a conversation with an old friend who holds you accountable for your shenanigans, while half-begrudgingly loving you for them, too. The unspoken hypothesis is that it takes a traveler to know a traveler, because while we all may do it for our own reasons, there can only be so many. Read our review of Flights for more on the book!
Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia)
Notable Works: 100 Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera
Another winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the grandmaster of magical realism is one of South America’s and the world’s foremost authors, whose depictions of a fictionalized Colombia have expanded the literary consciousness on love, mystery, and loss to a degree rarely matched by other artists. Adapting stories from his own childhood and shrouding them in the mythical narrative of a village’s founding family led him to writing 100 Years of Solitude, his most extravagant novel and one that shaped the way I travel. The narrative is populated by great inventors, visionary craftsmen, great wanderers who share the world’s secrets with the villagers of Macondo, and more ephemeral individuals who all appear larger than life itself. The characters are colorful, the language delightful, and the story eternal — I can’t recommend it enough.
Alexander Pushkin (Russia)
Notable Works: Eugene Onegin
Any review of international authors would be incomplete without mention of the Russians, amongst them some of the greatest psychologists, theologists, and romantics of all time like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pushkin, who I only single out on account of his relative accessibility, compared to the other giants of the country’s literature. His famous novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, has been widely adapted as a stage production on account of the inherent drama that provides the perfect crash course into understanding 19th century Russia, and furthermore the development of a modern Russian society full of fragile and ancient beauty that is often overlooked, for better or worse. There’s aristocratic romance, strife in the peasantry, duels, and more; if it ever shows its age, it does so with charm.
Haruki Murakami (Japan)
Notable Works: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood
Probably the best-known Japanese author outside of the country, Murakami is an accomplished writer of novels, short-stories, and non-fiction works with a wide range of subject matter and a similarly wide appeal. His 1997 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of the strangest and most beautiful books one might ever read: the everyman protagonist Toru Okada lives a comfortable enough existence in a sleepy Tokyo district, finding joy in cooking pasta, ironing his shirts, and listening to opera on his radio. His desperately simple life unfolds into a confounding tapestry of marital deceit, corporate espionage, and supernatural occurrences when his cat disappears. Intertwined with Okada’s narrative, there are visceral descriptions of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and army intelligence excursions into Mongolia. His seminal earlier work, Norwegian Wood, is a coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of student demonstrations in 1960s Tokyo. Acutely gifted with the ability to keep you on your toes, Murakami’s work is unique and essential reading.
Tan Twan Eng (Malaysia)
Notable Work: The Gift of Rain
Tan Twan Eng’s first novel, The Gift of Rain, is another other World War II tale on this list. Set on the Malaysian island of Penang in 1939 just as war is about to set in, the tension of impending hostilities divides two friends: a Chinese-English resident of the island named Philip and a Japanese diplomat Hayato Endo, who had become his martial arts instructor and great friend. Exploring their relationship, the novel gets at universal themes of loyalty and loss with heartbreaking accuracy, so tangible that it put the author on the international literary map. It landed on the longlist for the Booker Prize for International Authors, and Eng would go on to win the Man Asian Literary Prize for his second novel in 2012.
Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan/America)
Notable Works: The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns
I’ll admit that I haven’t read The Kite Runner since high school, but don’t let the fact that it was high school required reading put you off. It’s an intimate, mature, and gripping coming-of-age account of an Afghani boy unable to earn the approval of his well-to-do father, a problem that only seems to grow over the years until the narrative reaches a fateful turning point with the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. Besides the lessons about redemption and reconciliation in the face of great tragedy, there are also great expositions on protecting one’s traditions as an immigrant, as well as the tribulations of familial and romantic love. The book was a bonafide sensation and bestseller, going on to receive an Oscar-nominated film adaptation with a screenplay penned by David Bennioff (later of Game of Thrones fame).
Hamid Ismailov (Uzbekistan)
Notable Works: Devil’s Dance
Ismailov’s is not a household name by any means, but his novel about an Uzbek author imprisoned by Soviet authorities for subversion is as gripping a survival tale and rumination on writing as you’ll ever read. As a rich bonus, you’ll be immersed in the history and culture of an incredibly fascinating, yet often overlooked, part of the world. The main character is imprisoned while working on a novel about The Great Game, the 19th century version of the Cold War wherein Great Britain and the Russian Empire competed for spheres of influence in the royal courts of Central Asia. In doing his research for the novel, he comes across the poetry of one ancient Uzbek princess, whose lyricism leaves such an impression on him that her story becomes a place he goes for comfort in his mind during imprisonment. Like any great travel experience, this novel will throw you for a culture shock at first, but then reward you richly for sticking with it and getting to know the land of the Silk Roads.
Did we leave one of your favorite international authors off the list? Be sure to let us know in the comments or on Twitter!