Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Review: Andean Express

Juan de Recacoechea, translated by Adrian Althoff. Andean Express. NY: Akashic Books, 2009.
ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-72-9

With summer’s end on the near horizon, there’s still time to get in a good beach read, especially if the book in hand is a fast read, short, and a lot of fun. This is what’s in store for readers who pick up Adrian Althoff’s flowing translation of Juan de Recacoechea’s Andean Express from noir publisher par excellence Akashic Books. In fact, with all its conspiratorial machinations, murder, motives, perversity, bizarre events, and brevity, it’s a pleasure to recognize Andean Express as a sparkling example of what I’m calling light noir. Not heavy, not mindlessly silly, just the right book to pass a quick few hours by the pool, in an airplane, or a train ride over the Andes.

It is January 1952. The Bolivian school year has ended and 18 year old Ricardo Beintigoitia is boarding the overnight train headed from landlocked La Paz to the coastal resort port of Arica, Chile. Riding first class, he’s sharing his sleeping compartment with a Franciscan padre. Other passengers include his pimp uncle; another pimp known as The Marquis; an itinerant gambler, Ruiz; a Russian émigré; an Irish employee of the Bolivian railroad; and a highly unpopular fellow, Nazario Alderete. Later we meet a mysterious one-legged man named Rocha, who keeps to his compartment.

Then there are the women.

Ricardo recognizes eighteen year old Gulietta from a brief encounter in Buenos Aires. Like Ricardo, Gulietta’s a recent high school graduate, but she’s on her honeymoon. The teenager has been married off by her impoverished society class mother to the forty-something nouveau riche Alderete. Doña Clara, Gulietta’s mother, has joined the strange bedfellows couple, whom we learn, have yet to consummate their union. Shortly we meet other women: the Irishman’s wife, Lourdes; a free-spirited circus contortionist; Anita, La Paz’ most famous high class madam.

Not that the names are important. For the most part the cast of characters provide the backdrop for Ricardo and Gulietta’s star-crossed tryst.

Gulietta, who turns nauseous at Alderete's touch, has yet to allow him his way with her body. She makes up her mind she will lose her virginity to Ricardo, only then succumbing to her husband’s disgusting advances. Gulietta advances on Ricardo, a n’er-do-well by reputation and avocation, who reciprocates with little thought to the prospect of being caught out by the angry husband. Alderete even confronts Ricardo, reading his wife’s frequent eye contact with the boy, advising Ricardo that yearn as he might, Alderete is the husband who will possess the girl’s body at his own convenience.

Ricardo’s confidence comes of being in on the plot hatched by his male associates. Because Alderete has cheated several of them out of property by fleecing them in poker games, their plan is to engage the scorned groom in a poker game and cheat him out of a fortune. Even worse, Alderete’s criminal dishonesty cheated Doña Clara’s husband out of his fortune, hastening Alderete’s would-be father-in-law to an early grave. And Gulietta knows it. The late-night poker game will provide Gulietta the time she needs to complete her mission.

De Recacoechea wastes no time setting the poker game plot into motion then drops a bombshell. The one-legged man is an assassin, hired to kill Alderete. The one-legged man waits in his compartment for the signal, then drops out of the plot until the appointed hour.

The successful poker con goes off faster than expected, however, and the horny Alderete, infuriated at his humiliation at the taunts of his rivals, rages off to the sleeper cars to find his wife and force himself on her if that’s what it takes. When Gulietta isn’t in her mother’s compartment, Alderete crashes into Ricardo’s compartment and sees the two of them naked and aroused.

Ricardo is overwhelmed with guilt, thinking Alderete’s death resulted from witnessing the scene of his naked wife with the obnoxious Ricardo. The reader knows, however, that the one-legged man has gladly done the bidding of his employer. As the plot winds down to the sea, the only unknown element is the identity of the murderer by proxy. Who hired Rocha, one of the men? One of the women? As the plot has thickened, de Recacoechea has planted hints giving motive to several of the characters. I won’t spoil the fun nor a reader’s guessing game to discern the identity of Rocha’s employer. If one reads to the serious matter underlying the silliness, the identity will be readily discerned.

The reader owes special thanks to Adrian Althoff’s translation. It gets right to the heart of the matter, the story, and doesn’t divagate into attempts to give a flavor of the original language. None of the technique of printing something in italicized Spanish then translating in a useless apposition that interrupts the flow. I guess Althoff added a couple of “he said in English” tags to let readers know the upper-class Spanish speaker used a code-switch in the original, but for the most part, Althoff’s presence is almost completely invisible and Andean Express, originally titled Altiplano Express, reads as if it had been composed originally in English. Special thanks also must go to Akashic Books’ policy of bringing Spanish language noir mystery to the United States market including such gems as Paco Taibo and Subcomandante Marcos’ The Uncomfortable Dead, and Daniel Chavarría’s Adios Muchachos. It would be a wonderful addition to Akashic’s catalog to bring facing page translations to market. What a treat that would be!

From the altiplano to the sea to all of La Bloga, that’s the antepenultimate Tuesday of August. A Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga.


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