Some people go to Europe. Others try China. A few even make it as far as Antarctica. But when was the last time anyone of your acquaintance said: "Well, I'm off to Paraguay. " British writer John...
Some people go to Europe. Others try China. A few even make it as far as Antarctica. But when was the last time anyone of your acquaintance said: “Well, I’m off to Paraguay.”
British writer John Gimlette is here to fill in that gap with his antic and informative first book, “At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig,” a tome that blends travelogue, history and flights of descriptive whimsy to highly tonic effect.
Gimlette’s prose is such a vivid, hyperbolic affair that, as you read it, you may well find yourself checking your limbs for mosquito bites and heavy-duty chigger infestation. Most of the terrain and history he covers should be new to you, unless you’re a South American specialist. And you couldn’t ask for a more entertaining guide.
First the basics: Paraguay is a landlocked country a little smaller than California, wedged between Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. It has a population of just under 6 million. It was first explored by the Spanish in the 1520s, and its capital, Asunción, was settled by the late 1530s. A Jesuit republic flourished there in the 17th and 18th centuries, followed by two centuries of dictatorship under various grotesque tyrants.
Paraguay, over the years, has attracted religious utopians, land-hungry immigrants of every ethnic stripe, and most notoriously post-war Nazis on the run. It also played host to the longest-running dictatorship in the Americas: that of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, whose 35 years of rule (1954-1989) are known as the “Stronato.”
Just how and why Gimlette found himself in Asunción in 1982, at the tender age of 18, goes unexplained. But he had his eyes open, and the brutality and oppression of Stroessner’s regime come through loud and clear. So do the sights and sounds of Gimlette’s favorite Asunción watering hall, the Lido: “It was a room full of air that swirled in through the windows, was whipped by giant ceiling fans and then hustled out on to the street again. It was pure 1950s; you pulled upholstered stools up to the bar and gave your orders to the little duck-hipped ladies in tangerine aprons and tangerine hats who waddled around in the arena.”
Here, Gimlette makes a few acquaintances some friendly, some worryingly volatile whom he follows up on 15 years later, when he resumed his acquaintance with Paraguay, embarking on travels well beyond the capital. During those intervening years, he did a prodigious amount of reading, perusing both Paraguayan sources and books by outside writers who took an interest in the country. (Voltaire’s “Candide,” Graham Greene’s “Travels with My Aunt” and Charles Kingsley’s “Westward Ho!” are among them.)
Gimlette’s research serves him well as he tracks down the fates of fugitive Nazis, or of English engineers defeated by their surroundings (“His reasoning always brittle now crumbled”), or of 19th-century Irish gold-digger Eliza Lynch who became virtual empress of Paraguay in the 1850s and ’60s, shunned though she was by the ruling elite of Asunción (to whom she would always be “La Concubina Irlandesa“).
For all his mastery of Paraguayan history, it’s Gimlette’s extravagant prose and unhinged enthusiasm that make the book. (His enthusiasm, it should be said, does not extend to Paraguay’s political corruption or the torture practices of certain regimes.) Here he is on the “oddities” of Asunción: “The buses were known by fractions of numbers, like ‘30.3,’ and had long chrome whiskers, as if they were going to feel their way through the traffic. Large packs of dogs took themselves for sober walks in public gardens. … Once, I even saw a man with a large crucifix, festooned with bags of goldfish.”
Gimlette doesn’t pretend to make sense of everything he sees. A rack full of books by the Marquis de Sade in the local supermarket? All those inflatable pink plastic pigs “clustered at every crossroads … at the airport and on the bridges that lead to Brazil”? Gimlette is at a loss to explain their presence, and his friends don’t do much to clarify. The book’s title is bit of a ruse, given that Gimlette’s bubblegum-pink pigs occupy just one short paragraph in a 362-page book. But “Pig” isn’t all absurdities and caprice. As Gimlette probes deeper into the country, he tracks down remnants of utopias, checks out historical sites and inquires after rumors of dwindling and formerly cannibalistic indigenous tribes. He seems forever willing to wander up lonely red mud tracks, with no guarantee of a welcome at the other end.
Indeed, he puts up with every kind of discomfort as he roams around, getting “gruesomely nibbled” by bedbugs and other critters, and scared half-silly, on rickety boat-rides, by everything he’s heard about piranhas. His publishing of this book involves another sort of courage, should he ever want to return to Paraguay, given that it’s still a country where journalists and anti-corruption crusaders need to “be discreet or be a monument.”
Despite this, Gimlette’s love of the place its sheer variety of landscape and people wins out. “Pig” may not produce an immediate tourist boom for Paraguay. But it should definitely put the country on the map for every armchair traveler who reads it.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org