The year is l854. In Paris, Francisco Solano the future dictator of Paraguay begins his courtship of the young, beautiful Irish courtesan Ella Lynch with a poncho, a Paraguayan band, and ahorse named Mathilde. Ella follows Franco to Asunción and reigns there as his mistress. Isolated and estranged in this new world, she embraces her lover's ill-fated imperial dream one fueled by a heedless arrogance that will devastate all of Paraguay.With the urgency of the narrative, rich and intimate detail, and a wealth of skillfully layered characters, The News from Paraguay recalls the epic novels of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.
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About the Author
Born in Paris, LILY TUCK is the author of four previous novels: Interviewing Matisse, or the Woman Who Died Standing Up; The Woman Who Walked on Water; Siam, or the Woman Who Shot a Man, which was nominated for the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction; and The News from Paraguay, winner of theNational Book Award. She is also the author of the biography Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker and are collected in Limbo and Other Places I Have Lived. Lily Tuck divides her time between Maine and New York City.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:October 10, 1939
Place of Birth:Paris, France
Education:B.A., Radcliffe (Harvard); M.A., Sorbonne, Paris
Read an Excerpt
The News from Paraguay
By Tuck, Lily
HarperCollins PublishersISBN: 0066209447
For him it began with a feather. A bright blue parrot feather that fell out of Ella Lynch's hat while she was horseback riding one afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne. Blond, fair-skinned and Irish, Ella was a good rider -- the kind of natural rider who rides with her ass, not her legs -- and she was riding astride on a nervous little gray thoroughbred mare. Cantering a few paces behind Ella and her companion, Francisco Solano Lopez was also a good rider -- albeit a different sort of rider. He rode from strength, the strength in his arms, the strength in his thighs. Also he liked to ride big horses, horses that measured over sixteen, seventeen hands; at home, he often rode a big sure-footed cantankerous brown mule. Pulling up on the reins and getting off his horse, his heavy silver spurs clanging, Franco -- as Francisco Solano Lopez was known -- picked the feather up from the ground; it briefly occurred to him that Inocencia, his fat sister, would know what kind of parrot feather it was, for she kept hundreds of parrots in her aviary in Asunción, but it was Ella and not the feather that had caught Franco's attention.
The year was 1854 and the forty miles of bridle paths and carriage roads were filled with elegant calèches, daumonts, phaetons; every afternoon, weather permitting, Empress Eugénie could be seen driving with her equerry. Every afternoon too, Empress Eugénie, in fashion obsessed Paris, could be seen wearing a different dress, a dress of a different color: Crimean green, Sebastopol blue, Bismarck brown.The Bois de Boulogne had recently been transformed from a ruined forest into an elegant English park.
Sent as ambassador-at-large to Europe by his father, twenty-six-year old Franco was dressed in a field marshal's uniform modeled on Napoleon's, only his jacket was green -- Paraguayan green. He was short, stocky -- not yet grown stout nor had his back teeth begun to trouble him -- and his thick eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead like a black stripe but he was not unattractive. He was self-confident, naïve, ambitious, energetic, spoilt -- never had anything, except once one thing, been denied him -- and he was possessed of an immense fortune. Franco put the feather in his pocket and mounted his horse again. He caught up with Ella easily and followed her home.
At age ten, Eliza Alicia Lynch had left Ireland; at fifteen, Elisa Alice Lynch married a French army officer; at nineteen, divorced and living with a handsome but impecunious Russian count, Ella Lynch needed to reinvent herself.
14 March 1854
A lovely afternoon! I rode the little mare again in the Bois with Dimitri. [Ella wrote in her diary that evening.] Each day I grow fonder of her -- her mouth is as soft as silk and a touch of the rein is sufficient. Her canter puts me in mind of sitting in a rocking chair! But how can I possibly afford to buy a horse? Already I owe John Worth a fortune! Oh, how I loathe worrying about money all the time! Money and servants both! When I returned home and was changing my clothes, I once again had to listen to Marie complain about Pierre whom she accuses of drinking my wine and who knows what other thefts -- servants are addicted to their tales of intrigue and to their jealousies! Also, Marie's chatter nearly made me late -- today was the opening of the Salon! However, as it turned out, I was fortunate. The President of the Jury himself, the Count of Morny, was the first person I met and he took me by the arm and recounted how the day before, his half brother, the Emperor, had gone through all the galleries never once stopping, never once glancing at the paintings, until he arrived at the last gallery -- the least important gallery, the gallery filled with the most mediocre paintings -- and then the Emperor, out of duty, the count supposes, stopped in front of a hideous picture of the Alps -- the Alps looking exactly like a stack of bread loaves! -- and after staring at it for a good five minutes, the Emperor turned to the poor count and said: "The painter should have indicated the relative heights." I could hardly contain myself and laughed until tears streamed down my cheeks! Rain was falling when finally I left the exhibition to go to supper and of course in my haste I had forgotten to bring an umbrella but, as luck would have it, a gentleman smoking a foul-smelling cigar was standing at the door and he offered me his.
From Paraguay, Franco had brought with him crates of oranges and tobacco. On board ship, the oranges started to rot, the sailors squeezed them and drank the juice; the tobacco fared better. The tobacco (the Paraguayan leaves are allowed to mature on the stem and, as a result, contain more nicotine) beat out the Cuban entry and was awarded a first-class medal at the Paris Exhibition; the citation read, Very good collection of leaves, especially suitable for cigars. In addition to the tobacco, Franco had brought dozens of ponchos as gifts; the ponchos were made from a vegetable silk called samahu whose softness was much admired. After he followed Ella home, he had one of the ponchos delivered to her house on rue du Bac with his card.
