Friday, July 20, 2012

The News From Paraguay: All's Fair in Love and Megalomaniacal War

In the past 15 months, 18 days, seven hours and nine minutes, The Literate Man has featured exactly one review of a book authored by a woman.  The reason: we are chauvinist pigs.  But in a meager attempt to right our wrongs we offer up high praise for The News From Paraguay, a delightful book from the very talented author, Lily Tuck (and we’re pleased to note that the National Book Foundation shares our good taste, having named this novel the National Book of the Year in 2004).
The News From Paraguay is the classic love story of girl meets dictator, runs off to the South American frontier to be his mistress, raises a family, and helps run the country into the ground.  That old story.   And Tuck presents this real-life account -loosely based on actual people and events- in a refreshingly original voice, spread over an economic and stylish 245 pages. 
Irish-born Ella Lynch is hardly won over by the rough-edged Franco Lopez at their initial meeting on the Paris party circuit in 1854.  A coarse man from Paraguay with bad English, body hair, and a seven-piece Indian band that follows him like a shadow, Franco is hardly the definition of Parisian chic.  But when Ella’s Russian lover decamps and leaves her penniless and destitute, Franco’s silly boots and his seemingly endless supply of gold suddenly seem a lot more attractive.  Within months Ella’s pregnant and on Franco’s personal yacht sailing for his magical South American kingdom.  Shrouded in mystery and full of surprises, Paraguay might as well be a far-off planet, as Ella musters all her strength and courage, in anticipation of her new life. 
What follows next is a sad and enlightening story of excess, outsized ambition and the self-destruction of a man and a country.  While Franco is a larger-than life character with enormous and lusty appetites, this is mostly Ella’s story to tell as both an outsider (to Paraguay) and an insider (an intimate advisor to the Franco).  It would be easy to fall into a sentimental or predictable tone of lament and loss but Tuck is confident in her writing and presents a powerful and flawed female protagonist that embraces her role in the ill-fated drama.  The author’s consistent narrative remains true to her characters and ultimately reads something like Nero’s diary as Rome (Paraguay) burns around them.   
Tuck is an inventive and disarming writer and she pens a fascinating account of Paraguay’s obscure history using an imperfect love story as her vehicle.  She achieves complexity of narrative not through any single, multi-faceted character but rather through an ensemble of marginal people that provides an impressively broad scope of perspective using relatively simple characters.  And that’s the book’s charm, deftly mixing the viewpoint of the indigenous, ex-pats, mestizos, elites and the victims of one man’s narcissistic ambitions into a recipe of sheer literary pleasure.  Tuck threads these conflicting perspectives together like a handmade quilt and the book reads like a collection of singular, but related paragraphs, each featuring a different and unique narrator. 
This is hardly a definitive history of Paraguay, but that’s not really the point, as Tuck includes just the right balance of true events and research to lend the storyline credibility without bogging down the human elements of the book.  The News From Paraguay is first and foremost the tale of a strong-willed and sometimes delusional woman in love; but the early struggles of the Paraguayan republic and it’s insanely determined dictator provide a fascinating backdrop for Ella’s story.   Anyone that picks up this creative and engrossing work will be glad they did. 


  1. On the off chance that this ever comes up in my day job as a litigator, I should clarify that Aaron is obviously joking above and that neither of us is in any way chauvinist or unappreciative of female authors. Christina Stead is one of my all time favorites, and I have an abiding appreciation for Virginia Woolf, even if she does not yet appear in these pages. As a matter of fact, I'm looking forward to posting on Madeleine Albright's Prague Winter in the near future.

  2. Oo oo oo ... AND Jean Rhys. Wide Sargasso Sea absolutely blew my mind.

  3. just done a rough count on my blog & although I have a few more female writers (11)it would appear based on the amount of posts written I'm just as guilty.

  4. good to hear from you Parrish. we're going to try and have a better balance going forward. but I wonder, and this is simply based on my own circumstantial experiences: are men more inclined to read men authors rather than women authors? and is the inverse of this true for women and women authors? anyone have any thoughts on this?

    1. Interesting question and fun blog. I have no preference between men and women writers. I like good writing. While reading, I usually forget about the author. Well, that's true when the author is any good. I know only a few readers who are bold enough to go from genre to genre or author to author with ease. Usually, when I like an author, I try to find anything by that writer. Chasing the dragon in that way tends to be disappointing. If I were braver, I would be able to move from writer to writer with ease.

      Thank you for being so interesting.

  5. hi Susan,
    great to hear from and thanks so much for your kinds words. i think our natural inclination after reading a book we enjoy is to seek out other works by the same author. and your right, while logical and convenient, this exercise does often lead to disappointment. i think we could all use some additional bravery when it comes to searching out good books!