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American Visa is beautifully written, atmospheric, and stylish in the manner of Chandler . . . a smart, exotic crime fiction offering.”—George Pelecanos, author of The Night Gardener

" American Visa is a stunning literary achievement. It is insightful and poignant, a book every thoughtful American should read, and once read, read again."—William Heffernan, Edgar Award-winning author of The Corsican

"In his search for an American visa, the high school teacher in this novel embodies the dreams and aspirations of many would-be immigrants south of the border. This is a thriller with a social conscience, a contemporary noir with lots of humor and flair. The streets of La Paz have never looked so alive. This is one of the best Latin American novels of the last fifteen years." —Edmundo Paz-Soldan, author of Turing's Delirium

"Mario Alvarez is tremendous, an everyman desperate to escape Bolivia's despair who can't elude his own tricks of self-sabotage. At a time when the debate around U.S. immigration reduces many people around the world to caricatures, this singular and provocative portrait of the issue will connect with readers of all political stripes." —Arthur Nersesian, author of Suicide Casanova

Armed with fake papers, a handful of gold nuggets, and a snazzy custom-made suit, an unemployed schoolteacher with a singular passion for detective fiction sets out from small-town Bolivia on a desperate quest for an American visa, his best hope for escaping his painful past and reuniting with his grown son in Miami.

Mario Alvarez's dream of emigration takes a tragicomic twist on the rough streets of La Paz, Bolivia's seat of government. Alvarez embarks on a series of Kafkaesque adventures, crossing paths with a colorful cast of hustlers, social outcasts, and crooked politicians—and initiating a romance with a straight-shooting prostitute named Blanca. Spurred on by his detective fantasies and his own tribulations, he hatches a plan to rob a wealthy gold dealer, a decision that draws him into a web of high-society corruption but also brings him closer than ever to obtaining his ticket to paradise.

Juan de Recacoechea was born in La Paz, Bolivia, and worked as a journalist in Europe for almost twenty years. After returning to his native country, he helped found Bolivia's first state-run television network, served as its general manager, and dedicated himself to fiction writing. Recacoechea is the author of seven novels. American Visa is his first novel to be translated into English.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781933354200
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 04/01/2007
Pages: 257
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.78(d)

About the Author

Juan de Recacoechea was born in La Paz, Bolivia, and worked as a journalist in Europe for almost twenty years. After returning to his native country, he helped found Bolivia's first state-run television network and dedicated himself to fiction writing. His novel American Visa won Bolivia's National Book Prize; was adapted into an award-winning film. Adrian Althoff is a freelance journalist and translator based in La Paz, Bolivia and Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

American Visa

a novel
By Juan de Recacoechea

Akashic Books

Copyright © 2007 Juan de Recacoechea
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-933354-20-0

Chapter One

The taxi ground to a halt. The stocky driver swiveled his beefy head around and, struggling to contain his fury, exclaimed, "We can't go this way!"

"What's going on?" I asked.

"Can't you hear the band? They're dancing right over there, practicing for the Great Power of Jesus parade. Those pricks are blocking traffic!"

The dense and tedious cadence of a llama herder's dance sounded off in the distance. Flushed from the impotence of being stuck in traffic, the taxi driver's face inflated like a comic-strip frog. The clamor of horns was intense, unbearable. The driver stretched his arm across the back of the passenger seat, fixed his frustrated gaze on a distant point, and waited.

"Where are we?"

"Plaza Eguino. You'll have to get out here."

The man was right; we were tied up in a knot of cars and buses.

"How much do I owe?"

"It'll be ten pesos." He spoke without blinking, looking me in the eyes.

"For twelve pesos I can get to Oruro."

The taxi driver smiled and blinked nervously several times. He seemed to be running out of patience. "We've stopped at all the hotels on Muñecas Street and Manco Kapac. We've been driving in circles for half an hour."

"That's not my fault," I pointed out. "The hotels are full."

"That's just the way it is."

"Let's make it seven. That way we're even."

The taxi driver remained motionless, an Andean monolith.

I took out ten pesos and placed them in his sweaty palm.

"If you go down Illampu Street, you might find a room," he said.

The driver opened the door, lowered my suitcase from the luggage rack, and placed it on the sidewalk beside a young woman selling lemons dressed in the traditional clothing of Potosí: a stiff cloth hat in the shape of an inverted bowl, a homespun thick brown skirt, and, covering her upper body, several layers of dark, multicolored blankets. I sat on top of the knee-high adobe and stucco wall that encloses Plaza Eguino. Wind whipped down from the Andean plateau, stirring up swirling clouds of dust on the rugged mountainsides that hug the city of La Paz. The girl from Potosí looked at me askance, took four lemons from their place in the tiny pyramid she had constructed on one of her blankets laid out on the pavement, and showed them to me without saying a word. I declined her offer with a slight head motion. A boy no more than ten years old and skinny as an Ethiopian approached stealthily, shifting hesitantly. I thought he was after my suitcase, so I stuffed it awkwardly between my legs. The boy looked like a rogue. The wind mussed his thick mop of hair.

