If you look up Paraguay on a map, like I had to, you will see that it is a country that is located in a most unfortunate spot: It is landlocked between the much larger countries of Brazil to the north and the east, Argentina to the south and Bolivia to the north-west. Earlier in its history, it also had Uruguay to the south to contend with. It is described without much appeal as a place of large swathes of swampland, subtropical forest and chaco that are wildernesses comprising savanna and scrubland and a host of hostile animal life. The country has always been defined by the rivers running through it – from the Río de la Plata that runs into the Atlantic between Uruguay and Argentina, to the Paraná River further north, and finally the Paraguay River that leads to the capital, Asunción, on its banks. For a small area it has extreme weather – a tropical to subtropical climate, with the absence of mountain ranges leading to extreme winds, and temperatures that can drop below freezing or alternatively get boiling hot in summer with a daily mean of 28.9ºC. The east of the country gets torrential rainfall, while the west has semi-arid conditions.
So much for the charms of the Republic of Paraguay. But bear with me. This story gets strange.
A history of dictators
Paraguay has had its share of dictators. (This is not always derogatory: The term dictatorship comes from the Latin title dictator, which in the Roman Republic designated a temporary magistrate who was granted extraordinary powers in order to deal with state crises.) One of them, Francisco Solano (FS) López, led the country into the worst war in its until then relatively quiet and isolated history. Depending on which source you are using, the Paraguayan War (1864–1870) led by FS López is depicted as either a high point of national pride and solidarity or as a disaster. It was, some say, the hubris of FS López that led to it – why else would the much smaller, less well equipped armed forces of totally surrounded Paraguay take on the much stronger, larger powers of Argentina and Brazil? It was like Canada inviting the USA to a fistfight. They could not win.
On 12 October 1864, Brazil, siding with the Argentine Government under General Bartolomé Mitre and the rebellious Uruguayan colorados led by Gen. Venancio Flores, a force called the Triple Alliance, invaded the Republic of Uruguay in order to overthrow the government, thus starting the Paraguayan War.
Apparently, these leaders did not like FS López, nor his mistress, nor his family, nor his politics. They thought Paraguay was a nothing, a mere patch of bog that did not deserve the status of republic. Yes, the three nations were greedy, but historians say that FS López could have given in and surrendered to save the people and the nation. He did not. Right from the start, the Uruguayan forces lost battle after battle, and after it was all over, they also lost large parts of the lands they were defending. Uruguay almost disappeared off the map of South America. Assessments differ greatly, but at the time of the war;
“…[the] normal estimate is that of a Paraguayan population of somewhere between 450,000 and 900,000, only 220,000 survived the war, of whom only 28,000 were adult males.”Wikipedia – The Paraguayan War
So, apart from death by enemy bullets, bombs, cannon balls, and swords, the Paraguayans also died from torture and execution at the hands of their own leaders, who got increasingly distrustful of them, and imprisonment, starvation and various tropical diseases that were rife in the chaco and the rivers. It was really, really bad. It lasted from 12 October 1864 to 1 March 1870, for 5 years, 4 months, 2 weeks and 3 days.
A very far away place
Bear in mind, these events took place in the latter half of the 19th century. News took a long time to reach other places. Travel was slow. Europe was many months of sea-travel away. People could still do all manner of outrageous power-hungry and self-enriching things without having the wrath of the rest of the world come down on them.
Into this backwater, where the Paraguayans quietly went about their simple lives, making do, minding their own business, consuming and exporting copious quantities of yerba mate, and staying out of the way of the much more powerful neighbouring regimes, Carlos Antonio López, the father of FS López, came to power in 1841. He was, judging by photos and portraits, an obese man, solitary by nature and none too attractive. But he minded the country and the people minded themselves. It was a case of letting sleeping dogs – the dictators of Brazil and Argentina around them – lie.
What could go wrong? you ask. Everything, apparently. When Carlos Antonio López died, his least disreputable and most capable son, FS López, took over the reins in 1862. He only ruled from 10 September 1862 to 1 March 1870, less than 8 years. He was 48 years old when he died.
He went speedily from someone who tried to fix the problems with the country’s infrastructure, services and economy, to a dictator with the title of maréchal (mariscal, marshall) who was solely responsible for the decision and drive to go into that terrible war.
He might have lost the plot, but he was not hated by his people. He still is not hated by his people centuries later.
Introducing Madame Eliza Lynch
And here is the clincher, dear readers, and why I am writing this. He is not hated, nor is his mistress, who was an Irish-born demimonde, courtesan, and socialite, fair-skinned and with blue eyes, called Eliza (also Elisa) Lynch.
