The only reason I even gave two stars to Bolivian American Visa by Juan de Recacoechea is because of the statistics it beats. In the Latin American country, where the official literacy rate stands at c.15-20%, American Visa became the highest selling Bolivian novel in over 20 years and only the second one to be translated into English for 50 years. Now this is an amazing achievement for Juan de Recacoechea but it also marks the end of praises I really have for that novel.
The book, as the title foreshadows, follows the path of an average Bolivian man, who is desperately trying to get an American visa and thus visit his son in the States. Mario Alvarez is the definition of a loser – a retired and broke teacher, whose wife has left him years ago, a drunkard and a failure, utterly depressed and frankly utterly clueless. Following his dream to escape from the misery and poverty in his home country of Bolivia, Mario travels to the capital of La Paz. Soon his journey takes a tragicomic twist, involving numerous peculiar characters that roam the streets of the Bolivian capital – whores, transvestites, half-breeds, dealers. Given the inherent suspicion of the Americans against the Bolivians (cocaine, duh?) and given most of Mario’s papers are fabricated, his visit to the American embassy is unsuccessful and the teacher starts to look for alternative ways to obtain the ever so desired American dream. As the story unfolds, it becomes more of a detective crime story, which unfortunately doesn’t add value to the novel itself.
The topic might be considered interesting – in the growing globalization there are still countries, whose citizens are deprived from the opportunity to immigrate and start a new life. Juan de Recacoechea explores with striking realism the terrible living conditions in his home country, where to be rich and prosperous means to be a criminal. The rest are left wandering the streets, stealing, whoring, killing. Mario Alvarez, one of those unfortunate souls, is getting ever closer to his dream, but whether Bolivia will ever let him go, remains unclear up until the last pages.
Juan de Recacoechea is not your typical Latin American writer. American Visa is written as a direct reaction to the growing popularity of magical realism in Latin American countries. The novel is darkly comical, a realistic account of the brutal and miserable life in La Paz. Nevertheless, I never felt any connection to the protagonist or the story. He mostly hopes from bar to a bar, getting drunk at every opportunity and feeling sorry for himself. His relationshipx with women are far from acceptable – he assesses every woman depending on her level of fuckability, which frankly seems immature from a grown up man of 40. Finally, the story failed to excite me and was fairly predictable from start to finish. Overall, I am happy that Bolivian literature is picking up but I have this slight feeling that Juan de Recacoechea didn’t choose his topic exactly accidentally. It is obviously targeted at American citizens, but excluding the informative and sor of impressive description of Bolivian life, the novel has very little else literary value to add.