Bolivian Noir: Juan de Recacoechea with Caitlin Esch
“Verify the documents," I thought. "What the hell is that about?" Trembling, I moved forward to the first row and settled into an empty armchair. That bit about the verifications was like a knife through my heart. If they try to verify them, I’m screwed…. I would have sold my soul to the Devil for that visa, but there was no time for the ceremony.”
So begins the desperate journey of Mario Alvarez, a school teacher from Bolivia trying to secure a “ticket to paradise”—or the United States.
Just published by Akashic, American Visa, Juan de Recacoechea’s fifth of seven novels, has been described as “picaresque noir,” tragicomic travelogue, and novela negra. It has enjoyed incredible success in Latin America, selling over 13,000 copies in Bolivia—not to mention black market editions—making it 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 almost 15 percent, Recacoechea’s novel has achieved extraordinary success. American Visa is the winner of Bolivia’s National Book Prize, and according to the novel’s translator, is only the tenth Bolivian text—and Recacoechea’s first—to be translated into English.
The Rail’s Caitlin Esch met up with Recacoechea and the novel’s translator, Adrian Althoff, one rainy April afternoon in the middle of the pair’s East Coast tour.
Caitlin Esch (Rail): How do you like New York?
Juan de Recacoechea: Oh, I always like New York. The first time I was here was in the ’60s, you know—a long time ago. But I always like New York. Paris is a very beautiful city—but I think the atmosphere in New York is better now. New York is the place to come now.
Rail: Many Bolivians immigrate to places like Argentina, Spain, and the United States, where the economies are better. In fact, one in five Bolivians live abroad. You were a journalist in Europe for almost 20 years. What made you leave Bolivia—like so many before you—in the first place?
Recacoechea: I left Bolivia when I was 15 to go to high school in Spain. That was during the Franco dictatorship, and it was very tough. I was in a boarding house. And then I came back to Bolivia and all my friends were drinking and having a good time, and my father said, “You will become an alcoholic if you stay here.” So he sent me to a boarding house in Peru, an English boarding house in Lima that was very expensive, very elite, you know? Very sophisticated. I liked this boarding house. So I finished my high school in Lima. Lima was, in that time, a small town. Now, it has something like six million people. After that, I came back to La Paz, and my father said, “I am going to send you to Europe, to Salamanca, to Spain.” It was very cheap during this time. Everything was cheap. I was 18. So I went to Salamanca, but I didn’t like the atmosphere in Salamanca. It was nice, it was a university town, but the Francismo was still there. It was not as bad as before, but I didn’t like it. You know, I don’t like dictatorships. So I was thinking, “Where can I go?” At first I thought of Austria, maybe Vienna, but then I would have to learn German. So I said, “I’ll go to Paris and see how it is.” Discovering Paris at that time was remarkable. That was the time of France’s war in Algeria. There were many artists there and people like Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Genet, Jean-Luc Godard. Samuel Beckett was living there. The cultural life in Paris was boiling. They had a war, but because they had a war the cultural life in Paris was swinging from one extreme to the other. The right had some very strong thinkers, and the left had some very strong thinkers, and of course the far left was strong. The communist party had men like Louis Aragon—who was a very good novelist—so I decided to stay. I loved the Latin Quarter; I was completely hypnotized by the atmosphere. I studied journalism and international relations in Paris for four or five years. And after I finished, I just kept going from one place to another. I lived in London, Copenhagen, I went to the Eastern countries, and Sweden; I went all over. And I lived for some months in every city. In that time it was very easy to travel in Europe because of the exchange rate.
Rail: What made you return to Bolivia?
Recacoechea: Oh, I had a friend who lived in Paris and he went to New York. He had a small apartment in Queens and he wrote me a letter and said, “Why don’t you come to New York? It’s completely different than what you think.” So I came to New York. And I was very astonished. They offered me a job here, but my father was ill so I had to go back to Bolivia. This was in the ’60s. So I went back to Bolivia. But soon after, I applied for a scholarship to go to Paris, and I got it. So I went back to Paris and I worked for French television with some big directors. All the films were police films. I was there for one year and then, in the ’70s, I went back to La Paz and founded the national television there. I was the first to write scripts and make films. I made about 40 short films in Bolivia. I was general manager of Bolivian television for awhile. But they threw me out when the government changed. The military people threw me out in the ’80s. And I didn’t know what to do. So I made a cafeteria, called the Verona cafeteria. It’s still there, but it’s gone down. I made the first pizza in La Paz, with mozzarella. Until then, they made pizza with some other cheese and it was horrible. I imported mozzarella from Argentina, but now they make mozzarella in Bolivia—everything is easy now, but in that time, everything was difficult. And while I was in that cafeteria, I wrote my first book. It was called Fin de Semana. All the characters were in Paris, and it was a love story between a Bolivian guy and a French girl.
Rail: What kinds of opportunities exist in Bolivia today for writers, journalists and novelists, as compared to 20 years ago?
Recacoechea: Well, now it’s easy to publish. There are many people publishing, but the writers have to pay to publish their own novels. You write a novel, you pay for it. So there are hundreds of novels going around. But to be published without paying for it yourself? That’s very difficult. Only a few can do that, myself and maybe four or five others. So it’s difficult. And the money’s no good. You get 10% of the royalties, but you never really know how much they sell, because of the black market and all the black market editions, ediciones truchas. They say American Visa sold 13,000 copies, but what about the other books that are sold on the black market? There were 13,000 copies sold legally, but maybe 30,000 sold altogether. They print them in Peru, you know. It’s impossible to control.
Rail: Let’s talk about American Visa. Your protagonist, Mario Alvarez, commits robbery and murder to pay for his American visa. Why is obtaining an American visa such a difficult yet desirous—sometimes desperate— thing for some Bolivians to do?
Recacoechea: It was not always difficult to get a visa for the United States until the Second World War. It was more difficult to get a European visa. All Latin Americans could come to the United States without a visa. After the ’60s or ’70s maybe, it got more difficult to get a visa because so many people were coming to the United States. After the 1952 Revolution in Bolivia, the high bourgeoisie started coming here. They didn’t go to Europe because in Europe the salaries were very low. So they came here and lived in Washington, San Francisco, LA, San Diego, San Jose, New York. Many many people came here. Now, people in Bolivia are going to Spain. But that’s more the lower classes—people who are not educated, like hairdressers and waitresses. Now, when you go to a café, and you say, “Where is Maria who always serves me?” They say, “Oh, she is in Spain.”
Rail: Your depiction of La Paz is frenetic, fast-paced and diverse. Alvarez swings across social lines, experiencing parties with Bolivian high society and drunken nights filled with pisco and prostitutes. When I lived in Bolivia for most of 2006, La Paz seemed quite divided along class lines. How is Alvarez able to transcend social boundaries, and is this something you have been able to achieve in a country that is often ethnically and economically divided?
Recacoechea: Well, Alvarez is wandering around the city, a bit paranoid, and he doesn’t know what to do. He goes to bars, and one day he goes to a book store. He finds a very refined lady there and he falls in love. And then he leaves her. A few days later, he is drinking a beer in a popular barrio, when he sees her again. She is there, looking for her brother who is into the drugs, the cocaine, and so Alvarez sees the girl in this barrio and he asks her what she is doing there. And the girl asks him to come to her home for her brother’s birthday party. At first, Alvarez is embarrassed, he says, “I’m only a poor teacher, I don’t look nice.” Her house is in the southern part of the city, where there are very fine houses. But then he agrees. He goes once, and it’s over. His contact with the high class people is only once. He is in love with the girl, but he knows it is impossible. He belongs to the poor social class and the girl is very rich. She’s white.
Rail: So he doesn’t really transcend the social divide?
Recacoechea: No. In La Paz, the northern part of the city is very poor. It’s filled with Indians. The southern part of the city is the richest. So Alvarez gets one day, one party, with the high society. He makes love to another high society woman at the party, not the girl he loves, and then they return to the party, and he never sees her again. He has been used by the woman, he feels used. And then he goes back to his life among the lower classes.
Rail: How did you come up with the characters of Mario Alvarez, the teacher from Oruro, and Blanca, the prostitute he falls in love with?
Recacoechea: They are all based on people I have met. I met a fellow in the American Embassy who was a school teacher. One day, I went to the Embassy—I never had a problem getting a visa—and I saw a poor teacher from Oruro sweating and looking very nervous. And he showed me his papers, and I said, “What’s the problem? You have all your papers, everything looks fine. You have a house, you have money in the bank. They will give you a visa.” He said that he had a son waiting for him in the States and he only had enough pesos to stay in La Paz for a few days. And after five minutes, he said, “I have to tell you something. All my papers are fake.” All his papers were fake! Oh GOD. . So I said, “You don’t have a house?” “No.” “You don’t have a bank account?” “No, I don’t have a penny. I have enough pesos to be in La Paz until Saturday, and then I don’t know what I’m going to do. Probably, I will shoot myself.” And I said, “No, come on. They will give you a visa. How will they know that these papers are fake? They look very legal.” Then they called my name and I got my visa and I left the Embassy. I never knew what happened to him. I began to imagine a story about this guy. Then afterwards I went to a hotel, and there were prostitutes in the lobby. They were funny, I think they were very funny. And I thought that I should link the two; this poor paranoid man who comes to this hotel and befriends this beautiful prostitute, and the prostitute wants him to stay, but he has this obsession with going to the States. And I invented a novel out of this. All the characters are real.
Rail: Your book has received many wonderful reviews in the United States, and has achieved incredible success in Bolivia. But it has taken almost 15 years to be translated into English since its original publication in 1994. Why aren’t more Bolivian novels translated into English. Why doesn’t the world pay attention to Bolivian literature?
Recacoechea: The themes of Bolivian novels were not always relevant to an American audience, they were not universal. They were themes about small groups of Indians going to La Paz, love stories, historic novels about Sucre and Bolivia in general. And editors in the United States and in Europe don’t consider these themes relevant. I think that American Visa, through Adrian and Akashic, is the first novel to get some attention from an American audience and American media. It is a relevant topic because of current visa problems and immigration problems. It’s about a man who becomes so obsessed with the visa that he becomes paranoid and is going to kill himself if he doesn’t get it. And it also follows the style of police novels and writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Chester Himes. These people wrote beautiful crime fiction. And of course, American Visa was made into a movie. And that was very important. It was the best movie ever made in Bolivia. It was the only Bolivian film to be a Goya finalist in Spain. And it won the Mexican Oscar for best adapted screenplay. So that’s why American Visa is doing well, and other Bolivian novels are as yet unrecognized.
Rail: Who are some of your favorite Latin American writers?
Recacoechea: I like very much the Columbian writer Álvaro Mutis. Mutis is a great writer. I like Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar and Juan Carlos Onetti, the great Uruguayan writer. I don’t really like the most known writers, like García Márquez and Vargas Llosa. I don’t have a lot of feeling for them. But as I said, I like very much some Argentine, Uraguayan and Chilean writers. I don’t go for the big, traditional names.
Rail: What do you think of Evo Morales?
Recacoechea: I think he is a good man. He is an honest man. Until now, he didn’t really do anything wrong. Of course he is linked to the coca unions. That’s the bad thing about him. I don’t think he is linked to cocaine, I don’t think he is a drug trafficker, but he is linked with the coca unions that produce coca. And everybody knows that some of the coca goes to the production of cocaine. But I think he is basically a good man. In Bolivia, there are many people who don’t accept Indians. For 500 years, people have denied that they were Indians. So to have a president who is Indian, saying he is Indian, is unusual. Of course, there have been presidents who were Indian before—alright, they were 90% Indian, 10% white, but they were basically Indian—they would disguise that they were Indian. They were disguised as generals or mighty scholars, or whatever. So Evo is the first president who says, “I am ethnically Indian and I want to make Indian culture relevant.” And many people, they don’t like that.
Rail: What are you working on now?
Recacoechea: Well, Andean Express is my sixth novel, and it has already been published in Bolivia. But it is going to be translated into English, by Akashic. That will be my second novel published in English. It is a mystery novel, not a crime novel. It takes place on a train during one night. And everybody knows who the killer is from the beginning, but nobody knows who has paid him to kill. My seventh novel, called Kerstin, is about lesbian love . Bolivians were scandalized. I had some pages that were very hot. Provocative, as you say. And people thought I was depraved. But now I am writing another novel about the time I was living in Europe. I had a Dutch girlfriend. And I had a Canadian friend, a very good friend. I was expecting this woman to come to Bolivia—this was many years ago—and live with me. But when she was in Paris, this Canadian friend of mine just, uh, you know, slept with her and they became lovers (laughs). And then one day she appeared in La Paz and says to me, “Here I am, I am escaping from my Canadian lover.” So that’s the drama of the novella, you know? I cannot say anymore, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ll probably kill the Canadian. Or maybe I’ll kill them both.
Caitlin Esch is a writer who lives in Greenpoint.