She was born Eliza Alice – or Alicia – Lynch, in Cork, Ireland, on 19 November 1833. General López met her in 1854 in Paris, France, while he was in training with the Napoleonic army and making deals, and took her home to Paraguay that same year. She was by all accounts, very beautiful and charming. Before she got involved with FS López, she married a French officer, Xavier Quatrefages, when she was 18 years old. He was posted to Algeria, and she briefly joined him but then left him and went back to Paris and set herself up as a courtesan.
She was only 21 when she left with FS López to go to Paraguay. She did not speak Spanish, he did not speak much English or French. She became fluent in Spanish and Guaraní. His English improved somewhat.
It was the scandal of the century. Eliza Lynch was not kept hidden. She lived in one of the grandest houses in Asunción, was his lover, his confidante, his lobbyist, his advisor and his biggest supporter. She got very very wealthy in Paraguay and bore him five boys and a girl, and the children took his surname. (He also had other mistresses and children – consider for a moment that for most of the years they were together, Eliza was pregnant.) She took the title Madame and signed herself “E. F. Lynch Lopez”. She was, for all intents and purposes, the First Lady of Paraguay.
He died in the last days of “his war”, in battle, in mud, without her, and she buried his body with her own hands. And then she and her children were exiled and lived out the rest of her lonely, poverty-stricken life in Paris.
Then an exile, now a heroine
Never heard of her? Look her up, and you will see that Eliza Lynch died in obscurity in Paris on 25 July 1886, 16 years after SF López died. Over one hundred years later, her body was exhumed and brought back to Paraguay where the General Alfredo Stroessner proclaimed her a national heroine on 24 July 1961, and dedicated a monument to her where her remains are now located, in the national cemetery “Cementerio de la Recoleta” in Ascunción.
A story that is often retold
Fascinating, isn’t it? You can find any number of mistresses, lovers, consorts, and favourites who were the movers and shakers behind royals and rulers of countries. But in most cases, they were an accepted part of the foibles of rich and powerful, married men. But they were discreet, adding illegitimate children to the lines of descent and content to remain in the shadow of their powerful partners. Eliza Lynch was not in the shadow of her partner – they never married – in stead, she was a prominent figure who cast a shadow on others. In a country that was at the time both dangerous and backward, she flourished, right until the very last breath left the body of FS López.
The images of Eliza Lynch that are on record as being definitely her (above) are few and of poor quality. Certainly there does not exist a photo or painting of her and FS López together, or of them as a family with their children. I created the image in the header of this blogpost of the two of them together, with her looking sideways at him, very young and fair, dressed in the height of Parisian fashion, the way they could perhaps have been.
Three novels about Eliza Lynch
Eliza Lynch, much less famous than her husband, has become the subject of a surprising number of books. I quite understand the fascination that writers have with women like Queen Marie Antoinette of France, Cleopatra of Egypt, Empress Dowager Cixi of China, Empress Joséphine Bonaparte of France, etc. But this woman, and the mystery that still surrounds her, have been unusually popular with writers.
I own three novels about Eliza Lynch and FS López and that debacle of a war, and I have read each of them many times, each time finding something new and getting a new perspective:
- The Pleasure of Elisa Lynch, by Anne Enright (2002)
- The Shadows of Elisa Lynch, by Siân Rees (2003)
- The News from Paraguay, by Lily Tuck (2004)
These three are among nine novels (Biographical Historical Fiction) in English, written about her to date. Others include: Woman on Horseback, by William Edmund Barrett (1938), Madame Lynch and Friend, by Alyn Brodsky (1975), Demand the World, by Graham Shelby (1990), and The Empress of South America, by Nigel Cawthorne (2003). There are numerous other books about her in other languages.
Eliza Lynch, though vilified by society while she was alive, is now perceived by some to be on the same level of near sainthood as María Eva Duarte “Evita” de Perón, wife of Argentine President Juan Perón (1895–1974) and First Lady of Argentina. It seems that the people of South America like their presidents strong and iron-fisted, and their First Ladies tough, self-sacrificing and nationalistic.
The story of these two people could easily be recast into a soppy romance, a heart-rending tragedy or a selection of events curated to be as dramatic as possible. Some writers have done that. But if these three novels have anything in common it is that they have an acceptable level of factuality and realism.
