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The News From Paraguay: Lily Tuck's Epic Love-War Story Wins the 2004 National Book Award


It is Paris 1854 and Ella Lynch, a broke and beautiful courtesan, decides to take-up with the dashing and wealthy Francisco Solano—the future dictator of Paraguay—and move to his isolated country to become his mistress. Taking with her a servant, her possessions and a horse called Mathilde, she reports the news in letters back to Paris of her experiences in an exotic new world of isolation and adventure, power and wealth, fraught with harrowing challenges of war, disease, and her own spiral into her husband's cruel ambition.


January 21, 2005

The News From Paraguay is winner of the 2004 National Book Award. Book groups will find this a surprising, imaginative and challenging read, providing rich opportunities for discussion. It is a portrait of dictatorship as told from one beautiful woman, wife and mother.

Successful historical fiction is a genre of literature that facinates. We are transported to another time and place while reading; only later we attempt to tease out of each novel the bases of fact and distinguish between the real individuals and events and the imagined characters and story elements which are the author's creations.

The author's note (back of book) tells us of the collected letters, journal entries, memoirs and texts Tuck used to research her account. These were written by men and their families who lived in Paraguay during the period: diplomats, generals, men of industry or science.  "Whatever seems most improbable" she adds, "is probably true."

Which thread of history is the author holding up for us to see? What aspects can we compare to today?  Are the characters believable, do they transport us to the appropriate time and place? Historical fiction brings textbook chapters alive from library archives or private collections. How does it stand up to past novels that captured the essence of human condition?

Compare Dostoevsky's The Possessed, published in 1871 which tells the story of a small terrorist cell led by the charismatic Stavrogin and the malicious trickster Verkovensky, who take over a small Russian town, enlist the support of gullible and self-hating liberals to set-off a fire-raising rampage that leaves buildings burned, innocents dead.  It captures the essence of revolutionary politic and use of terror to the extreme of nihilism.

Conrad's The Secret Agent, published in 1907 likewise responded to anarchistic terrorist incidents in London and Paris in the 1890's as told through the story of his "Professor"—a demonic suicide bomber who straps himself with dynamite for the sake of "breaking up the superstition and worship of legality" in society around him who ultimately seeks self-agrandisement in his death wish.

The News from Paraguay is a novel which captures the megalomaniacal decent of a dictator willing to sacrifice every last life of his citizens for the sake of his Imperialist dream.  It brings to mind every modern dictator—and that is the power behind Tuck's accomplishment.

Tuck's focus on the Argentine war centers around the perspective of Ella Lynch, a woman of beauty and ambition whose weakness is the denial or lack of insight into her husband's folly, revealing her own Machiavelian greed. She represents the weak individuals and society rallying behind Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Ceausescu, Pinochet or, (fill in the blank). 

Her alliance with Francisco Solano is portrayed as a calculated move to ensure financial security and procure international status in an era when money, power and title are everything to members of the elite salons and circles of Paris.

Lily engenders Ella's alure and passion believably through nuanced details of her equestrian forté, her fiesty embrace of fencing, her endurance of vicissitudes in her adopted country amidst family back-biting and lonliness, ensuring a steady production of heirs despite any official status. 

Her bedroom duties are administered like a narcotic fix to intoxicate Franco, whose lust is fueled by his ambition and power. Tuck's insertion of the sexual proclivities of fleeting as well as major characters, succeeds as metaphor to portray the various decline of morality in the face of war. Life and sex devolve from consensual to brutal. We are not spared horrors of war.

Readers lured by the romanitc plot line provided by simplistic reviewers would also describe Animal Farm as a children's story instead of an attack on totalitarian regimes, as Orwell stated, "Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole."

Intermittent respite from cruelty comes through Tuck's attention to detail in recreating an exotic country's customs, flora and fauna; the indiginous peoples and their way of life. Her blend of fact with fiction explores corruption, love, power and the devastations of an ill-fated war in the 19th century of Imperial Paraguay.

About the Author

Lily Tuck was born in Paris, she is the author of three previous novels:

The latter was nominated for the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, and are collected in Limbo, Or, Other Places I Have Lived, (2001). She divides her time between Maine and New York City.

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