by Juan de Recacoechea. Translated from the Spanish by Adrian Althoff '04. NY: Akashic Books, 2009.
Reviewed by Associate Professor of History Rick A. López '93
The year is 1952, and Ricardo Beintigoitia sets off on an overnight train from the Bolivian capital of La Paz to the Chilean coast for a final carefree vacation before leaving for university in Europe. After bidding farewell to his schoolmates, he finds himself sharing his first-class cabin with a Franciscan priest whom he suspects may not be what he appears. Before the journey is over, young Ricardo will think he might have fallen in love, will witness nested plots of intrigue and vengeance and will even possibly become an unwitting accomplice to murder.
Adrian Althoff '04 first brought Bolivian author Juan de Recacoechea to the attention of English-speaking audiences in 2007 with his translation of the best-selling novel American Visa. With dry wit and spare prose expertly captured in Althoff's translation, Recacoechea's first novel traced the Kafkaesque mishaps of Bolivian schoolteacher Mario Alvarez in his drive to secure an American visa. Althoff now treats us to a second novel by Recacoechea that, while arguably less monumental than American Visa, remains a delightful read. As Adrian Althoff's professor and advisor at Amherst, I had the opportunity to share his growing enthusiasm for Bolivian culture and society, and I was excited to read his superb translations of the work of one of the finest contemporary Andean authors.
The book begins by introducing readers to a host of characters who seem cut right out of noir detective stories, but with playful twists that place them firmly within the Bolivian setting. We are treated to Aldaviri, the officious and corruptible porter; Fassell, Beintigoitia's childhood friend obsessed with his Teutonic heritage in an overwhelmingly indigenous country; Quispe, the railroad engineer who delights in English locomotive technology; Tréllez, Beintigoitia's uncle, a hard-drinking, card-playing congressman who carries himself like a 19th-century French colonialist; the Marquis who specializes in trafficking Chilean prostitutes to Bolivia; Rocha, the alcoholic, one legged ex-miner; the cardsharp Lalo Ruiz; and the Jewish Russian immigrant Petko Danilov. And let us not forget the villain Nazario Alderete, an ambitious mestizo who has wronged almost everyone else in first class in one way or another. He brings along his young wife and femme fatale Gulietta Carletti and his mother-in-law, who seems eager to sell off her daughter to Alderete for a piece of his fortune. As the cast comes together the plot thickens with conspiracies, playful surprises and bitter vendettas.
The twists and turns of the narrative make this a page-turner, but the most inspired aspect of the book is the author's talent for capturing a sense of place. In the end, this is a novel about the Altiplano. Without ever being heavy-handed, Recacoechea draws the reader into the vast expanse of the Andean high desert plain. The controlled, sparse prose and calibrated pacing of the story merge with descriptions of the air and land to convey how movement through this particular real and symbolic space impacts how the young hero views himself and his relationship to others. The steady rumble across the arid expanse makes each character acutely aware of the impact of high elevation and thin, dry air upon the blood, lungs and mind. The experience disrupts social norms just enough for the characters to challenge their everyday mores, and to take uncalculated risks. As the train plunges into the final descent to the sea, they then scramble to put their world back in order.
By constructing a rich sense of Bolivian social and physical space, the novel moves beyond the noir genre. Its treatment of place invites comparison to Gabriel García Marquez's magical realist village of Macondo, or, even more so, to the barren landscapes masterfully conjured by Juan Rulfo. But the comparison can be taken only so far. Where García Marquez's characters experience global shifts as they filter into Macondo's isolated corner of the universe, and Rulfo's are unable to escape the misery of their inheritance, Beintigoitia and his fellow travelers pass through the land, experiencing the events that transpire as a fleeting moment that, ultimately, leaves all but the femme fatale and the murder victim unchanged.
This is not, then, the tale of a young man coming of age, as one finds in the installations of Cormac McCarthy's border trilogy. The overnight journey is not a rite of passage for Beintigoitia, but a fleeting moment that draws him in and almost suffocates him for a time, but, in the end, releases him from its grip and from any lingering consequences. Beintigoitia began his journey as a young man who took for granted the privileges and ideals of his class, and he leaves with his ideals and future prospects still intact. Perhaps it is no coincidence that 1952 also was the year when the MNR (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement) challenged the power of Bolivia's old elite. Just as Recacoechea's young hero emerges unchanged from his interlude on the Altiplano, so too did Bolivia's elite find a way to rebuild itself and thereby hold fast to the privileges and ideals it viewed (and continues to view) as its birthright. In the novel's final pages, the young hero, like the social class to which he belongs, is freed of the burdens he took on during the journey. The story trails off with Beintigoitia refreshed and ready to resume the same path for his life that he had set out upon.