Burkina Faso: Folktales from the Moose

Moving!! It’s stressful! We uproot an established life and routine in the hope of something better. It might sound like I moved across continents. In truth, we just moved 4 kilometers from our previous rented house to a new home that’s all ours. This being the very first home owned by us, we planned and tried our best to make everything perfect from the get-go. That was not how things turned out to be in reality. It took nearly 8 months to transform this previously unfamiliar, almost 1000 sq. ft. of space into my tiny paradise. Today I feel like I have earned this Sunday morning when I sit in my cosy living room and give my complete attention to this thus far neglected but dearly beloved blog.

Book Shelf

A picture of our thought-cloud book shelf


This preamble is an explanation I am trying to give – mainly to myself – for being unable to write over the past few of months. I am back now with a review of stories from Burkina Faso. It is a landlocked country in West Africa. The population is made of many tribes who have occupied the region from prehistoric times. It is Francophone due to the colonial occupation by France during the European scramble for Africa. It is one of the least developed countries in the world.There is regular migration to Ghana and Ivory Coast for seasonal agricultural work. Slavery in the region dates back to the era of Arab slave trade. Reports say it still exists in the region.


Source: http://www.29travels.com/mymap.php?j=BF&k=&c=ccffaa00&cf=cc99ccff&mode=g

The capital Ouagadougou hosts its own International Arts and Crafts festival and a pan African film festival called FESPACO. As expected there are very few options to read from the country in English. So when I saw the collection of Folktales from the Moose of Burkina Faso, I could not resist. According to the African Books Collective, the author is engaged in several research projects in Burkinabe culture. Folktales are an amazing way to get an insight into a culture, specially one dominated by tribes where the tales describe their thought process and way of living excellently.


Folktales from the Moose of Burkina Faso is a collection of stories orally recounted among the Moose tribe. The Mossi are the original and the largest ethnic group in the region of Burkina Faso. The stories are bizarre and often extremely violent. The characters are mostly various animals, each with a distinct attribute associated with it. The hare is downloadusually the protagonist. He is intelligent for sure, but his value system may be quite different from the one we believe in. Occasionally a human character pops in and automatically jumps to the top of the intellectual ladder. The hyena is usually a disliked character trying to pull tricks but in the end paying a price for its stupidity, usually with its life. Various download (1)other animals make many interesting appearances in the stories.

The wisdom the stories try to impart may not be immediately relate to the mainstream cultural context. That doesn’t make them any less fascinating. The key takeaways from all these stories seems to be that violence is rampant and inescapable and intelligence is a more helpful tool for survival than honesty.

Other Options from Burkina Faso:

The Twilight of the Bygone Days – Nazi Boni

TheTwilightofBygoneDaysThe Saga of Bwa people and Volta-Bani war




The Parachute Drop – Norbert Zongo

TheParachuteDropInsight into the psychology of a corrupt African leader


Bulgaria: What Belongs to You


Located in south-eastern Europe on the Balkans, Bulgaria is known for its deep cultural roots and heritage. In the 4th century A.D., the first Christian monastery was established in central Bulgaria. Persians and Ottomans have laid claim on the region and it has witnessed severe Christian persecution. Even though it was a Stalinist state for a while, Bulgaria finally evolved into a democracy. It is still known for corruption and inefficiency in the systems and has one of the lowest population growth and birth rates. It has not fully recovered from the economic collapse of the post socialist era. It is a market based economy and is one of the biggest exporters of IT products.


Source: https://goo.gl/uaEoHy

Bulgaria is home to one of the richest folk heritages in the world and to Pre-Slav and Orhid literary schools. It is also the place of origin of the Cryllic script, the second most widely used in the world. Worked gold is said to have originated here. One of the unique cultural distinctions is the indication for Yes and No that differs from the rest of the world. Short left and right shake says yes and top to bottom nod says no. Bulgarians pride themselves on hospitality and neighborliness.

