Saturday, February 06, 2010

The News from Paraguay – novel by Lily Tuck

The story starts with a feather. A bright blue parrot feather falls out of the hat of Ella while riding a horse in Paris. Francisco Lopez picks it up and gives it to her. And there starts a romance ... like in a Bollywood movie. Francisco has been sent to Paris by his father Carlos Antonio Lopez, the first constituitional President of Paraguay. Francisco lives an adventurous playboy life in Paris showing off his wealth and status. Alongwith his luggage from Paraguay he has even brought a native band to play at his parties. He falls in love with Ella, an equally adventurous and horse-riding Irish girl of nineteen, who has come to live the good life of Paris. She lives with a Russian count after having divorced a French man whom she married when she was fifteen. The Count leaves her to join the Russian war and Francisco enters her life at this opportune time. Francisco courts her in royal style and takes her back to Paraguay. But he cannot marry her since his father does not allow the marriage because she is a divorcee . He puts her up in a separate house and Ella puts up with her status as a mistress. She manages to survive in the midst of the hostile family members of Francisco and the hot, humid and backward life in Asuncion. She impresses the natives with her elegant Parisian dress, shoes and perfumes. She gives birth to seven children of whom the first one Pancho takes after his father in his adventurous and headstrong attitude. Franciso takes over from his father as the President of Paraguay and modernises the country with railways, telegraph, industries and even starts building a opera hall like the La Scala of Italy. But his overconfidence and megalomania lead him into a war against the combined forces of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. He is killed in combat and Paraguay is ruined. Ella goes back to Paris but dies as a pauper, having lost everything.

This is a historical fiction based on the Paraguyan President (1862-70) Francisco Solano Lopez and his Irish mistress Ella Lynch. Many other characters in the novel are also real. Lopez started off his Presidency well with his modernisation programme. He built the first railways in South America, ahead of Brazil and Argentina. Paraguay at this time was more developed and industrialised than many countries in the region. But the war against the Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay was foolish and catastrophic. Predictably, Paraguay was defeated. But more devastating was the fact that two thirds of the male population of the country was killed in the war. The impact of this is felt even now and there is shortage of men., who have taken advantage of this situation. There are lot of children in Paraguay who don’t know their fathers.

This book won the National Book Award in 2004. The author Lily Tuck is an American who was born in Paris. She had lived for sometime in Uruguay. She has given a flavour of Paraguay in the novel and has given a lively portrayal of the historical characters. She has blended and contrasted the high society Parisian lifestyle with the laid back life in backward Paraguay. These are brought out in the exchange of correspondence between Ella from Paraguay and her friend princess Mathilde who lives in Paris. Buenos Aires also figures in the novel since it is the transit point to enter the landlocked Paraguay through the Rio de la Plata river. The Paraguayans in those days as well as now come to enjoy the parties and fashions of Buenos Aires, the Paris of Latin America.

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