John Gimlette, the award-winning travel writer and author of four books, was the winner of the Spectator/ Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing in 1997. The judges of that year, which included Sebastian Faulks, were unanimous in their choice.
Pink pigs in Paraguay
ALL THAT summer Asuncion had been gripped by a good murder. The body of a 14-year-old boy, horribly mutilated by a blow-torch, had been discovered in a wealthy suburb. The details of the story were never clear, but the press had shown a maddening indifference to the whole affair, doubtless on General Stroessner’s instructions. Perhaps his German priggishness had got the better of him or, more likely, he didn’t want his Paraguayans to speculate on the possibility that his police did not in fact have eyes and ears in every home. Starved of details by their caudillo, the citizens drank up the trickle of gossip that collected downtown and, suffocated by the heat, made themselves giddy with fantastic tales, each more grotesque than the last.
`They say he’s someone in the government, a sadist,’ I was told by a friend, Reynaldo. He was a few years older than me and already a beguiling student, but he seemed to delight in our meetings at the Shakespeare, feasting on my most mawkish tales from England. His paternal grandfather, he explained, had been a British railway engineer and his maternal grandfather had distinguished himself in the Chaco war in the 1930s. Although he had never been outside Paraguay, he affected a familiarity with England and nourished a fondness for El Pub Ingles. ‘Apparently, he tortured the boy with a blow-torch for hours before strangling him.’
`Yes,’ agreed his pretty Guarani girlfriend. ‘And they say he smashed the boy’s face in too. They must have been lovers.’
`That’s shit,’ said another man who had been munching cornmeal chipa at the bar. `He’s a Nazi. One of the General’s Germans. I heard he did medical experiments in those Jewish camps. Somebody is covering for him.’
This was dangerous talk and Reynaldo steered us back towards safer ground and the more conventional wisdom. ‘Look, he’s probably just some homosexual.’
The police were at their wits’ end and truckloads of constables, old Mauser rifles wedged between their knees, churned up and down Independencia. They didn’t expect to find the blow-torch man but they could at least stifle the rumours of their ineptitude. In a further act of desperation, they took a sniff at the gossip and rounded up all Asuncion’s homosexuals. Not really knowing what to do with such a large number of patently harmless individuals, they locked them up in cells for a few days and then released them. The citizens were unappeased.
But it was not immediately obvious how the rumours thrived or even spread around the city. By day the centre of town was silent and deserted. Baked by the sun, the cobbles shimmered in a heat haze. The windows of the Guarani-baroque mansions were tightly shuttered against the fierce white light, their vast panelled doors secured with bolts the size of ox-bones. Those who had the money had fled the heat by passing the summer on the beaches of Uruguay. A snake of BMWs slithered in and out of Asuncion at the beginning and end of every season.
It seemed that, at these times of day, only the beggars stirred in the centre of the city, and they did not gather to gossip. `Most of them are survivors of Chaco,’ Reynaldo told me. ‘They got shot up in our war with Bolivia. Then they got amputations and now they hang around the Plaza de Los Heroes. Actually, they’re a nuisance.’ They probably wouldn’t be for much longer. With limbs so smashed by explosions and minds so raked by gunfire and whisky-tipo, it could not now be long before old age mercifully carried them off — if the giant Mercedes buses that crashed over the ruts didn’t get them first. Each time I passed them I wondered if they ever thought of themselves as the lucky ones, the ones who survived a war so terrible that nearly one in three Paraguayan men perished.
There was a brief moment at the end of each day, that exquisite moment of dusk that tropical countries earn themselves, when the sun plunged into the Rio Paraguay and the city was suffused with pink light, when the citizens, those who remained, would emerge from their shuttered houses, blinking and shaking sleep out of their clothes. Some would stare blankly into the shop windows at the electrical goods smuggled in from Panama and the bottles of Scotch whisky piled up like ammunition. Others took seats under the borrachos, the drunken trees, in the Plaza Uruguaya, kicked off their shoes and waited for the curfew to begin. Some gossiped, exchanging the latest gothic details on the blow-torch murder, but most just sat waiting silently for the end of the day.