While there is a huge body of literature available for reading from Bulgaria, I am writing about a book I love – Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You. It uniquely blends the trials of homosexuality and economic despair in current day Bulgaria, without making the reader feel miserable for it. More about it in the review.


What Belongs to You is a story about a man’s search for love. That the man is gay is incidental. Bulgaria itself plays like a character in the story. The protagonist is an American, teaching in Bulgaria. He frequently looks for sexual gratification through male prostitutes. During his tenure in Sofia, he falls for Mitko, a Bulgarian much younger than him, whom he meets for a sexual transaction in the public bathroom of the National Palace of Culture. Although the story is laced with violence, poverty, sickness, the one WhatBelongstoYouoverwhelming emotion that you retain on closing the last page is tenderness, like:

‘for the first time I caught, beneath the more powerful and nearly overwhelming smell of alcohol, his own scent, which would be the greatest source of the pleasure I took from him and which I would seek out.. at each of our meetings.’

The narrator – whose name we do not get to know – develops an incredible fascination for Mitko. What the narrator feels is love, though, is never reciprocated by Mitko:

‘There’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly. I was performing too, pretending to believe that his show of passion was a genuine response to my own desire, about which there was nothing feigned.’

Mitko is from Varna:

‘a beautiful port city on the Black Sea coast and one of the centers of astonishing economic boom Bulgaria briefly enjoyed, before, here as in so much of the world, it collapsed suddenly and seemingly without warning.’

He makes dates with other men using the narrator’s laptop, which is clearly a luxury for him, just like his cell phone and iPod. There has been someone significant in Mitko’s past too, as the narrator gleams from a set of their pictures together:

‘there was an intensity to Mitko’s gaze that convinced me this camera, too, was held by someone who elicited his look;….They  were so young, these boys in the frame, children really, and yet despite their eagerness for each other it was as though they were documenting something they knew could not last. Of course there were no witnesses in their small town to what they were together, neither their families nor their friends, not even strangers passed on the street, since none of the photos were taken outside. Except for these photographs, these digital memories he scrolled through now, nothing would have survived of those embraces that for all their heat had come to an end….Of these two men locked together on the screen, then, one left, buoyed by talent or means or both, and the other stayed and was transformed from a prosperous looking boy to the more or less homeless man I had invited into my home.’

Mitko is slowly spiraling into poverty, alcoholism and despair. With each of their interactions, his demands increase and the narrator tries to put a stop to their meetings, but fails.  He finally acquiesces for a weekend getaway with Mitko in Varna. It does not go well and ends in violence. They lose contact for a while. The next time they meet, the narrator is finally in a steady relationship. His partner R knows about Mitko:

‘like everything else in my past he was part of the story that had led us to each other.’

But when Mitko comes back, the narrator is unable to not let him into his life again. Mitko is sick. The narrator helps him out and Mitko pays back with a brief sexual encounter:

‘I thought of R., though it shames me to recall it, as though our life together, open and sunlit and lasting, were entirely without substance; I felt it disappear, simply disappear, like a flammable shadow, and part of me was glad to feel it go.’

Their final encounter is one of much indifference and pity – signs of a relationship that has lived its course. This book is about coming to terms – with the relationship between father and son, brother and sister, friends, lovers and between a person and his country; acknowledging the missteps that makes one the person he is today. It is about the slow discovery and coming to terms with one’s sexuality. A winner of the 2017 British Book Awards and definitely on my wall of honor.


Other Options from Bulgaria:

Under the Yoke – Ivan Vazov

undertheyokeBulgarian classic about the Ottoman rule



The Physics of Sorrow – Georgi Gospandinov

physicsofsorrowA narration of the nostalgia of sorrow

Brunei: Written In Black


Brunei is a tiny country on the island of Borneo, sharing territory with Malaysia and Indonesia. It has one of the world’s highest standard of livings, thanks to its bountiful oil and gas reserves. It’s largely ethnic Malay population enjoy generous state handouts and pay no taxes (Source: BBC Country profile).  It is the first country in the world to have Sheriya law as penal code. The country is known to have low press freedom and women’s rights. Since there are no discos, alcohol serving restaurants and night life, the idea in Brunei is to ‘savor the slow life’.


