Bolivian fiction in English translation is few and far between. The only other Bolivian writer that I read was the poet Jaime Sáenz, who’s English language poetry collection, “Imminent Visitor” was an amazing read. What attracted me to Juan de Recacoechea’s “American Visa” was twofold: first, I still explore Latin American fiction with a passion, and two, the seemingly “Noir” quality the book appeared to have when I first saw it on the shelf.
“American Visa” is a Noir - of sorts. There are allusions to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, Chester Himes and the prose is written in the style of a Chandler-esque adventure, only instead of Los Angeles, the turf here are the tough, teeming streets of La Paz.
The story is about a down and out man who is desperately seeking to obtain an American visa in order to visit his son in Miami. At first, you sympathize with him, watching him live in ramshackle hotels, cavorting with the more lowlife element of La Paz’s streets. We witness his nervousness at the American consulate as he worries about whether or not the officials are going to grant his visa. We then learn his nervousness is caused by the fact that all his papers are forged, a first hint that he may not be what one thinks. Little by little it is revealed that he worked as a “middle man” for an array of smugglers, his wife had left him and his only son had long left Bolivia for a better life. The only thing he has is a new suit (to impress the folks at the consulate), a little money and a few nuggets of gold he hoped to cash in for some extra money.
He visits a travel agency that promises him that they can fastrack his visa if he were willing to pay the $800 for it - no questions asked. Desperate, he goes back to cash in his gold and while there, he comes up with a better idea.
The story, with its gritty realism and American crime fiction elements sets this novel apart from the more popular “Magical Realism” Latin American novels. In fact, Recacoechea was part of a generation of writers who were reacting against the Magical Realist norm. This novel has more in common with Hemingway’s “The Killers” than it does Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Although the plot of this story is simple enough, it is the story’s “interior” that makes it a very interesting read. It is about Bolivian politics, class, race and the divisions one normally doesn’t read about in Latin American society, and of course immigration issues. It is a wild ride through the back streets of La Paz and its environs, a peek into a world most North American readers don’t get via Latin American fiction. If Noir’s your thing - and it certainly is mine - you can’t go wrong with this novel.