BOOK REVIEW / A blow in the solar plexus from the Latin all-stars: 'Traveller's Literary Companion to South and Central America' - Jason Wilson: In Print, 13.95

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EL SUPREMO, alias Dr Jose Gaspar Rodriguez Francia, dictator of Paraguay from 1814 to 1840, forbade people to look at him, forced the priests to marry and had all the dogs in Asuncion shot. You probably didn't know that. It's a typical, quirky little nugget from Jason Wilson's book, which is as much a general companion as a literary one, and constitutes mandatory reading for any gringos planning a trip to the most interesting half of the Americas. Its main feature is volume of information, much of it riveting to anyone with the vaguest curiosity about the continent.

The guts of Wilson's book is an anthology of more than 250 extracts of prose and poetry about South and Central America, by indigenous authors or visiting foreigners. Working roughly from north to south, the Companion also provides, for each republic, a historical, cultural and geographical introduction, a short booklist and biographical details of quoted writers. As it is intended as a guide for English-speakers, all extracted authors have already been published in translation.

Wilson plays a straight bat as far as selection is concerned: the Latin American all-stars are here, as well as other authors known for their association with the continent, from Darwin to W H Hudson, Conrad, Lowry, Graham Greene, Joan Didion and beyond. Most of the material is drawn from the 20th century, though Wilson dips into the past when he can find something revealing. I was pleased to see Voltaire sneaking into Surinam and Paraguay, although he never went to either; his extracts don't really tell us anything concrete about the countries, but they cast their cultural light.

There is plenty of good material here, despite the shamefully low percentage of authors who ever make it into English. The terrible clash produced by the arrival of the conquistadors and still reverberating through the continent is often heard; again and again the Latin American writers are drawn to their Indian heritage and fading, or faded, cultures. The ugly shadow of military repression also hangs over much of the writing.

Often they describe their landscapes with disarming simplicity and freshness; the Brazilian Erico Verissimo, for example (a diplomat, like a lot of them), writes: 'The first time I looked down upon Rio from the heights of Corcovado the beauty of the landscape hit me like a blow in the solar plexus,' and Borges says of the Argentine capital: 'Hard to believe Buenos Aires had any beginning. I feel it to be as eternal as air and water.' Many of the best extracts, none the less, are not explicit; they distil invisible cultural truths in a few sentences of narrative. Cesar Vallejo, to pluck out one, takes you to the soul of the Peruvian sierras in one heartbreaking page. My God, I found myself thinking as I devoured this book, why don't we read more of these people?

Having said that, both style and content are patchy. Trying to marshal such an overwhelming volume of facts almost always results in a breathlessness of delivery. Jason Wilson lectures on Latin American history at University College, London, has written widely in the field, and is inevitably better on some countries than others. There are errors; opening the book at a random spread we find that the vast El Teniente copper mine has been relocated from its home in Rancagua to the Atacama desert a thousand miles away, the first conquistador to ride south from Peru has been renamed Diego de Alvarado (from Diego de Almagro) and Chile has been robbed of the (admittedly little) gold it possesses.

South and Central America is the first volume in a new series; five more will be appearing shortly, including Africa and Japan. The idea behind them is 'to give a sense of how foreigners see these cultures, and how they see themselves through their writers'. In her brief introduction Margaret Drabble calls it 'the series I have been looking for all my travelling life'. Even in the market for travel literature, more crowded than Heathrow on an August bank holiday, there is always room for books such as this.