He is rich and ambitious, the successor to a South American dictatorship. She is a young divorcee in the high society of 19th-century Paris: beautiful, sophisticated and penniless. It is only a matter of time before Franco’s courtship, generosity and financial stability reaches fertile soil: Ella follows him to Paraguay.
Lily Tuck, best known for her book “Siam,” collects their little-known story in the 2004 novel “The News from Paraguay.” After the straining trip from Paris to Asunción, Franco and Ella set up in the capital. While he climbs into his father seat and starts ruling the country, Ella uses her charm to get accepted as Franco’s courtesan. Their rein is short-lived, though: The war that hits Paraguay in 1864 will wrack the country and their lives.
Paraguay takes life with Tuck’s rich and vivid descriptions. Luxuriant, sensual and dangerous, it’s the archetypal exotic setting for a tale, a trip through bursting jungles, malarial swamps, crocodile infested rivers and cities that grow under the supervision of foreign architects and then fold during the War of the Triple Alliance.
History provides the blueprint of “The News from Paraguay,” but Tuck blurs the boundaries between truth and imagination. Francisco Solano Lopez was, in fact, the dictator of Paraguay in 1862, and his imperialistic vision dragged the country into a hopeless war with its neighbors. Ella Lynch was his Irish mistress, charming, elegant and influential in his partner’s political affairs. However, Tuck avoids any political theme. Historical occurrences are decontextualized and merely fall upon the protagonists. Our anti-heroes navigate through a sea of events surrendering the ability—or the illusion—to stir the boat, a rather unusual depiction of countries’ leaders.
As in traditional tales, the characters are one-dimensional and unrealistic: Franco’s sisters are fat versions of Cinderella’s stepsisters, picking on Ella out of jealousy and indifferent to the country’s political dynamics. Franco, manly and selfish, never shows the charisma to lead a nation into a suicidal war. Even Ella, the heroine, is feminine, cultured, spoiled and ultimately unconcerned with her children, the political affairs, the death and misery of her acquaintances or the atrocity of the war. The circumstances do not enrich her, nor do they shape her thoughts.
Most importantly, she never becomes crucial to the plot, like any of the characters in the book. The story would have unfolded with or without their participation. Yet each has his or her mini-saga brought to fulfillment. From the ruling family’s members and servants to U.S. ministers and farmers turned soldiers, no character is minute enough to be left behind. However, none of them is grand enough to be crucial to the plot. Nobody is necessary, but nobody is unimportant either.
Unlike traditional tales, though, this story does not have a happy ending. Paraguay is devastated, its population decimated, its high society tortured and eradicated. Tuck’s agile prose dances through the war with a cold and unempathetic eye. Distant and unemotional, she flows through torture and rape, famine and epidemics and all manner of hopelessness with a vexing aura of normality and inevitability. Frustrated, the reader searches for a lesson—what could have changed that?—to find none. You close your book and are left with the unfamiliar frustration of not taking anything with you, like it was all a waste of time. It is a tale without a moral.
“The News from Paraguay” was both obscure to the public and controversial in the industry. It won the prestigious National Book Award in 2004, but it was largely unpopular among book lovers and reviewers. Readers loathe Tuck’s narrative as much as they reject the dispassionate eye that history lays on them. They refuse the idea of having no power to shape the world. We naturally turn against our insignificance. But maybe we need something unsatisfying that frustrates us. Something that makes our hearts rebel. Something that reawakens the need to leave our marks and shape our future.