Monday, 8 March 2010

Paraguay - A journey to the heart of Latin America

I've never been to Latin America, so it's quite apt that my first trip there (to Cuba) coincides with the end of my 'virtual' journey to Paraguay.  In a weird way, I've learned so much about Paraguay in the past month that I feel prepped for a Paraguayan trip.  As we're actually going to Cuba, it's going to be like diving in at the deep end!

During this learning experience I've read (or tried to read) two books related to Paraguay.  Probably Paraguay's most famous book I, the Supreme (Yo, el Supremo) by dissident writer Augusto Roa Bastos is quite a heavy read, intrinsic in its detail, but strangely hypnotic in its wordplay - think James Joyce with quixotic Spanish phrases.  Needless to say I didn't finish it.  Unfortunately having a full-time job precludes the amount of time it would take to digest a mammoth creation like Bastos' book.  It's one for retirement, or a long train journey across Siberia!  Still, I'm glad I got through the 150 or so pages that I did and it gave me a flavour of Bastos' (and Paraguay's?) existential angst. 

The story is mostly based on the life of Paraguay's original dictator, Francia, and the craziness of his mind.  A political pamphlet (or pasquinade) is found, basically threatening the life of the President in a very violent way.  The President is, understandably, upset by this lampoon and engages in a torturous analysis of the situation, with his amenuensis, Patino, being his main audience.  El Supremo demands that Patino find the author of the pasquinade within an unreasonably short period of time.  As I was reading the novel, it occured to me that El Supremo had written the pamphlet himself, that his servent realises this and finds himself in the intolerable position of not being able to reveal the truth, as that would surely mean his death.  The logic of El Supremo is totally warped and the book is really all about living at the whims of a madman and how frightening that must be.

The other book I read, and an absolute must for anyone interested in the history of Paraguay, was At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig by John Gimlette.  Gimlette has a real passion for Paraguay and, although it's difficult not to reel in the absurdity of some of the situations he finds himself in and the eccentricity of the characters he meets, you can sense that he has a genuine love for a country that could easily have been so different, with better leadership and less challenging circurmstances.  Gimlette describes Paraguay as a kind of Cinderella, a beautiful young maiden with three bigger sisters, except she never really gets a chance to meet her prince and live happily ever after. 

From Gimlette's book I learned about the different regions of Paraguay, the various people that have tried, and more than often failed, to make Paraguay conform to their utopian dreams.  I read about the Irish courtesan, Eliza Lynch, a people's princess and a truly fascinating character, she reminded me of Lola Montez and the King of Bavaria.  I read about the primitive communism of the Jesuit missions, about the fact that El Supremo banned marriages that weren't interracial and strutted around like some kind of mini-Napoleon.  I read about fascist Paraguay of the 1930's and later the many Nazis, like Dr Mengele, who sought anonymity in the Paraguayan jungles.  I read about the cruelty of Stroessner's regime and his exile in neighbouring Brazil.  I read about the tropical waywardness of Asuncion, how the jungle lives on in this city of millions, about the 'peinetes de oro' or ladies of the night, about how the English of the Victorian Age romanticised Paraguay and made it out to be some kind of sensual paradise, how Joseph Conrad condemned it in his parody of a South American democracy Nostromo

I learned about the Korean and Chinese businessmen of Cuidad del Este, a city that Gimlette says 'hadn't been planned, but had just erupted'.  I learned about the Casado family of Buenos Aires who owned an estate in the Chaco which was three times the size of Switzerland.  I read about the Japanese colony of Paloma, about the Guarani word for television which means 'machine that imagines'.  I learned about lungfish that bury themselves in the soft  mud of the Chaco during the dry season, I learned about the once feared Lenguas tribe and the Ache, ghost people of the forests, with their cannibalism and infanticide. 

Most of all, I learned to be fascinated by Paraguay and the sheer number of interesting people and anarchic adventurers who have passed through there.  About a month ago, I started with a knowledge of where Paraguay is, the name of its capital and not much else.  It's amazing how much there is to learn about Paraguay, like a parallel universe, its history and stories have happened in the obscurity of tribal languages and the uncertain beating of South America's dark heart. 

For regular readers, I'm going to be in Cuba until the end of March - travelling for real this time, rather than through the eyes of others.  Don't worry, I'll be back soon enough, with a new place and some new learning experiences. 

Image credits

The rather vampirish image of El Supremo (Francia) is from Wikipedia and is copyright free.

The image of the cover of John Gimlette's book At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is from http://www.openlibrary.org/
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