At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig

John Gimlette

Read February 2004

The cliches and taunts about Paraguay flow all too easily. It is a land of ruthless dictatorship, a land-locked country with nautical aspirations (not entirely ridiculous, if you look more closely at a map), a settling-ground for Nazis, an instigator or participant in monumentally pointless wars (including one that cost it well over half its adult males!), an occupant of a particularly forbidding geography, a remarkable conduit of smuggled goods. Its reluctant heroes include an Irish woman of no particular note, and its favorite American president is one of the most unremarkable of that species, Rutherford Hayes.

Gimlette's book is about all these things, and he's never one to squander an opportunity to take a swipe. He writes smoothly, almost too fluidly: sometimes his narrative gets tangled up in clever phrases, and events become rather hard to decipher. But the book is funny, intelligent, and informative in an almost backhanded way. You wouldn't read it for history, but you will not come away from it uninformed, either.

What it is, beyond the sniping and humor, is a deeply personal, emotional and passionate work. Gimlette visits Paraguay accidentally but falls in love the country. Paraguay is, however, the kind of nation that infuriates those who dare to squander their affections on it. This is, therefore, a love poem written in anger.

It is also a moving tale of attachment and distance. Some of the most remarkable narrative surrounds people long ways from home: Madame Lynch the Irishwoman, the various German settlers (from Nazis to Anabaptists, including Nietzsche's muddled sister) and the Australians. All yearn for a homeland different in geography, topology and custom, yet Gimlette doesn't hesitate to probe these feelings and find them often based on myth (“Germans”, for instance, who have never been to Europe and can't speak a word of the language). Paraguay, the destination of a varied group of drifters, also becomes their prison, the target of their unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. Gimlette is at his most dryly factual when presenting these people, and his restraint is effective: you can feel yourself inhabiting the desperate mind of ageing people thousands of miles from what they consider their rightful home, swept up in historical forces far greater than them but given no account of these forces. They hang on in quiet desperation.