Source: https://goo.gl/Sm41NP

Literature in Brunei is mostly folk based. A free form poetry called Sajak is practiced here. The number of books available internationally in English can be counted on one hand. For my reading, I choose Written in Black by K H Lim, a coming-of-age story set in Brunei. I will discover for myself how the actual reading turns out to be.


Written In Black is a charming tale of the misadventures of a boy pining for his mother. While this is the worst kind of pain a child can go through, nowhere through the story the reader is made to experience the boy’s misery. We feel his anxiety, hope and desperation but we don’t come away feeling that all is lost for him. I think that’s a clear win for the author.

Jonathan lives with his Brunei-Chinese family of his father, brother and sister and has a WritteninBlackheavy case of the Middle Child Syndrome. His mother and elder brother have left the house about 6 months back. He hasn’t spoken to his mother even over the phone in the recent past. The story starts with the death of his paternal grandfather, Ah Kong. The news is received quite unemotionally by Jonathan and his younger brother Aaron. There is an elaborate funeral to attend though, held at the home of his far wealthier paternal uncle, with whom his grandparents have been living. We are slowly introduced to the family dynamics and intricacies of relationships with the background of the funeral.

We learn that Jonathan’s mother’s relationship with their grim and serious father had been sour for a while. But for Jonathan that was not reason enough for her to leave:

‘Had life here with us been truly that terrible? It could’ve been with Pa, but were the rest of us not enough to keep her from leaving? Or was it because of all of us?

Or because of me?’

The affection he feels for his mother is pure, simple and deep:

‘Eating her food always made me feel like I was having a good day, regardless of how terrible it might have really been’.

The day before the funeral he misses her call home. When he realizes this, he gets desperate to talk to her. He comes to know from his spoilt cousin Kevin that his estranged brother Michael is in touch with her. So he decides to go to Michael and ask him to call their mother. This plan however is not as straightforward as it sounds:

‘In a country with practically non-existent public transport and taxi services, the only way I could ever get to Michael’s place was to be driven out of there by my father.’

Since he knows that his father will never come away from a funeral nor let him go looking for his brother, he decides to take matters into his own hands. This leads to a series of disasters including a ride in a coffin, a weird house in the forest, face-off with a pack of dogs and an encounter with the poklans – the homegrown brand of rebels in Brunei. Finally, even after meeting his brother, he is unable to reach his mother on the phone:

‘I closed my eyes and let the oncoming surge of crushing despair wash over me.’

However the failure of his quest kindles in him an almost zen-like state of mind:

‘It was strange; my quest had ended in abject failure, yet here I was, feeling a strange kind of calm. Why I was feeling so composed after the soul-destroying outcome of my outing was still anyone’s guess. But by now, I was too tired to care. I’d done what I could, and there weren’t any choices I could say I truly wished I hadn’t made.’

He comes out of his ordeal more mature and richer with experiences.

One of the main complaints from other reviewers of this book is that the protagonist does not act his age that is all of ten. While that my be true, in my opinion, the author still managed to convey what he set out to do in this book – the lengths a boy can go to for just a few words with his mother and the complex situations in the family that force a mother of four to step away from all her children. Common themes like the family history and gang violence are not overtly alluded to, but left for the reader to infer. It was one of the better books narrated from a child’s perspective – John Gresham’s A Painted House is another such gem – and I am very happy with my choice of reading from Brunei.

Other Options from Brunei:

Armageddon – Dale Brown

armageddonTechno thriller in which Brunei is saved.




