Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Review: AMERICAN VISA by Juan de Recacoechea

My 14th and final book for the Expert level of the 2010 Global Reading Challenge (and my second South American crime/thriller novel) was AMERICAN VISA by Juan de Recacoechea. I understand this is one of the few Bolivian books ever to be translated into English. A 'noirish' tale set in La Paz, it won the National Book Prize in Bolivia in 1994.

I was quite curious about this taste of Bolivian crime fiction, because I spent a couple of weeks in Bolivia (as part of 4 months in South America) in late 2007, including a few days in La Paz, the highest capital city in the world (another Bolivian city, Potosi, is the highest city in the world). So I I thought I may have walked some of the same streets this novel deals with - well, at least the nicer, 'touristy' ones in the downtown area, anyway.

In AMERICAN VISA Mario Alvarez, an English teacher from the provinces of Bolivia, arrives at the zero star Hotel California in La Paz wearing his best suit and clutching a round-trip ticket to the U.S. sent to him by his son. He meets Blanca, a prostitute with cinnamon skin from the tropical part of Bolivia who "had within her the serenity of the great rivers that run through her homeland." Blanca falls for Mario and offers him a more realistic future than the vague promise made by his son, but Mario is obsessed with getting to the US.

When it becomes clear the authorities will investigate his faked documents, Mario needs to "expedite" his visa problem. Coming up with the harebrained idea of robbing a gold buyer for bribe money, he proceeds to land himself in various inglorious situations. He draws on his experience with American crime fiction--Chandler, Hammett, and more--to steal the money any way he can, even if he has to kill to get it.

This book was quite different to the crime/thriller novels I usually read, but I found myself hooked, and really enjoying it. It is reminiscent of that classic mid-20th century American noir, with its dishevelled hero, mean and gritty streets, and situations that unfold into all sorts of unplanned bad places and outcomes. Recacoechea's writing probably shines most in his evocation of La Paz, a bustling city full of change and history, and the sense of disconnect and desperation felt by the 'hero'.

AMERICAN VISA is quite a different book, and won't necessarily be enjoyed by all crime and thriller fans, but there is plenty of merit, interest, and thought-provoking themes to be found within its pages.

This book was read and reviewed for Dorte Jakobsen's excellent 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

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