When I see a book about a place I’m unlikely to travel to for sale, I usually buy it. I’m far more likely to read one about Madagascar than a book about Spain. A really good writer like Paul Theroux makes me feel like I’ve been where he has. In his 2013 travel book The Last Train to Zona Verde, for example, he painted an often horrifying picture of his visit to South Africa, Namibia, and Angola. John Gimlette, another fine travel writer, wrote Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge about his courageous exploration of Surinam, French Guiana, and Guyana. I loved it and now I don’t have to go to Jonestown, Paramaribo, etc.
Recently I came across another book by John Gimlette. I looked through At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, copyright 2003, read a bit, and put it back on the store’s shelf. It was just too weird. A bit later I wandered back, picked it up again, and a small, undated, personal card fell out. It read, “Hope to see you in South America! This book is kind of the National Inquirer version of Paraguayan history, but I though it might ignite your curiosity about Paraguay.” I was hooked. I’m just about to finish it. The book is without a doubt the strangest, most gasp-inducing book about a country I’ve ever read.
Just how weird is it? Coming back from errands today, Ruth asked me what I was writing about today and I said I was considering the book on Paraguay that I’ve been reading. I told her how bizarre it was and she asked for an example. I told her about the photo of the Aché woman beast-feeding a monkey. She said she had to see that. When I showed it to her, she gasped and said, “The woman is smiling!”
Here are a trio of things I learned about Paraguay as Gimlette told me about his journey to every part of this surreal country. The planned Dutch-style town of Puerto Casado was the capital of the world’s largest private property at one time. The Casados lived in Buenos Aires but owned 19,200 square miles of Paraguay. Gimlette explains that this is 3 times the size of Switzerland. Logs were pulped into tannin in the town’s quebracho factory, but in 1996 the Casados shut it down. When Gimlette visited Puerto Casado, “In the fountain were feral children, paddling in grey slime”. You would think the principal language of Paraguay would be Spanish. It’s not. It’s Guaraní. During one period of fascism, the chief of police of its capital city, Asunción, named his son Adolfo Hirohito.
John Gimlette seems like a rational man not given to exaggeration. There’s a considerable shock on every page of At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig. I’m looking for someone who knows Paraguay and has read it to tell me if it’s closer to fantasy or reality.