Four Kings – Christopher Sun

fourkingsPolitical thriller by the Bruneian author



Brazil: The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas


Brazil is the largest country in South America. Due to the cohabitation of European settlers, former African slaves and Native American peoples, Brazil is a veritable melting pot of cultures with its own version of Portuguese as the spoken language. An emerging power in the world, Brazil provides military and diplomatic aid for peacekeeping in varied regions. Most people associate the country with its world leading soccer team.  For me ChristtheRedeemerBrazil always brings to mind the colossal Christ the Redeemer, standing tall, looking over the colorful Rio de Janeiro, spreading his protective arms over his people.




Brazilian literature is a vast, living, breathing organism, growing everyday in size and reach. The amount of world class writing available from the country is simply mind boggling. The most easily recognizable and commercially successful name is Paulo Coehlo with his The Alchemist. While I liked some of his work like Veronica Decides to veronicaDie, the books off late like The Witch and The Spy just seem to be playing to the expectations of the audience and not living up to the hype associated with Coehlo’s name.

When I started researching the authors to read from Brazil, the list grew to be too big to manage and I was unsure for while about a choice of reading. So I started out with the absolute first classic available. Machado de Assis lived and wrote in the mid 19th century. He is hailed as the greatest writer of all time from Brazil and is supposed to be the pioneer of magical realism. His The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas has the narrator speaking about his life, mistakes and learnings posthumously. It is unlike anything I have read so far and I expect to be engrossed till the end.


The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas has a chatty narrator speaking from beyond the grave. Bras Cubas has just lost his life and is trying to come to terms with eternity. He is most likely speaking to make sense of the life he lived and has the urge to share it with others in the form of a book. The narrative is leisurely since the narrator doesn’t have anywhere to get to or any deadline to keep. The way he relates the story is heavy with irony.

BrasCubasThe story often gives a touch of magical realism. Bras Cubas, in delirium on his death bed, holds a conversation with Nature – whom he also calls Pandora – who gives him a snapshot of the whole history and calls pleasure ‘bastard pain‘:

‘I saw love augmenting misery, and misery aggravating human debility.’

A life of plenty, lack of struggle and the pampering freedom received from his father who opines:

‘There are different ways for a man to amount to something, but the surest of all is to amount to something in other men’s opinions.’

– makes Cubas prone to sins. He lustily falls head over heels for the loose woman Marcella; the incident where he shows remorse for giving money to the muleteer who saved his life shows greed and uncharitable disposition. He almost falls in love with Eugenia, his mother’s friend Donna Eusebia’s daughter, born with a defect in her leg, but runs away from her as he cannot imagine a lame wife for himself:

‘What I do not understand is whether the world really needed you. Who knows? Perhaps one supernumerary less would have spoiled the human tragedy.’

His one true love is Virgilia, who was initially chosen as a bride for him from his father. But the marriage and the political position it promised did not come through, as Virgilia chose another man after a short interlude with Cubas. Years later when they meet again, both of them are ready for love ‘repeating the venerable dialogue of Adam and Eve.’:

‘Our first exchange of looks was purely and simply conjugal.’

However Virgilia is married now, with a son and is a respectable lady of the society:

‘Poor Fate! Old dispenser of human affairs.’

Their love affair is bound to end in tragedy.

At times the novel is audacious saying the book has ‘rigor mortis’ and saying the greatest defect of the book is its reader. It feels apt when the narrator says:

‘All human wisdom is not worth a pair of tight boots.’

There are many many books from Brazilian authors that I would like to read. Machado de Assis’s masterpiece is a fitting beginning for this exploration.

Other Options from Brazil:

Donna Fiora and Her Two Husbands – Jorge Amado

donnafioraAfter the death of her hasband, Donna Fiora marries again. Things take an interesting turn when her dead husband starts visiting her, claiming his marital rights.




The Passion According to G. H. – Clarice Lispector

passionA woman kills a cockroach and is transported to a primeval world






Botswana: Murder for Profit


Reading about Botswana has been a pleasure. A mid-sized, landlocked, Southern African country, it has Kalahari dessert occupying 70% of its territory. One of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, it has one of the highest growing per-capita income and human development index. The country is resource rich but lacking in institutional structure. The economy is highly dependent on diamond mining. Both its unique culture, and language are referred to as Setswana. Sadly, the country has one of the highest reported cases of HIV/AIDS in the world and putting in place significant resources to deal with it.


