The News From Paraguay, by Lily Tuck
This novel is a pretty compelling one if you like dark material. For a variety of reasons, Eliza Lynch (here consistently called Ella), has been a popular figure for novelists to write about in a variety of different ways. This is the third novel I have read recently where she appears as a character and each time she appears different based on the point of view and perspective of the writer within the givens of her being an attractive and ambitious woman who sought an escape from a bad marriage through a relationship with a powerful South American dictator whose rule quickly turned very tragic. The news from Paraguay is sad and immensely tragic, and if Ella herself appears as somewhat of a tragic figure she is by no means the only or even the most tragic character in a story where Paraguay is taken from a thriving if small nation into a charnel house where 9 in ten of its male population was killed by one side or the other in six years of destructive warfare. This book is a straightforward historical novel that does not pull punches about the horrors of that war and the larger geopolitical states that were involved.
This book is a bit less than 250 pages and it tells a few interrelated stories. One of the threads of this story is the life of Eliza Lynch, who goes from an attractive young woman on the run from an abusive marriage to the mistress of a South American dictator who nearly destroyed his nation through his warmongering. Another thread looks at the relationship that this dictator Lopez had with his family as well as with his officers, and with the larger geopolitics of the time, where his ability to resist the Argentinian and Brazilian (and Uruguayan) forces opposing him was hindered by his own political actions, where he alienated a powerful figure who ended up recalling one of his loyal American advisers, and by his own lack of military skill. In addition to this there is the poignant discussion of the destruction of Paraguay’s people, which is somewhat limited by the fact that it is looked at through the perspective of elites, and so it is their suffering that we feel most viscerally as they are tortured by Lopez for disloyalty or defeatism in an air of increasing unreality.
There are different ways to treat history when it comes to source material for one’s writing. This novel choose the task of making a realistic fiction that takes the horror as being base reality, and leaving the reader to deal with the repercussions in reading about people being tortured simply because they are connected with political leaders who are themselves untouchable given the desire of Paraguay to receive international aid and assistance in a war that was foolishly started by Lopez himself. By seeking to make himself a kingmaker in Uruguay Lopez managed to unite Brazil and Argentina against him and his nation barely survived, and that only because both Argentina and Brazil preferred to let a smaller and chastened Paraguay serve as a buffer state between them rather than fight over what border they wanted between them. This novel is terrifying in its matter-of-fact discussion of the horrors of old men and children being thrown up in attacks without being fully armed against professional armies and people being casually tortured because of the paranoid fears of a ruler. And lest we think that this sort of thing cannot happen to us, we live in times where such things could easily happen to many of us.