As the light changed from pink to purple, Asuncion’s only neon sign, large bright red letters on the pediment of the national bank, flicked into life: PEACE AND PROGRESS WITH STROESSNER. When they saw this, people put their shoes and socks back on and went home.
For some reason, the writ of the curfew never extended to the Lido bar. As long as you could get yourself there and back, weaving around the patrols, it seemed you could sit there as long as you liked, sluicing away the dust and diesel with icy Para- guayan pilsner, ‘Antarctica’. It ought to have been the perfect place for the traffic in good stories. It stood right in the centre of the town and had even been described, rather whimsically, as lying ‘at the cross- roads of South America’. Inside, a great amphitheatre of tangerine-coloured bar swooped out into a brilliant white room, a room full of air that swirled in through the windows, was whipped by giant ceiling fans and hustled out on to the street again. It was pure 1950s: you pulled upholstered plastic stools up to the bar counter and gave your orders to the little duck-hipped ladies in tangerine aprons and tangerine hats who waddled around the centre.
Paraguayans allowed themselves to enjoy it but their satisfaction was reverential and mute. They huddled round the counter, inward-looking, facing each other across the gorgeous orange arena. There were the middle-class Hispanics, with their bril- liantined hair, pigskin briefcases and buck-led crocodile shoes; there were the half- castes, the mestizos, and the Indians from across the river, Aches, Nivacles and Lenguas, selling nanduti lace and rickety bows and arrows; there were ruddy, blond immigrants from Latvia, Ukraine and Yugoslavia, spooning up bori-bori soup with big farmers’ hands; there were German settlers pawing over Neues fzir Alle, while their wives, hair-dyed and lacquer- faced, sipped terere, an icy privet-leaf tea; then there were Koreans, newcomers to the scene, who had set themselves up around the mercado and only occasionally came downtown for acupuncture or lumbago treatment and who just stuck to the cold beer. They all ate and sipped and spooned and sucked in silence, while the orange ladies heaved great trays of parrillada steak and juicy hummocks of steaming maize cake out of the kitchens. The diners stared through them, at each other, wondering, I fancied, who was a police informer, who was a whisky-smuggler, who was a Nazi and who could do that to a boy so young.
When the silence of the Paraguayans became too much, I would duck across the Plaza and up Calle Chile to the Shakespeare. Although it called itself a pub, it was really just a room above a Korean pharmacy, reached by some musty stairs. It was not even particularly British, although it was staffed by two Glaswegians who thought that life in such a place was ‘better than life on the dole’. The young Paraguayans thought it was heaven, even though there was nothing to drink but Antarctica and the temperature seldom fell below Gas Mark 3. They liked to hear Rod Stewart roaring from a cassette recorder on the bar and they were thrilled to be in a place that could rumble with laughter. Above all, they loved the way you had to shout very loud — in English 7- to be heard. It allowed them to transport themselves in their imaginations away from the stifling drudgery and oppression of Asuncion to England, a place hardly any of them had seen, where people had endless fun and sex and danced all night around their palm trees. The illusion was sustained for as long as it took before someone tripped over the plug to the tape deck, throttled Rod Stewart and plunged us all back into silence. During the lull, I was spotted by a girl with a fantastic rick of black hair piled up around her head.
`Are you English, kid?’ She had a slight Liverpudlian accent.
`Yes’, I admitted. I was terrified; girls at my school hadn’t behaved like this. She was sucking the icebergs out of her Antarctica and crunching them up with her teeth. ‘Are you?’
`Course I’m fucking not. This is Paraguay. I’m fucking Paraguayan.’ She took a step back and cocked her head, awaiting my reaction. I failed to say anything.
`OK. Look. My father was Japanese and my mother half Spanish and half flicking English. That makes me flicking Paraguayan.’ `You speak good English,’ I tried.
She had indeed worked in Liverpool for a while. Now she imported Scotch whisky into Paraguay. ‘But only the best. The fucking most expensive. Anyway, what are you doing here? ‘
I hesitated. ‘I’ve come to see President Stroessner.’
`He’s a fuck-head!,’ she exploded and threw her magnificent head back and laughed. ‘A total fuck-head! You know what he does? He takes people he doesn’t like up in planes and flies over the Chaco. And then what? He fucking well throws them out!’