He stopped two steps away and eyed me with that elusive scan typical of the Aymaras.

"I don't have any money. You're wasting your time."

"I'll carry the bag for you," he proposed.

"Do you know a cheap hotel around here?"

He motioned with his index finger toward a jumble of alleys and dilapidated hovels.

"How much will it be?"

"Two pesos."

His Oriental-looking face had been burnt brown by the high-altitude sun. His eyes were emotionless, the eyes of a survivor.

The boy heaved my suitcase up on top of the wall, then onto his shoulder. I followed him down narrow, cobblestoned sidewalks jammed with people. It was early evening and the temperature was misleadingly pleasant. During the winter in La Paz, the air is lukewarm toward the end of the afternoon, when the sun flees beyond the mountains to the west, only to freeze abruptly as soon as the shadows arrive. It was becoming difficult to wind through the endless rows of street vendors hawking their merchandise. An appetizing odor of burnt pork fat filled the air, but it wasn't the time for such an indulgence. I needed to find a cheap room as soon as possible in a city that I struggled to recognize; half a million hungry peasants had changed its face. These immigrants from the sterile Andean plateau had taken over La Paz's higher-elevation neighborhoods, like ants swarming over a beehive. A wild rustling accompanied their movements. This gray, unruly mass transformed the entire city into a gigantic marketplace.

On Illampu, a cobblestoned artery flanked by party specialty shops and pork rind sellers, papier mâché dolls hung, fragile and festive, above old front doors of carved wood. To keep pace with the boy, I had to jog and sidestep the voluminous half-breed women seated like tired octopuses on the edges of the sidewalks. The kid stopped at the corner of Graneros, a steep colonial corridor that winds like an alleyway in an Algerian casbah, cobblestoned and slippery, climbing amid colorful garments hung out to dry. The competing smells of old clothing, fried pork rind, and urine were enough to make anyone nauseous, even someone accustomed like me to the fetid effluence of Bolivia's cities.

"There's a hotel over there," the boy said.

Twenty steps away, up Graneros Street, I made out a yellow, weather-beaten sign illuminated by a dying light bulb.

"Hotel California," the little rascal exclaimed.

I paid him the two pesos and picked up my suitcase. After pushing through a swinging door, I found myself inside a chilly and spacious lobby. Various bored-looking guests sat watching a television news program. I turned to the reception desk, which consisted of a kind of wood pulpit bracketed on both sides by a waist-high handrail. A dry, lean man with white skin dotted by an enormous number of tiny freckles stopped doodling in an accounting ledger and directed his beady blue eyes at me without the least bit of deference. He wore glasses and his eyebrows, thick and bristly, looked like sulfur-colored brooms. His reddish hair and mannered bearing gave him the look of a decadent descendant of Celts. He was wearing a simple cherry-colored wool sweater and jeans. He managed, barely, to give a hint of a smile like that of a low-paid public employee.

"I need a room for one week," I said.

The man breathed in the lobby's heavy air, as if to pronounce a sentence. He adjusted his glasses with studied affectation and looked me over from head to toe. "We've got three kinds of rooms: facing the street at ten pesos, the first patio at eight pesos, and the second patio at five pesos."

"I'll take one in the second patio," I hastened to say.

"I'm the manager. My name's Robert," he stated with an unpleasant little smile. His pupils grew as calm as two blue marbles. "Only one person?"

I shot a furtive glance over my left shoulder. I was alone, so alone that I felt like crying.

"It costs five pesos per day," Robert said, "not including taxes."

"I don't need a receipt."

"You'll have to pay for the seven nights up front. It's the rule."

I counted out thirty-five pesos and handed it to him.

"And you'll need a valid ID." He laid his slippery conjurer's fingers on the edge of the desk and seized the document.

"A week from now I'm traveling to the United States," I offered. "I've come to La Paz to get my tourist visa."

The redhead arched his eyebrows. The corners of his mouth got longer and a condescending sneer appeared. He looked up, his gaze displaying incredulity. "Your ID says that you're a teacher." He looked at me as if he had read "astronaut."

"I was. Now I'm a businessman," I clarified.

"Now we're all businessmen. For us Latin Americans, the black market has become the only way out ..." He let loose a wicked little laugh. As he worked on copying my personal information, I looked around at the regulars in the lobby: the majority were young women with ample breasts and oversized derrières trapped in bright-colored jeans. They were unmistakably hostesses or cheap whores, of the type that spend half their lives saving a few pesos to support their families living in remote tropical villages.

