Translated by Adrian Althoff.
Publisher, Akashic Books, 2007 (first published in Spanish, 1994).
A taxi grinds to a halt in the middle of crammed street parties and demonstrations in downtown La Paz, Bolivia, and Mario Alvarez disembarks. Alvarez is searching for somewhere cheap to stay while he applies for a US visa so he can visit his son, who is living and working in Florida. After several failed attempts to find anywhere with a vacancy, he discovers a cheap-seeming dive called the Hotel California. It was at this point that I realised that I was in all likelihood reading one of those books in which the protagonist never achieves his goal.
Whether or not Alvarez does get to his destination is not for me to reveal here, but it is certainly true that the book is almost wholly about his sojourn in the steep up-and-down streets of La Paz, experiencing many different aspects of life and meeting the widest range of people imaginable. The author plays with many themes in this hectic book – the entire process of trying to obtain a visa, with the queues, bureaucracy and cheats that desperate people who will do anything to get a ticket being but the kicking-off point for Alvarez’s increasingly bizarre, Kafka-esque journey of discovery and self-discovery.
Hotel California itself provides a mix of characters all too eager to advise our somewhat hopelessly naive high-school teacher protagonist. He’s inevitably very short of money, as is everyone – his two main companions among his fellow-guests exist by selling off a personal archive of books one-by-one, and being an enthusiastic lap-dancer/prostitute.
American Visa is certainly not a novel for the faint-hearted, as the dives and details of life in this impoverished, land-locked country are dissected in minute detail, against a background of political comment against the Spanish colonialists, the British landowners, the silver and tin mine-owners and the government who nationalised everything and consigned the people to poverty rather than their hoped-for freedom. The country is bankrupt, as are many of the people and institutions we encounter in the book.
If you like the kind of book that is, in effect, a journey round a series of set-piece characters and situations, there is much to like here. I was particularly fond of the section in a bookshop, featuring a hilarious book-reading by a pretentious poetess. Like other books I have recently read from South and Central America, the novel is extremely sexist. The women characters are almost all extremely keen on sex, usually with Alvarez, which gets a bit tedious. Alvarez’s cherished goal of working in an IHOP is, in itself, surreally amusing. However, there are so many satirical and cynical passages that it all gets a bit lost in the mix.
American Visa isn’t a conventional crime story by any means; in fact the “crime” does not happen until about page 200 of the 250-page novel. Although I could see much to admire in it, I am not the biggest fan in the world of existentialist noir, of which this book is almost a perfect type-example. I like journeys to arrive somewhere real and to have more of a focused plot. Even so, it is fascinating to read a book from the Bolivian perspective.
According to the informative afterword to the novel by Ilan Stavans, which tells of how the book came to be translated, it was written as a direct reaction against the then-fashionable magical realism of the time (epitomised by One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel I struggled with years ago but could not finish). Stavans writes of the author: “Instead, he prefers the dirty urban landscape of La Paz, where the only thing magical is to make ends meet.”