I opened my mouth to protest but, at that moment, the music restarted and noth- ing audible emerged. She pressed her ear up close to my face, which disappeared into an impenetrable thicket of curls and ringlets. Everything went dark and my nose tickled.
`You can’t say that here,’ I muffled. ‘The police. . . . ‘
`The police don’t speak English, you fuck-head. The police are fuck-heads!’ She punched me on the chest and turned and wandered off towards the bar, with her beer bottle raised in salute. The police are fuck-heads!’ The crowd around the bar parted and shrank away.
Reynaldo appeared by my side. ‘Do you really want to see President Stroessner?’ `Er, yes.’ I hadn’t considered it before. `He holds an audience every Tuesday in the Governor’s Palace. That’s tomorrow.’
I zigzagged back to my pension, the Hispania, on the other side of Los Heroes. It was grizzled baroque and much favoured by the Mennonites, the German anabaptists from the colonies of Neuland and Fernheim in the Chaco, who came into town to buy farm implements and seed. They wore strange 19th-century costumes and confined themselves to the top floor, denying themselves the breeze of the fans lest their elders should hear of such vanity and cast them out from their number.
Reynaldo and his friends had advised that I wear the school blazer, the crumpled tie and the pair of thick black corduroy trousers that I had crushed into my luggage. I pulled them out and laid them on the bed and set to work, scouring and scraping at the stains and picking off the bits of fluff. The two Australians I shared the room with howled with laughter. They doubted that anyone could cross Asuncion in that lot without dying of heat.
They were still clutching each other and yelping with delight when I left the next morning, muzzy-headed and leather-mouthed, to see His Excellency the President. Overnight, the lapels of the blazer, protesting at the soap and the mauling of the night before, had curled up like crisps.
`Seriously,’ said the older Australian, his face now deadpan but the tears still drip- ping off his nose, ‘don’t shake hands with him. He’s got something funny about dis- ease or something. He doesn’t like it.’ The grandiose Governor’s Palace was begun by the then-President Carlos Lopez in the 1860s, during Paraguay’s years of prosperity. But Carlos died and was succeeded by his son, Francisco, Mariscal Lopez, who had returned from Paris with an Irish mistress and a head full of novel imperial ideas. In 1865, he plunged Paraguay into a war with not just one neighbour but three: Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Although at that time Paraguay’s army was five times the size of Argentina’s, the war was a disastrous mistake. A third of her land was snatched and every other person lost their life. ‘Only women, children and burros remained,’ it was reported at the time. Lopez himself was chopped down by Brazilian soldiers. As quickly as Paraguay had emerged, she was plunged into drastic decline, from which she did not resurface until the 20th century, and then only to be dragged under again by the next catastrophic war, the Chaco, which started in 1929. Orphans perished in their thousands, mainly through thirst and disease, and a new generation of orphans emerged.
The Paraguayans who returned from the war, shattered but, arguably, victorious, dragged a Bolivian tank home with them. They placed it in the Plaza Independencia next to the palace, where its rust and diesel oil fanned out like a psoriatic rash. The civic leaders, anxious to deal the final blow, plunged a telegraph pole into the body of the tank, pinioning the whole machine to the concrete and linking up the police station with the military school.
By the time I had walked this far, rivulets of sweat were trickling down the inside of my shirt and the corduroys were becoming mushy and tangled. I gulped at the air but it was burnt and used-up. Little spots were dancing among the cobbles.
A truckload of soldiers was parked under a jacaranda tree. They all wore sunglasses and had sinister humps of ammunition bulging around their tureened bellies. I strode across the palace lawn and their eyes followed, like a nest of little watching crocodiles. One of them, who I presumed was an officer because he had mother-of- pearl grips on his revolvers, stepped out.
`What is it?’
`I’ve come to see the President,’ I croaked and, immediately, a brown-suited agent appeared in the front hallway and, removing his mirrored lenses, waved me inside. His Indian face, which was pocked with scars, sliced into a smile.
`What exactly do you want?’
Antarctica. The blow-torch man. Nazis and eczema. My mind scrambled for responses but kept alighting on absurdities. `I’ve come to pay my respects.’