Pierre, Ella's valet de chambre, put Francisco Solano Lopez's card on top of the other cards on the silver tray on the table in the front hall of the house on rue du Bac; then he gave the package with the poncho in it to Marie, the maid. The poncho was badly wrapped in brown paper and, curious, Marie opened it. Also, the package smelled strange. Like tea. The color of red soil, the poncho, although soft and no doubt warm, did not look like the clothes Ella usually wore -- her fur stole, her velvet cloaks and paisley cashmere shawls ...
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Reading Group Guide
Winner of the 2004 National Book Award, The News from Paraguay is the lush, engaging fictionalization of Paraguay's real-life nineteenth-century dictator Francisco Solano Lopez and his Irish mistress Ella Lynch.
Leaving her beloved Paris, the cultured, ever-curious Ella embraces the powerful love between herself and Franco and everything that comes with it: the hope and promise of a rising country, five sons, an evolving culture, a place in history, a brutal, unwinnable war, devastation, and loss to its inevitable tragic conclusion.
Questions for Discussion
- How does the sexuality in the book mirror the story of Franco and Paraguay's development? What are some of the ways in which the romantic love between Ella and Franco reflect the story of Lopez the dictator and his quest to dominate South America? What about the later sexual encounters in the book? In what way do they symbolize the realities of Franco's war and the demise of his authority and country?
- Even as a mistress, Ella is a powerful and commanding presence in Paraguay's domestic and military affairs. Where does she figure in the pantheon of "the women behind the men?" (Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Peron.) Are there common qualities that seem to exist in them? If so, what are they? Why are women of powerful men so fascinating? In what ways is she more powerful than Franco?
- It seems as though Ella loves her mare Mathilde more than Franco, more than any country she may call home, more than her children. What purpose does the horse serve in her life? Is there some tenderness or vulnerability she can only express to an animal? How do the other animals in the book reveal something of their owner?
- Ella and Franco are both complex people, at turns affectionate and happy, at turns greedy and brutal. What are some examples of Ella and Franco at their best? Their worst? Are they essentially good people?
- Life is surprisingly tenuous and violent in the wild, undeveloped Paraguay of the 1800s. Ella's baby girl dies of crib death and another baby boy dies after being born premature, the bloody amputation of Marie's arm which results in her death, the self-induced abortion of Dona Dolores, the thousands of deaths in the war, many by starvation and disease, the raping of young Guarani girls that take place in Inocencia's former bed. Did you find the violence in the book shocking, and how does this affect Ella?
- Ella adapts well to Paris from Ireland, to Paraguay, to new languages, new people. Franco, on the other hand, does not adapt well to change and does not ultimately survive. Why? Discuss why Franco does not alter his plans for the country and the war when things start to go badly.
- Has Ella's character changed by the time she has returned to Paris and is living in poverty? When she sits in her room and sees the ghosts from her past, is she satisfied with the life she has had or are the visions of people from her past an indication that she is haunted by memories, disturbed by regrets?
- At the end of his life, has Franco gone crazy or is he merely seeing to the very end his thwarted, insatiable ambition?
About the Author
Lily Tuck was born in Paris and grew up in Peru and Uruguay. She has written three previous novels: Interviewing Matisse, The Woman Who Walked on Water, and the 2000 PEN/Faulkner finalist Siam. She has also written a collection of short stories called Limbo, and Other Places I Have Lived. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, the Paris Review and the Antioch Review. She has three sons and lives in New York City and Maine.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was a pleasure to read. If you enjoy reading historical novels, based on actual events, I highly recommend it.
Reviewers have compared this to novels by garcia marquez and vargas llosa, but i don't think the writers have much in common besides their subject matter - central and south america. depicting imperial ambition and human tragedy, the prose is sparse yet powerful when addressing the numerous atrocities committed by the paraguayan dictator in his misguided and disastrous war against his neighbors. kind of dragged on while i was reading it, but now that it's finnished, it's definitely something that stays with you. very realistic in the way it moves in and out of the lives of so many people, providing vivid vignettes that coalesce into paraguay itself, which in turn is connected to a broader, global picture through epistolary and ideological links to distant paris.
I agree that the novel seemed more about Paraguay and less about exploring the characters. It seemed to skim over the characters' lives. It was a bit of a dirty book, and I felt sometimes as if I had to look over my should to make sure no one was catching me reading it. :) I read it a couple times and then gave it away.
Just finished this book a few minutes ago, so these are the off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. This book won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2004, and I can see why. It's very well written with short but vivid chapters; very action-packed, and evocative of a time and place most people know nothing about. It was fascinating. But, heavens, it was horrifying. As JMT mentioned, it's about a Paraguayan dictator who declared war on Brazil and other neighboring countries. War is never pretty, and Tuck certainly doesn't try to glorify it in any way. She shows just how awful it was, and in the Paraguayans' case, it was horrendous; before the war, the country had over a million citizens. After the war, less than 200,000. But it wasn't the large scale annihilation that got to me, it was the small acts of cruelty. The unnecessary evil. The baseness to which humans descend. I like to think that people, on the whole, are good and kind by nature. Stories like this one make me question that basic philosophy.All said, I think this was a very good book and one I'm glad I read. Even if I did find it troubling.