Don’t go crying over spilt buttermilk

Posted on November 4, 2012


A quarrel is like buttermilk, the more you stir it, the more sour it grows – Bolivian proverb

Today’s blog on Juan de Recacoechea’s Altiplano Express is going to be short.  Mainly because there’s not much to say about it, but also because I can’t wait to get back to Bosnian Meša Selimović’s The Fortress which is a stunning piece of fiction.

First, I should say that Altiplano Express is not a bad read, just not a great one.  I’d chosen it because it had great reviews, Recacoechea is a well-respected Bolivian author, and because I love reading crime novels.  Here, a murder takes place on the Altiplano Express: a train that trundles across the high plateau from La Paz to Arica over 24 hrs – not so much Express as Dawdle then.  As in Murder on the Orient Express, there is a host of characters all of whom have a reason to want the victim, Aldrete, deader‘n dead.  And there’s the first of my problems with it, Aldrete is such a wrong ‘un that it’s A. unbelievable and B. incredible that he hasn’t been shot, stabbed or strangled before, especially given that his enemies include Irish terrorists and Bolivian revolutionaries, representatives of which are on the train.   The other failing for me is that the book doesn’t conform to the crime genre.  We know who kills Aldrete and why  – although I can’t remember now whether Aldrete had stolen his silver mine/his wife/his legs but it’s one of those, or maybe his pride. He stole something very meaningful off him and everyone else anyhow.  There’s no mystery, no tension, no working out. Maybe it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t follow the genre, but if I were buying something in the chair genre, I’d expect to be able to sit on it. That’s not to say I expect legs on my chair, break the genre by all means, but come up with something that still supports my ample backside.

That said, what does work is the atmosphere of the novel.  Set in 1952, Recacoechea manages to create a satisfyingly Chandleresque tone.  He also describes the journey across Bolivia and into Peru in a detail that perfectly conjures up the unique air, smell, and colours of the Altiplano.   Having taken pretty much the same journey some years ago, it brought back memories with a happy vengeance.[1]  It certainly makes me want to listen to a Pan Pipe group playing el Cóndor Pasa and I never thought I’d say that! Maybe with a Pisco Sour in one hand and a roasted quwi in the other though.

[1] Not least the moment when an apple-bodied Quechua women boarded the train in the middle of nowhere, took the sour milk smelling baby off her back and plonked it without a by your leave on one of the guys’ I was travelling with lap, and went up and down the train hawking her wares.  She didn’t come back for hours. Mick seemed more bothered than the baby – he probably smelt more by that stage too.