His smile broadened a little. ‘Follow me, please, Senor.’ I squelched up the red-carpeted stairs behind him. Above us, Carlos and Francisco Lopez, whiskery and bemedalled, scowled down from their gilt frames. I let my trembling knuckles trail along the smooth marble of the walls and sucked in a few draughts of cool, polish-scented air. At the top of the stairs we came face to face with a bronze statue of another dyspeptic general, snarling fiercely. We turned right and walked along a terrace until we reached the General’s office. The Indian knocked on the door and then entered, closing it behind him.
For a moment I contemplated my reflection in the polished wood and stiffened slightly when I saw the bedraggled and bemused figure peering back at me. I quickly averted my gaze and tried to concentrate on the views beyond the balustrade, towards the sluggish grey river with its tiny bronchitic boats and beyond to the distant shore where the Chaco desert began. Crushed up against the palace were the viviendas temporarias, the slums, run up out of corrugated iron and old packing- cases. As I watched a stringy cat tiptoe across a sheet of scalding tin, the flunkey reappeared. My heart lurched.
`I’m sorry, Senor, we cannot find him anywhere. He must have gone for a walk.’
On the way back, I paused at the skewered tank that was bleeding oil and rust. It was, of course, still dying. The beggars were still dying from the wounds inflicted in the war. For a whole generation of women, family life had dwindled into widowhood. A whole generation of young men had been so piteously reduced that, for those who remained, there was not the strength or the willpower to resist a German immigrant who indulged a fondness for having his opponents tossed out of aeroplanes and yet could take a stroll along the quayside on Tuesday mornings. Paraguayans had become mere caretakers at the tomb of their past, making do the best they could and whispering about what might have been.
But just as there were no bodies at this century-long wake, for they were scattered over the Chaco desert and through the rainforests of the north, neither was there grief. Doubtless, the hot tears had been shed long ago. But now the republic was contracted in constitutional bereavement. Now the children were learning the national anthem in school, Paraguayos, Republica o Muerte’ (Paraguayans, Republic or Death’), but what they were being offered was no longer a choice but an epitaph.
Strangely, their neighbours, the Argentines, ever anxious for their own souls, mis- interpreted this as a state of contentment. Gustavo, a textile trader who had been coming to the city for many years, shook his head in exasperation when he tried to identify the Paraguayan character. ‘They know exactly what they want,’ he offered.
His compatriots were often less kind and, wary of the passivity of their ethnically impure Guarani neighbours at the head of the Parana, invented stories about them as purple as any from Paraguay itself.
`You know, they come down to Argentina and steal babies,’ one told me, ‘and take them away — in truckloads.’
By Easter the citizens had wearied of their own stories of the blow-torch man. Some had even doubted that he ever existed, although an Anglo-Paraguayan called Veronica told me that she and her boy- friend had some news from the prison.
`Raoul and I go up there every Friday to take dinner for some friends of Raoul’s (they fell out with the government over some land deal and we can’t get the right judge. They all want so much now). These guys have had food from all Asuncion’s restaurants but it isn’t like home, is it? Anyway, we get all the gossip from them. They say the police have got a lead and they are expecting an arrest any day.’
Asuncion was spared the next instalment by the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. General Stroessner offered his lukewarm support and I sought the advice of the British embassy.
`You are only 18. You should go home,’ said the clerk behind the plate glass. Her coffee was cold in front of her. ‘I bet you’ve been busy since this all started,’ I teased. She was Anglo-Argentine.
`Yes,’ she snapped and took off her glasses and laid them on the desk in front of her. ‘This morning over 100 Paraguayans have telephoned in, asking if they can fight for the British.’
`I presume you told them that that was absolutely fine.’
`Don’t be ridiculous.’
That night, the young Paraguayans packed out the Shakespeare and roared until the rafters shook. I sensed the beginnings of change. Nearly 15 years passed before I visited Paraguay again, in December 1996. The changes I had sensed stirring then had indeed occurred, although not quite in the way that I, or anyone else, had expected. Asuncion had enjoyed a rare moment of pleasure with the Falklands war and when, later that year, the Argentines toppled their general, the Paraguayans began to see that they too did not need to accommodate a general in the palace. In February 1989, with those who challenged him now too numerous to be dispatched from aero- planes, Stroessner fled to Brazil for ever. That night, his daughter appeared on television with the new leader, General Rodriguez, her father-in-law, promising democracy. Her father’s statue was chopped up and set in concrete, and now just one cold, bronze eye peeps out and a finger harmlessly admonishes the drunks in the new Plaza de Los Desaparecidas.