One of them stopped flipping through a fashion magazine. Her hot gaze settled on me for an instant. Solidly built, she possessed a certain primitive sensuality; her cinnamon skin radiated seductive and sun-toasted fragrances. I tilted my head like an altar boy and she smiled.

In response to this, the manager abruptly struck a small nickel-plated bell on his desk. The shrill jingling ripped through the air and returned with a shy echo from the thick walls of the big, ancient house. At that moment-I don't know from where-the bellboy appeared, a youth about fifteen years old with his hair combed stiffly, looking like he had just received an electric shock. His breath smelled like the neighborhood. His round face, covered with pimples, resembled a beat-up rag ball. The manager returned my ID and ordered: "Show the gentleman to room forty-five."

Immediately, we submerged ourselves in a labyrinth of passageways and staircases. Before long, we passed by a confused tourist apparently lost in that avalanche of tunnels, which seemed not to lead anywhere. The bellboy panted as if he were running a marathon, grumbling and thinking out loud, muttering curses. Eventually, we found a spiral staircase that led us to the second patio. I realized that the hotel was nothing but an old remodeled estate, probably constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century, a time in which the landowners of La Paz were masters and gentlemen from the Andean plateau, from the narrow warm valleys, and from the subtropical forests. It was their custom to build enormous mansions in the newly formed city to receive the frequent mule trains carrying potatoes, cereals, fruit, and coffee. At the center of the patio a half-dozen withered trees swayed, rocked to sleep by the nocturnal breeze in what was once a garden. This far corner of the hotel consisted of a single floor, its slovenly appearance suggesting that it was intended for guests of low status.

The bellboy opened the door to room forty-five and placed my suitcase beside the bed. I had resolved to administer my meager budget with Swiss meticulousness, which is why I only gave the kid a fifty-cent tip. He stroked the coin, flipped it in the air, caught it, and observed me with visible resignation. Once he realized that I wouldn't budge, he left without closing the door. My sad lodgings didn't resemble anything like a guest room; they were more like a cell for a Trappist monk. Beside the bed, I noticed a wardrobe intended for someone the size of a dwarf, a wooden crate painted blue that was supposed to pass for a night table, a rickety chair that at the least contact emitted a pitiful groan, a frameless mirror, and an ancient-looking chest of drawers. The floor was ice cold and made of brick. The naked lightbulb hung tenuously from its socket, oscillating to the beat of sharp wind gusts slipping under the dilapidated door.

I pulled back the linen curtain. Menacing iron bars rose up behind the glass. The small window faced a narrow alleyway in which a homeless dog, emaciated and despondent, timidly sniffed a trash can. I went out to the patio to look for the bathroom and found it in the back, next to the washing machine: a cement toilet, a chipped sink, a shower from which trickled apathetic drops of freezing water. In one of the corners lay a plastic bucket that apparently served to flush the toilet. I returned to my room. Confused flies and moths fluttered around the dim bulb. I emptied my suitcase; I owned less clothing now than when I joined the military as a buck. After hanging my single pair of pants on the clothing rod in the wardrobe, I arranged my three shirts next to my extra change of underwear on a shelf below and placed my dress shoes at the foot of the folding bed. I picked up my gray English cashmere suit-the one I would wear for my visit to the imperial consulate-as if it were a glass doll, looking it over carefully for any compromising stain. Upon seeing that it shined impeccably, I placed it on the back of the chair. I felt the bed. Only one homemade blanket, mended like an old lady's underpants, and a pillow as hard as a rock, meant for a poor man to sleep on. A couple of nights in these conditions and I'd be ready to catch pneumonia.

I went out to the patio again, intent on demanding an extra blanket from the manager. I noticed, then, the presence of a hunched-over old man who seemed to be returning from the bathroom, a red jacket with blue stripes draped over his back. He was wearing corduroy pants of a dull, undefined color, bulky mountain-climbing shoes, and, on top of his head, a brimmed wool hat, a relic of better times. He walked painfully, supported by a strange cane resembling that of a witch in Macbeth. He looked up and inhaled three times; each time he did so, an asthmatic whistle heaved up from his chest, accompanied by an unsettling rattle.

"Good evening," I said in greeting.

The old man adjusted his glasses and his gray-clouded eyes studied me with malicious irony.

"Above all, a cold evening," he replied.

"I'm in room forty-five," I said. "I just arrived. Do you think I'll be able to get an extra blanket?"

He ran his fingers through his magnificent Prussian moustache, gray-haired but still martial. "I tried to get the same thing three years ago," he said, "and I'm still waiting. The doorman is as stubborn as a Scotsman, but perhaps with a few pesos ..."