Source: https://goo.gl/iizQDk

While there is published literature available in Setswana, the writing in English mainly started with travel literature (Source: http://www.thuto.org/ubh/bw/bhp9.htm). Currently we have a large and unique body of literature in English from Botswana with many WhenRainCloudsGatherBessieHeadprominent literary figures. The most popular writer from Botswana is Bessie Head. Her ‘When Rain Cloud Gather‘ gives a succinct account of the life and culture of Botswana from an African refugee’s point of view. Another wildly popular series is Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency mysteries. Quirky and funny, the series is well known as books as well as TV shows.No1LadiesdetectiveAgency

For my reading, I have chosen ‘Murder for Profit‘ the second story in Laurie Kibuitsile’s Kate Gomolemo mysteries. A mystery similar to the ‘No.1 Ladies ..’ series for sure – the key differentiator being that the author lives and works in Botswana. It is a short read and I hope is as charming as the ‘No.1 ..’ series too.


Murder for Profit’ is everything I hoped the book would be – short, interesting right down to unputdownable towards the end, full of references to Botswana culture and way of life. Set in Mogobane, a small village within riding distance from the capital Gaborone, the story revolves around the grizzly murders of three children and their elderly grandmother. The murders look almost motiveless, the victims completely helpless in MurderforProfitfront of the greed of the people willing to commit such acts. The local police rules the murders as a fire accident. An anonymous note about the murders brings detective Kate Gomolemo back to the village. The detective has her own personal losses to deal with like the recent death of her husband and the separation from her only son, studying to be a doctor in United States. However her sense of justice and duty push her on and she manages to get to the root of the murders, even when she has to risk her life for it.

The thing that sets the novel apart and makes it a delightful read is the author’s emphasis on the ‘who’ of the murders rather than on the ‘why’. The intention is not to awe the reader with an unguessable mystery, but to give a sense of the havoc and destruction caused by misplaced beliefs and traditions.

I enjoyed reading about:

  • The domestic system of compounds where the host is lured out by the sweet call of ‘koko‘ at the entrance


Source: http://gfpktravels.blogspot.in/2014/08/tuesday-august-5th-chobe-safari-lodge.html

  • The greetings of ‘Dumela ma‘ and ‘rre
  • The references to traditional Batswana food like bogobe and mogodu







Bogobe                                                                                                 Mogodu

Source: https://twitter.com/tsonas/status/520168602830663680

Source: https://in.pinterest.com/pin/217298750748662167/

  • Steoreotypical characters like the big loud lady listening to traditional music
  • Traditional names of characters like:

Mmagosego, Monnonyana Dikgang, Mmatli Thela, Mosenene

  • And finally the world-wide belief of infertility being a woman’s problem (a good write-up about fertility, confinement rituals after delivery etc. in Botswana here).

The book was certainly worth my time and I am pretty sure I will go back for more from Botswana.

Other Options from Botswana:

Love on the rocks – Andrew Sesinyi

LoveontherocksLove story of an upper class girl and a poor boy set in Botswana




Novels of Botswana in English – Mary S. Lederer

novelsinenglishinbotswanaGenesis and development of English novel in Botswana




Bosnia and Herzegovina: Death and the Dervish

Last month was the first time I missed posting in this blog since I started it almost 2.5 years ago. Life caught on. Amidst all the chaos, I could still clearly feel how much I missed posting here. Now I am back and it feels great.


This month I write about Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country in the Balkan peninsula, bordered by Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. The region was a part of the Ottoman empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Republic of Yugoslavia at various points in modern history. Currently it is a liberal democratic nation. The country is remembered the most for being the site of the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand which proved to be a spark for the First World War. It hosts the immensely popular Sarajevo Film Festival as well.


