with an afterword by Ilan Stavans
Themes: Immigration, Urban life
ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-20-0 l 257 pages | $14.95
Published By: Akashic Books
When: April 2007
Anyone who has ever traveled abroad cannot help but understand the value of a visa. This little paper or ink stamp on your passport is your sole permission slip to enter a whole new world. But that little ink stamp usually comes with a hefty price especially if it is being issued by a country like the United States, Canada or Britain. You are required to have a zillion documents and all must be in good order with a healthy bank balance and other assets, like a house, car etc in your country of origin. So what happens to people that do not meet these requirements? Are they to be forever denied a chance to visit America, their dream country? That's especially hard when they live across the border and get to watch the American dream unfold but can have no part in it.
Just published by Akashic Books, "American Visa", the story of a Bolivian man's quest for a visa to America, has been described as nouvela noir or a tragicomic travelogue. Authored by Juan De Recacoechea, it has enjoyed incredible success in Latin America and is the highest selling Bolivian novel in over 20 years. In a country of only 9 million people, where the official illiteracy rate is estimated to be only 15%, Recacoechea’s success is no mean feat. "AmericanVisa" is only the second Bolivian book, and Recacoechea’s first, to be translated into English in 50 years!!!
Adrian Althoff, first got interested in this novel when his professors at Amherst asked him to find out what the most popular and bestselling novel in Bolivia was (a history major, he was in La Paz for his thesis research). After he ascertained it was "American Visa" he brought a copy home,read it and said "it was like getting hit with a tidal wave". He knew then he just had to translate it and bring it to the American reading public.
"American Visa" is not the kind of novel you would normally associate with Latin American writers..it is not a political novel and there is no hint of magical realism, instead the author chooses to focus on the La Paz of the 1990's.
The protagonist, Mario Alvarez, a retired school teacher and a huge fan of old-school American detective fiction, in particular Chandler and Chester Himes, travels to La Paz in quest of an American visa to visit his son in Miami. As he waits to obtain his visa he roams the streets of La Paz climbing up and down the Bolivian class ladder, mingling with the ladies of the night and getting drunk as often as he can. When despite getting a haircut and donning his best Prince-of-Wales suit, his visit to the US consulate is unsuccessful (the cocaine trade has made the Americans very suspicious of Bolivians) his story takes on lots of twists and turns and starts to resemble one of his much loved detective novels.
I have to confess I found this a hard novel to put down. Written in first person I was more than happy to walk the streets of La Paz (so vibrantly real in the book) with Mario Alvarez, seeing first hand why he was so desperate to leave Bolivia and to start a new life in the US. Recacoechea takes some amazing urban characters like prostitutes, transvestites, cocaine dealers, half-breeds, unscrupulous politicians, and weaves them masterfully into his fascinating tale. This book will also provide you some amazing insights into a class-conscious Bolivian society and will show you how the Latin-American people perceive the United States. At the end of the book you will walk away with a better understanding of why people will commit desperate acts to secure immigration to other countries, a definite plus when you consider that immigration is a hot button issue these days in the US.
I hope Akashic Books will bring more translations our way...I cannot believe this is only the 10th Bolivian text to be translated into English! As one critic remarked, " Ironic that Juan de Recacoechea’s protagonist spends all his time trying to get to America, when it is we who should be getting to Juan de Recacoechea. So true!
Finally, I thought I should share my favorite Bolivian recipe, Cocadas or Coconut Candies:
(for a picture, please go here)
(Coconut Candies or Macaroons)
2 2/3 cups shredded coconut
3/4 cup condensed milk
1/4 teaspoon almond essence
- In a bowl, mix shredded coconut, egg, condensed milk, and almond essence until everything is well mixed.
- Let rest for two or three minutes.
- Spread butter on a baking sheet.
- Using two teaspoons, put small amounts of the mixture onto the baking sheet.
- Bake at medium temperature ( 325 Fahrenheit degrees) for twenty-five minutes or until they are golden, dry and smooth at the same time.
Yields 24 regular-size coconut candies.