"It's colder in my room than it is out here," I commented.

"The owner couldn't care less about that. We in the second patio don't enjoy prerogatives. They tolerate us, but they don't let us complain." He put his hand on his chest and smiled. "I'm an asthmatic and every trip to the bathroom exhausts me. That's what I get for making a pittance of a salary. How much time do you, sir, plan to stay in this Ritz of the upper barrios?"

"Until I get my American visa. I'm going to visit my son who lives in Florida."

The old man smoothed out the few hairs he still had on his head and, with trembling fingers, scratched his scalp with a slow and exasperated motion. With each breath, he seemed to be gasping for air. "So you're only at this resort for a few days? What blessed luck. I, unfortunately, didn't have any children. Otherwise, I wouldn't be in these parts. What's your name?"

"Mario Alvarez."

"Is your family from La Paz?"

"We used to live in Oruro, but I was born in Uyuni."

I noticed a sudden expression of disenchantment cross his face. "I was in Uyuni forty years ago," he commented. "In those days it was a progressive little place, but now, as far as I know, it's turned into a ghost town."

"The only thing that moves out there is the wind."

"One of those useless doctors at the public hospital advised me to go to Uyuni or to Río Mulatos to live, because of my asthma, which is constantly worsening. He told me the higher you get, the drier it gets, and the drier the better. But who the hell would I talk to in Río Mulatos? Better to die of asthma than of boredom. For all their defects, these accommodations are a cure for my solitude. Here we have whores and vermin, but it's better than deafening silence."

"How long have you lived here?"

"Three years. An extraordinary feat, when you consider all the viruses floating around, not to mention the fact that I'm always strapped for cash. Of course, we in the second patio are allowed to pay on a monthly basis. This is a pious act on the owner's part. He's a diabetic gentleman who lives cooped up on the first floor of the hotel in the company of his wife, a terrible woman who brought him here from Potosí. She's a nurse and takes care of him the entire goddamn day. Some say it's for his own good, but I see him deteriorating. Rumor has it that she wants to send him to the other world as soon as possible and take his fortune. The man's a millionaire. Besides this dumpy little hotel, he owns three or four houses scattered throughout Miraflores, not to mention a pair of apartments in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Imagine that! He prefers living in this run-down Rosario neighborhood in La Paz to the Queen of the River Plate. Who could ever understand our poor rich people? The nurse, the manager, and that rich guy make a sensational trio."

"I've only met the manager. Where did he get his reddish hair?"

"His father was a Scottish engineer who got hired by the Bolivian Mining Company as an economic advisor during the first Paz Estenssoro government. He stayed a few years, enough to make a killing, and then he left. Nothing else was heard of him. In the meantime, he had impregnated a poor, naïve cashier at the Central Bank. He'd led her to believe that they'd get married and live a grand life in the bleak city of Edinburgh. The manager is the kid who was born from this exotic union. He speaks the queen's English and botches Spanish like a peasant. He cordially hates all of us in the second patio. He hates me for being broke, he hates the transvestite from room forty-two for being who he is, he hates the wine vendor for not wanting to slip him a single bottle of Chilean merlot, and he hates the ex-goalie for Chaco because he occasionally sleeps with one of the girls from the Tropicana cabaret. He can't stand competition ..."


Excerpted from American Visa by Juan de Recacoechea Copyright © 2007 by Juan de Recacoechea. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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American Visa 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would highly recomment this book. It is a great book. I had to read it for class. Shipping was quick as well. Barnes and Nobles ships usually pretty quickly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Colorful is the way to describe this book! American Visa won Bolivia's National Book Prize and has been a national bestseller in Bolivia for years. The protagonist Mario Alvarez is an unemployed schoolteacher from rural Bolivia desperate to secure an American visa. His determination to reunite with his son - living in Miami - sets him on a wild journey touching every corner of Bolivia's capital, La Paz. During seven truly surreal days Alvarez battles corruption, bigotry, bureaucratic red tape and his fondness for alcohol. I found this story both hilarious and heartbreakingly sad. The hilarious came from accompanying Alvarez as he effortlessly cavorted with whores, intellectuals, politicians and aristocrats. He is an everyman. But the sadness underlying these adventures is Alvarez's back-breaking poverty and how it continually thwarts his efforts to leave his native land. Anyone who loves Latin America will love this story; the detail- rich descriptions instantly transport you south.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was written so well, the reader can travel Bolivian backstreets and visit with the lowly people. The main character has a goal to obtain a visa, but another priority gets in the way - drinking.
LBM007 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was an exchange student in Bolivia so part of the fun of this book for me was reading about Bolivian things. (Novels set in Bolivia are few and far between!) However, I think there's a lot to like about this story even for readers without a Bolivia connection.