Source: https://goo.gl/vU2OL0

Bosnia and Herzegovina has a rich literary tradition going back to the middle ages. There is a wealth of fiction and non-fiction originating here aiming to shed light on the various conflicts . The most obvious choice to read is Nobel Laureate Ivo Andric with his The Bridge bridgeonthedrinaon the Drina, a historical novel where the bridge stands testament to the history of the place from Ottoman occupation till World War I.

For my reading, I have chosen Death and the Dervish by Messa Selimovic. Its a poignant tale of a dervish, who regularly misquotes the Quoran, loses his brother and tries to deal with the tragedy in a state of half delirium.  Its a Bosnian classic and I hope to enjoy reading it.


I have read quite a few depressing tales in my life – Khalid Husseini comes to mind – and the Death and the Dervish comes close to the top of the list. The entire book – all 473 pages of it – is monotonous monologue, except for sparse conversation, leading to more monologue. That, by no means, implies the book is unentertaining. The sadness of the deathandthedervishdervish living in a tekke(a kind of monastery) separated from the rest of the kasaba(city or village) and pining for everything from family, friendship, female companionship, respect, spiritual salvation and at the moment, his brother’s safety just sucks the reader in. He sees a beautiful woman and enjoys her beauty:

‘Without a desire to possess her, without the possibility of experiencing her completely, without the strength to leave.’

The dervish left his family a long while ago to take the order. The decision was mostly triggered by the separation from the woman he loved. He still cares about his brother immensely and is quite confident that he could not do anything unlawful or hurtful. In spite of this belief, he cannot bring himself to do enough to save his brother from a certain death in the hands of the authoritarian rulers. He loses a lot of time contemplating how to come out of the whole incident looking good and his brother safe. By the time he realizes only one among the two is possible, its too late. His momentary spur of efforts gets him imprisoned for a while. When he does come out, he takes up a higher position as a kadi(judge) and is eventually forced to rule against his best friend.

‘I don’t like violence, it’s a sign of weakness and bad judgement, a means by which people are driven to do evil. And yet, when it was exercised against others I kept silent and refused to condemn it.’

Throughout my reading I had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. At some point I realized that it is the unquestioning acceptance of the cruelty of the absolute totalitarian rulers. There is no surprise, no indignant rebellion; just meek acceptance. The society is also almost homogeneous, probably set after the ethnic cleansing envisioned by the Ottoman empire ruling the county. Life in this society is nothing more than a slow march towards death:

‘There are no exemptions, no surprises: all paths lead to it. Everything we do is a preparation for it, a preparation that we begin at our birth, whimpering with our foreheads against the ground. We never move away from death, only closer.’

A more significant underlying theme throughout the story is the cowardice of the dervish. At the bottom of cowardice lies extreme selfishness, a desire to protect only oneself, at any cost. Cowardice leads to pain, loneliness, desperate search for a friend and definite depression. The story is supposed to mimic an incident in the author’s life who lost his brother to the Communist regime and blamed himself for not doing enough to save him. The entire story runs like a reprimand for failing to protect a brother or a friend who fills the soul, even at the cost of one’s own life – a self righteousness used to justify sending a brother to the gallows. Death and the Dervish is by no means an easy read. But if you persevere, the reward is an absolute classic with deep political and philosophical undercurrents.

Other Options from Bosnia:

Sarajevo Marlboro –  Miljenko Jergovic

sarajevomarlboroStory collection set in Sarajevo



Sarajevo, Exodus of a City –  Dzevad Karahasan

sarajevoexodusNon-fiction essays about Sarajevo












Bolivia: American Visa


Bolivia is the largest landlocked country in the Americas. It was colonized by Spain in the 16th century. The Spaniards built their empire in great part upon the silver that was extracted from Bolivia’s mines. Modern Bolivia is constitutionally a democratic republic but is still a developing country and ranks at or near the bottom among Latin American countries in several areas of health and development, including poverty, education, fertility, malnutrition, mortality, and life expectancy. Home to lake Titicaca along with Peru, Bolivia is a part of the Like-Minded Mega Diverse countries, due to its rich biodiversity.


