At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, by John Gimlette

Utopian experiments and terrible dictators

Toby Green
Wednesday 12 February 2003 01:00

The European world-view has often struggled with Latin American reality. Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519 with orders to search for beings with dog-like faces; in 1590, a unicorn was "sighted" in Florida. With European settlers living partly in their imaginations, the Spanish banned novels in the New World.

Paraguay appears especially strange. Home to utopian experiments and terrible dictators, it has also sheltered Nazis. However, as John Gimlette writes, this litany of weirdness makes approaching it through fiction a difficult task. His book uses a travel-based narrative instead, though it is a historical voyage as well.

Gimlette portrays the 19th-century caudillo, Francisco Lopez, and his descent into madness during the war he waged against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay – which almost destroyed Paraguay. Interwoven with this are accounts of Lopez's Irish courtesan Eliza Lynch, the exploits of Jesuits, Mennonites and Nazis and the more recent power struggles between Hugo Stroessner – a modern Lopez – and his successors.

While this is great material, Gimlette fails to transcend his preconceptions. His heroes are Australian, British, German. In Asuncion, he hobnobs with descendants of these immigrants, and the reader wonders why there are so few Paraguayans in the book. This failure to engage emerges when the author wonders why he cannot "interpret the Paraguayan reserve... the absence of rage". He appears not to have considered the emotional implications of colonialism, or the Paraguayan reverence for "whiteness" and "blondness" in a country where everyone has Indian ancestry.

These limitations are sharpest when Gimlette turns to utopias, which he detests. The famous 18th-century Jesuit missions are dismissed as having stifled initiative among the Guarani Indians, preventing them from becoming leaders.

It is unclear how the forced labour and premature death that Indians endured elsewhere under the Spanish fostered initiative or leadership. Whatever one makes of the Jesuit missions, where the experiment took root, as Philip Caraman wrote, "an aboriginal population and culture were preserved; where it was cut short, as in Patagonia and the Chaco, whole tribes were exterminated". The same goes for Chiapas and Michoacan: these states, which have the largest Indian populations in Mexico today, were also sites of colonial utopian experiments.

None of this deters Gimlette, but his historical grasp is limited. Referring to Cabeza de Vaca's walk from Florida to Mexico in the 1530s, he locates it in Argentina. Though he is rightly appalled by Lopez's monomania, he draws no links between Lopez's obsession with empire-building and Paraguay's Hispanic heritage, nor between the fact that it was this imperial ambition that led to the virtual destruction of the Paraguayan people, whereas the Jesuit missions had earlier preserved them.

Travel writing has recently tended towards historical exegesis. While this has opened up interesting territory, it also means that a book's merit rests on its research. A lasting account of Paraguay for the 21st century remains to be written.

The reviewer is writing a book on utopias, based on colonial Michoacan

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