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American Visa Paperback – April 1, 2007
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"Killers of the Flower Moon" is a twisting, haunting true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history. See more
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From Publishers Weekly
The narrator of this sweet noir (which won Bolivia's National Book Prize in 1994 and has been filmed) claims to have read Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Dashiell Hammett and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán "as if they were prophets," and their presiding spirits are not far from this winning tale. 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 U.S. 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. Recacoechea deploys his clichés knowingly and makes Alvarez's crime less a puzzle than an intriguing window onto a society on the fringes of globalization. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A best-seller in its own country, this novel about a man desperate to get into America is one of the few Bolivian novels to be translated into English, and especially with the present furor about immigration, it is sure to spark interest. Mario Alvarez, an unemployed English teacher, has come to La Paz, Bolivia, to get an American visa so he can visit his son in Miami. But he cannot get past the embassy bureaucracy. Living in the rough streets, he gets to know tramps, crooked politicians, and prostitutes, including Blanca, who loves him. He needs money to bribe corrupt officials for papers, so 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. De Recacoechea celebrates the hybrid in ethnicity and culture, and he does it without reverence or even respect, blending absurdity with harsh realism to tell a surprising story of roots and finding home. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
Taking a room at a seedy Hotel California (ha ha), he meets several colorful long-term residents, including a hooker with a heart of gold, a former diplomat, a transvestite, and a former professional soccer goalie. Armed with little more than a fancy suit, fake documents (which are meant to convince the American Embassy that he has plenty of property in Bolivia that he would never abandon), a fistfull of dollars, and a few small gold nuggets, his initial foray to the embassy leaves him shaken. His papers are pretty flimsy and he realizes that he'll need to obtain his visa through illicit means. And so begins a roller coaster ride through the seedy and sedate streets of La Paz, in an attempt to finagle a visa.
Fortunately (or rather, unfortunately), the teacher is also an avid reader of American crime fiction, and thus plans a dubious heist in order to raise the money he needs to bribe a shady travel agent to "fast-track" his visa. Those who have read the same American crime fiction as the protagonist will have a pretty good idea how this will all turn out. Meanwhile, he also befriends a stunning member of the aristocracy who gives him a glimpse of the high life, while his hooker friend tries to convince him to stay in Bolivia and move to the countryside with her savings. In any event, Mario's trials and tribulations abound with booze, sex, and plenty of outsize characters. Whether or not he elicits much empathy from the reader probably depends on one's perspective (I found him too foolish and selfish to care about), the story is an undeniably rich journey through the streets of La Paz.
Mario has all the papers he needs for his visa, but when he hears that the consulate will actually need to verify his documents and may even use detectives in their investigation, he flees the consulate-"if they deny you once, they've denied you forever." Learning from an acquaintance that the owner of a travel agency can speed up the visa process for $800, since the agent knows people who work in the visa business, Mario is determined that somehow he will find the money to ensure that he gets his visa.
Meanwhile, the reader learns Mario's family history and follows him as he wanders La Paz, a city which has changed dramatically in recent years with the arrival of half a million peasants, many of them Indian. He meets a former friend from the army, now a miner, who has crucified himself on a public fence. He meets an author at a book-signing, and he attends an elegant party, while spending nights getting drunk in the sleaziest bars in the city. By the time he finally decides what he must do to get the money he needs, the reader is rooting for his success, even as he is showing himself to be an undesirable candidate for a visa.
All of the characters here are flawed, and though author Juan de Recacoechea presents them somewhat sympathetically, he does not present them romantically. His style is naturalistic, filled with unique metaphors and similes. Life here is truly absurd--a kind of farce--and Mario himself knows that only by committing a major crime "can I redeem myself in my own eyes." "Local color" here is dark and filled with misery, and as the action evolves and incorporates all levels of society, the sense of dramatic irony increases. Described as "picaresque noir" by Amherst Prof. Ilan Stavins in the Afterword, the novel is hard-boiled in the style of the great mystery writers of the 1930s and 1940s, but it is also noticeably existentialistic. The author differs from the existentialists in that his characters seem to accept their ultimate fates with a kind of dark humor, and they manage to find elements of pleasure under even the nastiest circumstances. Published in Spanish in 1994, this novel is reputed to be one of fewer than a dozen novels from Bolivia to have been translated into English-in this case, by Adrian Althoff in 1997. n Mary Whipple
The plot is relatively simple. Mario Alvarez is a divorced schoolteacher who quits his job and travels to La Paz to obtain a tourist visa. If he can get the visa, he can join his son in Miami where a job waits him at an IHOP. Predictably, things do not go according to plan. Mario ends up marooned in the seedy Hotel California(!) when he learns that there are ways to "grease the wheels" of the visa process - if you have money.
American Visa's strongest elements are its characters and its depiction of La Paz.
de Recacoechea's characters are multi-faceted and consistently "ring true" to the reader. At the Hotel California, Mario falls in with a destitute former diplomat and good-hearted hooker. While shoplifting from a bookstore, Mario meets a beautiful young woman who introduces him to Bolivia's corrupt upper crust.
The city of La Paz also stars in the novel. Mario travels throughout La Paz and the reader feels well acquainted with the city by novel's end. de Recacoechea inserts social commentary into the novel, but - to his credit - the comments never seem obtrusive.
The novel's plot - while not bad - is somewhat predictable. Also, the pacing is relatively slow compared to most mystery novels. de Recacoechea chooses to develop characters and settings rather than insert plane crashes, gun battles, sports cars, etc.
Mystery readers who want to expand their horizons should check out American Visa.