"The News from Paraguay"
(reviewed by Sebastian Fernandez JUL 24, 2004)
"Franco was unanimously elected Gefe Supremo y General de los Ejercitos de la Republica del Paraguay by the ninety-two deputies who were too afraid to speak out and vote against him. His first official act was to put his younger brother, Don Benigno Lopez, along with Padre Fidel Maiz and Chief Justice Pedro Lescano, on trial for conspiring against him. Padre Maiz was sent to prison; Chief Justice Pedro Lescano was tortured to death; and Benigno, the one who fared best among them, was banished to his estancia in the north."
The selected quote is a perfect example of the personality and actions of one of the most relevant figures in South America during the second half of the nineteenth century. Lily Tuck presents this interesting character focusing the story and developing the action around Franco's mistress, Ella Lynch. La Ella, as she was called by the locals, had an importance and notoriety similar to the one achieved by Eva Peron in Argentina. These elements make the novel extremely attractive to those that have studied South American history or are interested in doing so, since the author collected as much historical evidence as she could and filled in the voids with clever fiction based on these facts.
The narration consists of a mixture of usually short passages from different sources. On one side, we find snippets of Ella's personal diary and letters. Then, there are sections describing events that took place during that time with accuracy and efficiency. Finally, some parts show scenes among the different characters, bringing the story nicely to life. The author claims that she "…tried to keep to historical facts and events when I find them important and necessary," and one can certainly guess which parts are facts and which are fiction. However, the whole account seems to be based on fact, which in my opinion is no small achievement.
Franco's father sent him to Europe in the year 1854 as an ambassador, and in France he met and was mesmerized by Ella. She was nineteen years old and already a widow, but had so much life and desire to live that she could charm any man and surmount any obstacle. Her personal diary shows this vitality, and when the years go by, we witness the slow withering of her passion and feistiness. The section of the novel set in Paris serves as a good depiction of the clash of cultures between the South Americans and the Europeans, with clear examples being the yerba mate versus wine or the way to seduce and make love in each of the civilizations. From the start, we also see Franco's feistiness, which differs with Ella's in one very important aspect: while hers was positive and good-natured, his was capricious and envious.
There were some things to which Ella was used to and could not live without, like having a maid or getting the mare she wanted to ride. That is why, when her lover, who was providing her with the means necessary for her survival, was summoned to the army to go to the Crimean front, she had to find a way to survive and keep her living standards. This is when Francisco Solano Lopez came in, handed her the money she needed, the mare she wanted, and swept her of her feet taking her with him to Paraguay. This is about the only time in the story in which we can observe a positive desire in Franco; he wanted to make Paraguay a better place, resembling France in some cultural aspects. However, the real Franco surfaced fast enough, when during the trip home his temper showed up uninvited and the poor servants and underlings suffered the consequences. At about the same time this started to happen, Ella got pregnant with her first son, in what would be the first of many pregnancies.
Other interesting descriptions found in this novel have to do with many characteristic traits of Argentina and the Banda Oriental, what is known today as Uruguay. Tuck presents gauchos, estancias and asado with colorful depictions that no doubt will interest most readers. For those of you that want to know more about the culture reigning in that era and the way people behaved then, I suggest that if you understand Spanish you read Martin Fierro by Jose Hernandez, one of the classics of Latin American literature.
Upon his arrival to Paraguay, Franco started experiencing an urge for power that was fulfilled in part by the death of his father and his appointment as new dictator. Nevertheless, this did not quench his thirst as he wanted to emulate Napoleon's imperialism, even going as far as to ask the Emperor of Brazil for the hand of his daughter. This desire to dominate larger empires led him to confrontations with other countries, which ended with one of the biggest wars in the history of Paraguay, what was called as the war of the Triple Alianza. Although this war was not entirely Francisco Solano Lopez's fault as the narration leads us to believe, his arrogant and pushy behavior gave the other three countries, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay and excuse to exterminate most of the Paraguayan population.
I wish I had had books in my childhood narrating history the way this one does. The characters come to life and their motivations are easy to understand, making all the historical facts that result from their actions completely logical too. Even though I was born in Uruguay and lived there a good part of my life, I found stories here that helped me understand situations that I did not fully comprehend before. With the exception of the reasons behind the war of the Triple Alianza, this is a highly recommended read.
- Amazon readers rating: from 44 reviews
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"The Woman Who Walked on Water"
(reviewed by Judi Clark DEC 16, 1998)
The narrator meets Adele at a resort in the Caribbean. Adele is easy to notice from the restaurant table since everyday she swims so far out with her three golden retrievers that anyone watching her can't see her anymore. And then she returns with more energy than the poor loyal dogs. The narrator learns of Adele's trip to India and her dedication to her guru and how she left her wealthy Connecticut home and family.
The story is told very gently, weaving the present with the past and the time on the beach. This novel is elegantly simple and profound. It's one that I will keep in my collection to re-read and to ponder the Zen-like paradox.
Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Interviewing Matisse, or the Woman Who Died Standing Up (1991)
- The Woman Who Walked on Water (1996)
- Siam Or the Woman Who Shot a Man (1999)
- Limbo, and Other Places I Have Lived (2002)
- The News From Paraguay (2004)
- I Married You for Happiness (2011)
- The House at Belle Fontaine: Stories (April 2013)
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- Salon magazine review of The Woman Who Walked on Water
- Thoughts from one person who read this book!
- The New York Times review of Siam
- The New York Times Chapter 1 of Siam
- Chapter Excerpt from Limbo, and Other Places
- Reading Guide for The News from Paraguay
- MostlyFiction.com review of I Married You For Happiness
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About the Author:
Lily Tuck Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, and are collected in Limbo, or Other Places I Have Lived. She divides her time between Maine and New York City. SIAM Or The Woman Who Shot A Man was nominated for the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Her novel The News from Paraguay won the 2004 National Book Award.