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.
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.
There 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
Bolivian War of Independence narrated by an old revolutionary.
Plant Teacher – Caroline Alethia
The story of a syringe of LSD travelling through Bolivia