Friday, December 13, 2013

Bolivia: "Andean Express" by Juan de Recacoechea

It's 1952 and Ricardo has just graduated from high school (note, in January, as that is when summer begins below the equator). He takes the train from La Paz, Bolivia to meet his parents for a beach vacation in Chile. Andean Express is a "film noir" novel of that journey, with deftly drawn characters, beautiful description of the (very) high Andean Plateau on the Bolivian side of the mountains, and cinematic dialogue, plot, and pacing.

The movie references are deliberate, from the title to quips in the text. Ricardo says at  one point that the journey resembles a Billy Wilder comedy. As of 1952, Wilder's films did not yet include Some Like it Hot or The Apartment, although he had made Ninotchka, Double Indemnity, and The Lost Weekend.  If anything, this book combines elements of all three of those film classics.

I cannot discuss the plot without creating spoilers. But the title reference to express deliberately evokes Agatha Christie, and parts of the story are similar to a transcontinental railway journey in one of Dick Francis's books, The Edge.

Descriptions of life of the time appear suddenly and are brief. Ricardo leaves the first class carriage for the second. De Recacoechea writes,

"There was a wide range of odors in second class despite the country air that penetrated the few open windows. Ricardo saw construction workers, contraband dealers, and illegal immigrants..." (p. 40)

The diversity of cast(e) includes the first class passengers, too, who range from a high-society mother travelling with her 18-year old daughter and the much older mine owner the girl has married, to a person introduced as a Franciscan priest who might or might not be travelling with a circus contortionist. We also meet a member of the Bolivian Congress, a nightclub owner, a retired madame, and a one-legged alcoholic. A poker game among the adult men is central to the action, and one is left wondering about who is directing all of these players.

Journey's end is Arica, a port town with regular departures for the U.S. and Europe. Ricardo and his family encounter some of his fellow passengers at a hotel.

"It was high season and the hotel mainly received businessmen from the south of the country, Peruvian and Bolivian tourists, government workers from Santiago, and the occasional military man with wife and children...At the head of the room was the orchestra, which consisted of a pianist with an ample mop of white hair, a violinist with a thin face, and a bored-looking accordionist...The band started up with a Viennese waltz and the conversation flowed pleasantly." (p. 157-158)

South American, European-tinted gentility to the end.

At 160 pages with significant leading between the lines, this makes a very enjoyable winter-by-the-fire read, with glimpses of a Bolivia of a half-a-century ago. For those who might be thinking of young readers, there is one scene that would generate an R rating in a real movie, for explicit sexuality.

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