Book cover of Simpatia

Reading guide: Simpatía by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, translated by Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn

In modern-day Caracas, a part-time teacher is tasked with turning a great family home into a shelter for the stray dogs left behind by the elites who have fled the city

Whether you’re new to Simpatía or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide, featuring insights from critics, our judges and the book’s author and translator, as well as discussion points and suggestions for further reading. 

Written by Emily Facoory

Publication date and time: Published


The book is set in the contemporary Venezuela of Nicolas Maduro amid a mass exodus of the intellectual class who have been leaving their pets behind. Ulises Kan, the protagonist and a movie buff, receives a text message from his wife, Paulina, saying she is leaving the country (and him). Ulises is not heartbroken, but liberated by Paulina’s departure. As two other events end up disrupting his life even further, Ulises discovers that he has been entrusted with a mission – to transform Los Argonautas, the great family home, into a shelter for abandoned dogs. If he manages to do it in time, he will inherit the luxurious apartment that he had shared with Paulina.

The main characters

Ulises Kan

Ulises is the protagonist of the novel, a movie buff who teaches in a film studio. After his wife leaves him, he accepts the responsibility to transform Los Argonautas, a great family home, into a shelter for abandoned dogs.


Nadine is Ulises’ unrequited love interest from before he was married. After not seeing each other for four years, they reunite after Paulina leaves Ulises.


Paulina is Ulises wife, they separate after she decides to leave Venezuela as she can’t take the conflict anymore, deciding to leave Ulises as well. She has an estranged relationship with her father even though she is desperate to see him.

General Martín Ayala

General Martín Ayala is Paulina’s father, described as being handsome, he’s a lover of dogs and has a cemetery dedicated to them in his backyard. He has no time for his daughter and yet has cultivated a friendship with Ulises which results in him including Ulises in his will.

About the author

Rodrigo Blanco Calderón is a writer, editor and university lecturer from Caracas, Venezuela. He completed a doctorate in linguistics and literature at Paris XIII University and has received various awards for his stories both inside and outside Venezuela. In 2007 he was invited to join the Bogotá39 group, which brings together the best Latin American narrators under thirty-nine years old. He was a guest writer on the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2013 and the following year his story ‘Emuntorios’ was included in Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America, volume number 46 of the prestigious magazine McSweeney’s. With his first novel The Night, he won the 2016 Paris Rive Gauche Prize, the Critics Award in Venezuela and the 2019 Mario Vargas Llosa Biennial Prize. He currently lives in Malaga, Spain.

Portrait of author Rodrigo Blanco Calderón

About the translators

Noel Hernández González is originally from Spain and has an MA in Literary Translation from the University of East Anglia. He is co-translator, with Daniel Hahn, of two novels by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón: The Night (Seven Stories Press 2022) and Simpatía (Seven Stories Press 2024), the latter of which was longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024.

Portrait of translator Noel Hernández González

Daniel Hahn is an award-winning writer, editor and translator. With over 40 books to his name, his translations from Portuguese, Spanish and French include fiction from Europe, Africa and the Americas, and non-fiction by writers ranging from Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago to Brazilian footballer Pelé. He is a former chair of the Translators Association and the Society of Authors, and on the board of many organisations that work with literature and free speech. Books include the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature and the translation of José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Born in London in 1973, Hahn was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2020 Birthday Honours for services to literature.

Daniel Hahn

What the critics said


‘An unpredictable fable that counters a nation’s hopelessness with the universal need for meaning and connection.’

Publishers Weekly

‘In the kinetic latest from Blanco Calderón (Sacrifices), a Venezuelan man navigates political and domestic upheaval after the fall of Hugo Chavez. The story kicks off in Caracas when Ulises Kan’s wife leaves him in order to flee the country and escape the repressive Maduro regime. Three months later, after the death of his father-in-law, Martín Ayala, Ulises finds out he’s been tasked by Martín’s will with turning the sprawling Ayala estate into a nonprofit dog rescue. According to the terms of the will, Ulises has four months to make the operation successful. If he does so, the house will be bequeathed to the organization in perpetuity and Ulises will receive an apartment on the estate. Otherwise, the property will go to Martín’s children and the rescue will be forced to shutter. Meanwhile, a woman Ulises had once been enamored with mysteriously reappears, and they begin a passionate love affair. More ominously, Ulises discovers the house is routinely monitored by federal agents and other shadowy figures. The twisty story is chock full of betrayals and intrigue as Ulises faces one hurdle after another in his quest to make good on the inheritance. This page turner has plenty of depth.’ 

Carmen R. Santos, ABC Cultura

‘Blanco Calderón speaks to us of ‘dogs and men,’ of their struggle for survival, of their pain … and of their hope.’  


‘The latest novel by the Venezuelan writer Rodrigo Blanco Calderón reestablishes him as one of the most promising contemporary Ibero-American prose writers, and consolidates him as an indisputable figure within the prolific panorama of twenty-first century fiction.’

What the International Booker Prize judges said:

‘In this realistic allegory set in Caracas during Maduro’s dictatorship, we meet Ulises, a former orphan who is desperate for a sense of purpose and belonging. His wife has just announced she is leaving him by way of a text message and his father-in-law has willed him Los Argonautas, a house of accumulating secrets and mythologies. Much like Jason of the Argonauts, Ulises’ inheritance is contingent on completion of a task, to transform the house into a veterinary clinic and kennel for the stray dogs left behind by the elites who have fled the city. Within the madness and austerity of political corruption and historical revisioning, Ulises devotes himself to one of the saner choices left to him: complete the task by saving the dogs, with the help of his Medea-like lover, Nadine, and the leftover animal rescue and house staff. In doing so he simultaneously creates a chosen family and a practice of care that is a stronger balm for the heart than sympathy.’

Group photo of the International Booker Prize 2024 Judges; Romesh Gunesekera, Natalie Diaz, William Kentridge, Eleanor Wachtel and Aaron Robertson.

Questions and discussion points

The title of the book, ‘Simpatía’ can’t be directly translated from Spanish, with the word meaning somewhere between sympathy and charm. How do you think the meaning relates to the book’s themes and overall message?

Ulises has grown up orphaned and while he was adopted at the age of eight, he didn’t feel like his adopted parents were his family. Do you think the dog shelter has given him a chance to find a new chosen family of sorts? What facets of the work he’s doing do you think has helped him to find that missing piece of his life?

When asked why he decided to start the cemetery, Martín said that, ‘On the day I understood that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, God might in fact exist. One day I saw my dogs and, through them, I thought I saw God, and that’s when I knew. What do you think Martin’s intention is with this quote? How might the dogs have been compared to God?

Set in Caracas, Venezuela during the presidential term of Nicolas Maduro, the book details the issue of people fleeing the country to avoid the harsh regime, leaving their pets behind. What other specific details can you infer from Ulises’ descriptions of the country’s unstable political backdrop?

Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn both translated the novel from Spanish. How might the process of translation be different when two translators are working on a book? How would different styles and interpretations change the overall tone of the novel?

If you enjoyed this book, why not try

Sacrifices by Rodrigo Blanco Calderon

The Night by Rodrigo Blanco Calderon

A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa