Amherst Magazine

American Visa

Folk Dancers in Bolivia
As in the novel's opening scene, when a maddening traffic jam cuts short a taxi ride,a folk-dancing group practices on the streets of Bolivia

By Juan De Recacoechea. Translated by Adrian Althoff ’04. Afterward by Ilán Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and the Five College 40th Anniversary Professor. New York City: Akashic Books, 2007. 257 pp. $14.95 paperback.

Review by Ruxandra Guidi

We agreed to meet up at Club Café de La Paz, an old joint in La Paz, Bolivia, where the city’s politicians, intellectuals and writers hang out. “But not like they used to,” says Juan De Recacoechea. “Back in the day, the café had more personality and you could plot all kinds of things from in here. ... That is, if you were a politician.”

Today, Recacoechea looks more like a detective than he does a writer. He’s tall and skinny, with a mop of gray hair loosely parted down the middle. He’s sporting a long khaki trench coat and shiny dress shoes. But his most noticeable feature is his voice: when he talks about his latest novel, American Visa, which Adrian Althoff ’04 has translated from Spanish to English, his voice trembles with excitement; at times, it even cracks.

We head out of the café and up the road to Illampu, one of the streets featured in the book. Much as Recacoechea describes it, Illampu is a seedy strip, pop­ulated by street vendors, colorful storefronts and food stalls. Many of the people walking on the street could easily pass for Mario Alvarez, the down-and-out protagonist of the book, who comes to La Paz to apply for his U.S. tourist visa and ends up spending much of his time in this neighborhood. Alvarez, like many in Bolivia (and for that matter, in Latin America), is focused on finding the American dream. He’s willing to do anything it takes to get that visa, even if the search takes him to the darkest of places, and even if it means committing a cold-blooded murder.

During his senior year at Amherst, after American Visa had become the most popular novel in Bolivia, Althoff picked up a copy at the recommendation of Ilán Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and the Five College 40th Anniversary Professor. Stavans encouraged Althoff to translate the first pages. It was no easy task. At first, Althoff says, he struggled with the novel’s Bolivian idioms, which seemed to have no equivalent in the English language. But what he ended up liking most about American Visa turned out to be exactly what made it so difficult to translate: “American Visa is very ‘street,’ ” Althoff says. “After having lived for some time in Bolivia, I realized that no other novel described the people and how they live as accurately, and with such dark humor, as American Visa.”

“The book chose me, more than anything else,” Althoff adds. “I was finishing my senior project on the translation of the first 20 pages of the book. I told Ilán Stavans how much I loved doing it, and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you translate the whole thing?’ He’s like that sometimes; he has crazy ideas.”

American Visa, Althoff’s first literary translation, is one of only a handful of Bolivian novels ever to make it into English. “Almost any fiction from Latin America is a hard sell,” Althoff says. “I think Latin America is a historically ignored region. In general, it’s hard to get Americans interested in the nuances of its literature.”

Althoff’s translation remains faithful to the slang that the characters speak, and to the idiosyncrasies of the people living inside the novel. The main character, Alvarez, enjoys reading detective stories. “His whole life has been a novel in theory,” Recacoechea says, “until reality hits him and he turns into a character from one of his fantasies.” Recacoechea, much like his protagonist, is an avid reader of crime fiction by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. American Visa is a Bolivian homage to this genre, but it is also a work of literature like no other. Sometimes it reads like pulp fiction, with its fast-moving and dark, almost cinematic scenes; sometimes the plot and characters are so absurd and humorous that American Visa could pass as a uniquely Bolivian fantasy novel.

Recacoechea describes Althoff’s translation as a new and improved version of the original. Althoff, for his part, says he couldn’t have done the work without Recacoechea’s patience and assistance. “I would call him three times a day sometimes,” Althoff says. Today, the two remain close collaborators and friends: “We’re like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza,” Althoff jokes.

While Recacoechea remains in La Paz and works on a new novel, Althoff, who lives in North Potomac, Md., now serves as Recacoechea’s literary agent abroad. This fall, the pair traveled across the United States on a book tour. And by next spring, Althoff hopes to have finished yet another Recacoechea translation. It’s a police novel with an unconventional ending, titled Andean Express.

Guidi is a radio and print correspondent based in Bolivia. Her work has appeared on the BBC radio program The World, on BBC Mundo and in Orion Magazine.

Photo: Adrian Althoff '04