Gone too was the Shakespeare. It had served its function and succumbed to the licensing hours of the new order. The Korean pharmacist now used it as a store for his roots and bones and jars of jaguars’ paws. There were no longer Mennonites at the Hispania. Appalled by the new liberal order, they tried to avoid Asuncion now and, besides, the new Korean owners of the pension had painted it white, like a wed- ding cake, and decorated it with parrot feathers and a large photograph of the docks at Seoul. The anabaptists drifted elsewhere. No one would admit to remembering a funny old story that had circulated some years before about a man who murdered a boy with a blow-torch.
I looked up Reynaldo and found that he had made good and moved to a suburb of clipped hedges and sprinlded lawns, but I couldn’t bear to see him there and so I let our friendship go.
The beggars too had succumbed, as we all knew they would, to their war wounds and the whisky-tipo. The drunks were different now: handsome, russet-faced mestizos who babbled merrily in Guarani. They railed at the pornography in the Plaza de Los Heroes, at the plump prostitutes who possessed the Plaza Uruguaya by night, and at the policemen, taunting them because their rifles were so old and their boots were too big.
But the police and the soldiers had yielded power with surprising grace. You could see them, rifles slung, in the police station, which displayed a life-sized Nativity scene. Rubbing shoulders with the shepherds and the Three Wise Men, they seemed to have found a form of redemption.
There was no denying that they had fared better than the politicians, for whom the citizens reserved a special contempt. Everyone seemed to hate the president they had elected, Juan Wasmosy, and when I saw ‘Fuck Wasmosy’ scrawled on the wall of the legislature I allowed myself to believe that the girl with the cloud of black hair had survived the changes intact.
Youth had rallied, too late, to register its protest against the Church, the army and everything. They had set up a den called the Urban Cave in the merchants’ quarter where they could loose off fusillade after fusillade of rap and self-indulgent anger. But their ideas were thuggish and irrele- vant and, worse, they were imported: they wore Tarantino suits and beards and drank purple and green alco-pops. No one drank Antarctica any more.
One could only speculate as to what had happened to the Nazis. One day, however, a trader approached me with a hardwood presentation box embossed with a knobbly gold swastika.
`Three thousand dollars,’ he grinned.
Inside was a 9 mm Luger and an ivory- handled dagger inscribed in German, ‘For long service to the General Staff.’
`Where did you get this?’ I asked. `Just some German guy up in Encarnacion. He didn’t say much about it. I guess he didn’t want any trouble with customs.’
Athe days passed, I noticed a new figure in the landscape. He was everywhere. He clustered at every crossroads. He was at the airport and on the bridges that led to Brazil. He nuzzled into his clones, making his bubble-gum-pink rubber body squeak obscenely — an inflatable pig. He had come from overseas and the citizens had received him, it seemed, with fervour. I spotted Gustavo nosing his way through a froth of dead flies in the hotel swimming- pool, and asked him what it all meant.
`Only God knows these people.’ He shrugged unhappily. ‘You know what these people buy off me now?’ He flung his hand up towards the feverish sun. ‘Duffel coats! Duffel coats from England!’
For all their concrete and beards and cocktails, the Paraguayans’ mourning was not yet over. The tank had gone, but the stones where it had stood were stained red. Some thought it had gone back to Bolivia but no one could agree on that. But then the wars themselves had a remoteness about them now. A painting on Indepen- dencia tried to claw back the image of Chaco in limpid acrylics: a little aeroplane was neatly trickling bomblets on to a Boli- vian position. The bomblets looked like goat droppings. Paraguayans were beginning to forget what it was they were mourning, and yet still the streets fell quiet at midday and still the diners munched their chicken in silence. Was it for a past that had been lost? Or was it for a future that could only be cheap and brutish and brash? I gazed out of the window of the Lido, past the Pantheon de Los Heroes where the slaughtered Lopez lay among his generals, and into the Plaza. The pink inflatable pigs were squealing back at me.