Book review: At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig

Titles like these grab your attention, but the subject matter hooks you in. John Gimlette’s brilliantly hilarious part-travel commentary, part-history book about the overlooked country of Paraguay. The South American nation was plagued by a series of inept/corrupt and despotic leaders and wars, and the ramifications were evident throughout his travels. Thus, Gimlette naturally had to check it out. Before he left, he obviously did the research, which, given a noticeable and historical lack of interest in the sleepy country, was an accomplishment in its own right. What followed was a rollicking good time as a reader, and for him personally, a long journey stretched over many years that finally ended at last.

Nestled between Bolivia (to the northwest), northern neighbors Brazil, and north of Uruguay and Argentina, one can be forgiven if Paraguay doesn’t ring any bells. As Gimlette proved, you really don’t have reason to know about it. While his experiences would lead you to believe Paraguay is a mad, mad country full of overwhelming cynicism, it still remains the quirky functioning country it seemingly was destined to be. Tensions between Paraguayans of European decent and the Indians are minimal, thanks to the country’s history coupled with longstanding policies of integration. Over the course of his travels, which were spread out over many years, he made sure to honor the history of the indigenous populace by paying visits to their former stomping grounds.

The country’s isolation contributed to scattered communities, in no order, of Australians, Germans, Frenchmen, and Mennonites. Naturally, Gimlette explored all of these communities. Given the infamous and deranged former president Francisco Solano Lopez’s delusions of grandeur, many British military and engineering contractors were hired. While the majority left (or died/were killed in his futile war), some settled in the country. Consequently, there’s a small community of Anglo-Paraguayans, albeit one whose collective English has gone by the wayside. Colonies such as Nueva Germania and Nueva Australia were settled primarily for the available land and the isolation; the Paraguayan Dream portrayed here is the opportunity to do a complete 360 turn on one’s life. On the topic of the Germanic settlers, there is/was a huge distinction between these German settlers and the former Nazis. Plenty of Germans, primarily Mennonites, saw South America’s least known country as a literal ground zero. However, during his stint in the country, Gimlette attempted to track the remains of Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor. Ultimately, it was a futile attempt on a well-beaten track, but it provided for an interesting little quest. In line with the overall book, it gave the author and the reader a chance to further explore the plucky Paraguayan psyche.

Under the guise of travel commentary, history lessons were doled out. The devastating War of the Triple Alliance (in which Paraguay lost a staggering 90 percent of its male population) and one Miss Eliza Lynch were two recurring themes. They are linked, as it turns out. The latter was the lover of President Lopez, and she may have provoked him to starting the war with Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Given the noticeable lack of literature on Paraguay, Gimlette’s investigation into key sites of the war were a fresh breath of air.

John Gimlette did a fantastic job of encapsulating the sometimes tragic history of one of South America’s lesser known countries with his humor. It is telling that Paraguayans themselves hardly travel within their own massive borders, so the book definitely is bringing a rich, interesting history into the spotlight for both foreigners and natives alike. At times, I felt bad for laughing at his observations, but his wit was razor sharp. It summarily made an under reported territory feel like home, and for that alone, I would recommend this book. Honestly, the more I read this book, the more I want to book a flight to Paraguay!

(Alas, no inflatable pigs were discovered.)

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