Comparing three novels
The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch – Anne Enright
The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch is more about the inner life and relationships of Eliza Lynch than about FS López and the war. It starts with the most blush-inducing, erotic opening lines of any novel I have ever read. But it is about passion, eroticism and madness in the tropical heat of Paraguay. The epigraph reads: “This is the story of how she buried him with her own hands, on the slopes of the Cerro Corá.” That is a foreshadowing of the personal and extremely strange tragedy of Eliza Lynch that will follow.
“Anne Enright is a very original writer – a spry surrealist who challenges the world with extraordinary, lancing sentences.”Reviewer James Wood
At times the novel reads like a feverish dream, described in sharp, direct statements. At that time, being the kept mistress of a rich, powerful man was simply a reality of society – it might be seen as exploitative now, but in the 19th century that’s how people lived and how women without husbands sometimes got by.
The Shadows of Elisa Lynch – Siân Rees
The Shadows of Elisa Lynch is more Narrative Non-fiction than Fiction. Rees spells her name “Elisa” not “Eliza”. Though told in the third person, with an index, end notes and pages of illustrations, Siân Rees still recreates much of the story and gives her interpretation of the events leading up to the final battle. She takes the story all the way up to and after the dedication of the memorial to Eliza Lynch in 1961. She demonstrates her view that the mere existence of Eliza Lynch was a catalyst that changed the history of Paraguay and its neighbours. Whatever she got involved in, whoever she communicated with and influenced, changed events. She threw very long shadows.
“[Her monument] is little visited now. President Stroessner scuttled across the border to a millionaire’s exile in Brazil after a coup in 1989, and since then, military heroes and heroines have gone out of fashion. Paraguay, however, is a strange and restless country. Elisa Lynch may yet be elevated again, by some other soldier determined to be a great man of history.”The Shadows of Elisa Lynch, by Siân Rees, p. 318
The News from Paraguay – Lily Tuck
In The News From Paraguay, Lily Tuck focuses on the details of the Paraguayan War and the extreme suffering of the people. She has an interesting way of saying very little at times, ending a description with a brief few words and leaving the rest to the reader, and skipping between the extreme points of view of peasants conscripted to fight, people dragged into the war by accident, the president and Eliza, and the elite ensconced in the capital. At times she describes torture and death in such a detailed way that it is quite nauseating. The title of the book refers to the fact that the news of the day gave one view on what was going on, but the personal correspondence and reports of witnesses give a different view altogether. But while different points of view are expressed, the news from Paraguay not only travels slowly, it is mostly not good.
“Tuck’s knack for shaving a scene to its essence feeds the book’s speedy pace. And [when] linked, such snapshots build a portrait of a lost place and time.”San Francisco Chronicle review
Three different retellings of the same event
They say the quality of a person can be measured in how they die. In this case, it also illustrates the differences in writing style and stance between these three authors, all women.
Is it coincidental that they were all drawn to a woman who was very much out of step with her generation? Eliza Lynch was, on the one hand, an old-fashioned “kept woman”, perhaps greedy and on the make, on the other hand, she was also liberated, powerful, talented, smart and a very faithful, brave partner to FS López.
So, let’s have a look at the moment in the three books when FS López dies and Eliza Lynch has to bury him.
The Battle of Cerro Corá
The moment of death of FS López has become the stuff of myth and legend. There are many different versions of precisely what happened. But it is generally accepted that he died during the Battle of Cerro Corá (refer to the epigraph, quoted in Enright’s book, above), while the last of his army was in retreat. Eliza and her children followed FS López wherever he went during the war. López and Lynch’s eldest son, Juan Francisco, nicknamed “Panchito”, who had been promoted to the rank of Colonel by his father during the war and was fifteen years old, was with her in her carriage shortly before his father died. Brazilian officers surrounded their carriage told him to surrender. He replied “Un coronel paraguayo nunca se rinde” (a Paraguayan colonel never surrenders), and then he was fatally shot in front of his mother and siblings.
Francisco Solano López dies in the mud
Two Brazilian detachments had been sent in pursuit of FS López. During the final battle, he was separated from the remainder of his army and was accompanied by only his aide and a couple of officers. They got to a stream with the name of Aquidabangui, and there they deserted him. FS López’s horse (or mule, by other accounts) got stuck in the mud of the stream and could not move, and he himself was stuck in mud up to his waist. A general of the opposing forces called Câmara arrived, along with six soldiers, and approached him, calling on him to surrender and guaranteeing his life. López refused and was said to have shouted “¡Muero con mi patria!” (I die with my nation). It seems like father and son had the same patriotic spirit. He then tried to attack Câmara with his sword – some say he used his revolver. In the ensuing fight López was lanced through the stomach and shot, and he died there, in the mud.