Source: http://www.29travels.com/travelmap/index.php


Source: https://www.britannica.com/place/Lake-Titicaca

Although Bolivia has a large body of literary work – most of them based on Central American themes – very little is available in English. According to the Latino Author, ‘literary works are still subjected to intense scrutiny, but there is some progress…While there is some exposure to literary works from within their main culture, there is not as much exposure to the rich literary works of the world. The country has much to offer from the native peoples, however, there is little written about them.’

For my reading, I have chosen American Visa by  Juan de Recacoechea. The author is a Bolivian TV mogul and was also a journalist in Europe in his previous avatar. I expect the writing to be contemporary along with the ‘local feel’ the reviews promise it has.


American Visa captures one’s imagination about Bolivia. It checks off every stereotype out there about the country and many about Third World countries in general.

‘Our national consolation is possessing the highest everything, whether it’s the world’s highest stadium, highest velodrome, or highest anything else. It’s compensation for our frustrations.’

It delivers what is promised by the title – the struggle of a man without hopes to reach the land of opportunities. This story line is enhanced with numerous back stories about each character and several encounters with prostitutes; embellished with platonic romance and surprise sexual encounters. There is a crime in the making to ensure the reader keeps turning the pages. Despite all these valiant efforts, what the novel wants to convey remains a bit questionable. If poverty and debauchery is all it set out to show, then it definitely served its purpose.

The broader plotline is of the protagonist, Mario Alvarez from Oruro – ‘Bolivia’s famed folklore capital’ – who has been sent tickets to travel to the USA by his semi-estranged son, who does menial jobs himself over at the US. The sole purpose Senor Alvarez has in life is to get the visa to travel to the States and work in a pancake house. However what the story is actually about is his time in the dingy hotel in La Paz, the bonds  he forms over there and the slice of his life in the big city.

americanvisaThere is the plotline of the crime Alvarez commits to gather the money for the visa, which is predictable and falls flat. The interesting plotline is his relationship with Isabel, the niece of the local political, who is the witless victim of the crime. Isabel clearly likes Alvarez, and is one of the few characters in the novel evolved enough to be capable of having a meaningful relationship, but does not commit herself to take the step forward. Her decision to nip the relationship in the bud lays bare, the pitiable state of affairs in a country riddled with poverty and hopelessness, more than any other grizzly encounter the author feels compelled to narrate.

‘She could tell me anything, her secrets, her confessions. Since I didn’t have her social standing, conversation was a cinch for her. I didn’t have the right to demand anything; love and sex weren’t in the cards. I was just some forty-something, borderline-poor guy who served as human experience for her, as a complement to her college education.’

I found it hard to reconcile with the biting cynicism about and general hatred towards prostitutes and transvestites – people who survive on the margin, have enough to put up with as it is and have all been uncommonly and unnecessarily kind towards the narrator –  all through the narration. Here is one such conversation of the many throughout the book:

‘The nurse was witness to this affectionate encounter between a sentimental whore and a survivor. Had she been a priest, she would have married us on the spot.’

Even with all my issues with the storyline, I did not find the writing dull for a moment. As the Afterword by Illan Stavans, the translator’s professor says,

‘American Visa is a by-product of the ’90s, a period of intense reaction to magican realism and its forgotten generals, clairvoyant prostitutesm and epidemics of insomnia.’

Not all reactions need to be pleasant, but they are worth being heard. I did not lose by my choice of reading for Bolivia.

Other Options from Bolivia:

Juan de la Rosa – Nataniel Aguirre

juandelarozaBolivian War of Independence narrated by an old revolutionary.





Plant Teacher – Caroline Alethia

plantteacherThe story of a syringe of LSD travelling through Bolivia