The 2004 National Book Award fiction nominations were widely and ferociously criticized as all being obscure, short-winded works by women who lived in New York.* The winner, Lily Tuck’s novel The News From Paraguay, was derided as being tedious. I find this a particularly startling criticism and wonder if those who made it had looked at – let alone read – the book. Moreover, Tuck, who was 66 at the time, was far from being an insular New Yorker. She was born in Paris, grew up in German, Perú, and Uruguay, studied has been published as A Woman of Rome).
The book is something of a mosaic of third-person narrative, bits of journal of Ella Lynch, a blonde Irishwoman of 19 who is already a widow and who took up with Francisco Solano Lopez, the son of Paraguay’s dictator, after the Russian noble who was keeping her went off to fight in the Crimean War, and some letters (and draft letters) Ella wrote to Princess Mathilde back in Paris. The story of Ella being transplanted to Paraguay, bearing half a dozen children to the increasingly delusional and megalomaniacal Solano, not being accepted by his family, and losing all she had gained in his extremely ill-advised simultaneous war against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay may not be a smooth single narrative, but is not in my view “disjointed.”
The novel may not be sprawling, and is considerably shorter than Gone with the Wind (and far superior in the crafting of its sentences), but The News from Paraguay resembles GWTW in portraying epic defeat from a focus on a spoiled, selfish, but intrepid woman whose world is pulled out from under her. History happens to Ella Lynch, much as it happens to Scarlett O’Hara, though Ella Lynch is a real historical figure, not an authorial invention.
Ella is a selfish woman with no understanding of Paraguay: more Imelda Marcos than Eva Peron. As the mistress of a Latin American dictator she does not seem particularly greedy. She cares more about her piano and her horse Mathilde than about her children or the people of Paraguay, while her husband has more than a few delusions and more than a bit of temper and sadism (not least for his siblings who do not fare well).
The novel includes graphic violence and graphic sexual references. The sexual references are almost entirely to/from a male perspective, which may have made them more shocking to some readers in a novel written by a woman. There were a few that raised my eyebrows momentarily, accustomed as I am to reading about male sexual desire and conduct.
Neither Ella nor Francisco is a likable character nor are most of the supporting characters, though it is possible to feel sorry even for the leads as they retreat in 1870. (The Prussian fencing master and the dicator’s personal physician are fairly likable.)
Another rap against the book is its portrayal of the indigenous peoples of Paraguay as savage. I would respond to this by saying that the Hispanics (particularly the Solano family) are portrayed as far more vicious. Moreover, the customary violence is no greater than in books by writers born in Perú such as Daniel Alarcón’s Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight, let alone Mario Vagras Llosa’s Death in the Andes. Nor is the arrogance of Francisco Solano Lopez any greater than that of other dictators and would-be dictators. For instance, see Vargas Llosa’s 2000 novel set in the Dominican Republic circa 1961, The Feast of the Goat, with another delusional Latin American dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo who, like Solano Lopez believed he was doing much to modernize the country he plundered.
The cross-cultural misunderstandings seem very plausible to me, and whether or not the novel deserved the NBA, I think it is a brisk and very skillfully written historical novel that is (thankfully) not padded with pages of exoticizing description (though the difference of landscape, flora, and fauna as perceived by Ella is deftly sketched by Tuck).
Tuck, who had never been to Paraguay (though her childhood included some time in neighboring Uruguay) said: “I feel certain that living in other countries has given me a different perspective as a writer. It has heightened my sense of dislocation and rootlessness. One of my favorite quotes is from the poet, Paul Celan, who writes: ‘In the air, that’s where you roots are, over there, in the air.’ I think this feeling is reflected in my characters: most of them women, whose lives are changed by either a physical displacement or a loss of some kind. In addition, I like to write about places that people might not know a lot about as that, too, adds an element of strangeness and menace to the story.” (The metropolitan New York and Paris locales of her first novel, Interviewing Matisse of the Woman Who Died Standing Up (1991) did not provide that, nor did it have a plot, which News From Paraguay sees to have been the only one of the 2004 NBA fiction nominees to have had. It had female characters, for sure.)
* Kate Walbert’s Our Kind, subtitled “A Novel in Stories,” and Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, subtitled “A Ring of Stories”; Lily Tuck’s The News from Paraguay, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping, and Christine Schutt’s Florida. Rock Moody was blamed for picking books with a “short story aesthetic.” Though Tuck had published a collection of short stories, and The News from Paraguay comes in small chunks, I don’t think it embodies a “short story aesthetic,” and, indeed, is a sort of epic, albeit focused more on a woman than on men in battle. (Moreover, Ella applies the fencing lessons she was taken…)