In the following extracts from the three novels, in which these events are depicted, you will see differences in spelling (British English, American English and Spanish), specifics and tone.
The Shadows of Elisa Lynch – Subtle signs of anguish
Here you can see that Rees is quite straightforward and factual in her retelling, yet, small details add nuances and subtle emotion, for instance the word “lover”, rather than husband, the repeated references to dust that is red like blood, and the gesture of Elisa digging and smoothing the grave, as if she were lovingly preparing a bed.
The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch – Raw anger and grief
Enright’s novel starts with a raw sex scene and this final act is also raw and visceral. She does not dig with her hands or a shovel. After having kicked his corpse a few times to get rid of the gas inside it, she scrabbles the grave out with his knife, seemingly having one last disagreement with him, and delivering every stab with rage and grief. I like this incarnation of Eliza Lynch. It shows her pride, her toughness and her passion.
The News from Paraguay – Haunted by the past
Lily Tuck adds tenderness to this scene through the use of the nicknames “Ella” and “Franco”. She makes it more meaningful and poetic through the image of the parrots blocking out the sun, and also with the phrase “his body all of a sudden felt small and light”. It is a fact that at the time that FS López died, he had gained a lot of weight. He had trouble with his stomach during the war and, no doubt due to stress, drank and ate too much. That he suddenly seemed small and light to Ella is perhaps to indicate that not only was his heavy body gone, but also his overpowering leadership, his image as an unstoppable giant amongst men, and his intellectual dominance.
You can imagine that it must have been the worst thing imaginable for her to have to bury both her son and her husband at once, yet, Tuck does not mention that she weeps or loses her self-control.
Tuck also only places this scene right at the end of the novel, not during her retelling of the Battle of Cerro Corá. This is what Ella remembers, after she has already been back in Europe for many years and is living in poverty, all alone. As she ages (she was 52 years old when she died) her mind is starting to play tricks on her, and it is as if she were living in the past, or rather reliving it, seeing people who died in Paraguay from the window of her room in Paris. The last line in the book is: “Always, every day, as well, in Paris, she looked out of her window for Franco, only Ella never saw him again.” Can you imagine that? It is so sad.
Same event, different interpretations
These extracts demonstrate that, regardless of the subject, the characters, or the facts behind a story, every author of fiction or biographer expresses their voice differently through their choices of what to put in or leave out, what to emphasize and what to defocus, which metaphors to use and where, how to order events, etc. All the steps in the technical process of producing a novel combine to deliver an artistic output which is unique every time, due to the fact that it is the author – this particular author – who is talking directly to you, the reader.
Consider this every time you read a book; – behind the words on the page is a real person, a writer who has something to tell you, something they want you to know or experience. To be a reader and to accept that gift, and become part of the creative process of establishing the meaning of a story, is a privilege, a pleasure and a challenge.
The tricky business of writing about real people
The French writer Marguerite Yourcenar, author of the acclaimed Memoirs of Hadrian (originally Mémoires d’Hadrien), has a rather wonderful explanation for why writing about real people and real historical figures, especially when they died centuries ago, is so difficult, and why it always involves multiple perspectives.
She wrote this comment between 1937, when she dedicated herself to the writing of Mémoires d’Hadrien, a novel about the letters written by Roman emperor Caesar Traianus Hadrianus, and 1951, when it was published. Mémoires d’Hadrien was an immediate success, was – and still is – critically acclaimed, and put her on the path to be the first woman ever to be elected to the Académie Française. (Note that, at that time, male pronouns and titles were used but assumed to include female pronouns and titles.)
“In a sense, every life that is recounted is offered as an example; we write in order to attack or defend a view of the universe, and to set forth a system of conduct which is our own.
It is none the less true, however, that nearly every biographer disqualifies himself by over-idealizing his subject or by deliberate disparagement, by exaggerated stress on certain details or by cautious omission of others.
Thus a character is arbitrarily constructed, taking the place of the man to be understood and explained.
A human life cannot be graphed, whatever people may say, by two virtual perpendiculars, representing what a man believed himself to be and what he wished to be, plus a flat horizontal for what he actually was; rather, the diagram has to be composed of three curving lines, extended to infinity, ever meeting and never diverging.”
Source: Memoires of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar, Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian, p. 284 (Translated from the French by Grace Frick, in collaboration with the author, Penguin Books, 1986)