The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, by Anne Enright

A baroque fandango in deepest Paraguay. Stevie Davies is overwhelmed, and unconvinced

Thursday 09 January 2014 03:18
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Anne Enright's third novel is a triumph of what may be called Creative Writing Baroque. It is an extravaganza on the theme of the Irish beauty, Eliza Lynch, who in the 1860s eloped to Paraguay as concubine of its fabulously rich heir, Francisco Lopez. From Europe they transport a luxury cargo (including Eliza herself, impregnated on page 1) in all her commodified luxuriance of flesh. The novel is an edible, audible, tactile, odorous fandango of exotica, which at once revels in and recoils from its sensual surfaces.

Despite epic claims, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch is a divertimento, and anyone who hopes to emerge clearer about the war into which Lopez and Lynch plunged Paraguay will be disappointed. Here, however, you will find a belly button imaged as "a pucker of silk" in an over-arching turquoise baldaquin; asparagus flung overboard to drop like "succulent spears" into the noxious soup of the river; you will smell "the awful honey" of a sailor's putrescing cadaver, and view the recidivist progress of Eliza's piano from Europe into the jungle, where its keys splay in a scattered smile: the rictus grin of the death's head that presides over this sumptuous fiction.

Creative Writing Baroque is a curious phenomenon. In inferior hands it presents style empty of substance; narrative intricacy without direction; craft without depth; contrived polyphony and perspectivism. In the hands of a stylist with the verve and originality of Anne Enright, however, the new Baroque achieves a stagy but controlled brilliance. Theatricality is a running theme in this world of resplendent but perishable surfaces: we know nothing of Eliza save that she, like the author, refuses the banalities of mundane life, taking refuge in finery.

What is underneath? Who knows? As in the original Baroque, emphasis is on the primacy of the startled viewer, and Eliza exists solely as legend. Delicacies in this novel are always sauced in corruption. Appetitive pleasure is close to nausea. For Eliza, like the other characters, is "meat", gaudily and perversely dressed. She exists at the existential join between golden aspiration and mortal folly; sex and death.

Time-scheme and perspective switch about perplexingly, and the novel recapitulates Eliza's voyage down the River Parana four times in mirthless scherzi. Her conspicuous consumption takes place in a wilderness of hungry peasants ruled by decaying Spanish patricians; she herself is consumed by tattle, envy and lust, in humid regions of decay.

The novel is self-consciously writerly rather than empathetic. Its surfaces rarely imply volume or mass. Enright's dazzling wit is unrelenting and her plenitude of effects mirrors its heroine's excesses. You can have too much of a good thing. When a child buried in a game comes up "like a carrot", or when Eliza is viewed in a mudscape, "her parasol glowing like a living membrane in the sun", the reader's astonished delight is moderated by the sheer excess of clever metaphor and simile.

Creative Writing Baroque derides the Ovidian motto that "Art conceals art". Its unstated maxim is that Art displays art. I came away from this extraordinary novel feeling that I had been (like the heroine) on a bizarre and elaborate hiding to nowhere, suffering from an acute case of synaesthesia.

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