Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

August Books 5) The Shadows of Eliza Lynch

5) The Shadows of Eliza Lynch: How a Nineteenth-century Irish Courtesan Became the Most Powerful Woman in Paraguay, by Siân Rees

I picked this up very cheaply remaindered in Belfast, basically because the only thing I knew about Paraguay was that after fighting a disastrous war with its neighbours in the middle of the nineteenth century, the country had become so depopulated of men that polygamy was madelegal. (I'm not actually sure if this is true, but it seems to be in the lore anyway.)

This book explains how Paraguay got into such a mess, by examining the career of Eliza Lynch, probably Irish, who picked up the son and heir of the Paraguayan president in Paris in 1853 (he was 27; she may have been 18), returned with him to Asunción, and became not only a controversial leading figure in Asunción society but also the single most influential person in her lover's circle once his father died in 1862.

Rees' account is basically neutral, and while not totally unsympathetic she doesn't gloss over the quite outrageous corruption of Eliza's business affairs; still less over the horrors of the López regime, which began with fairly standard internal espionage and torture of anti-regime conspirators, and ended with blundering into the disastrous 1865-70 war in which the country was devastated by Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina and López turned viciously on his own dwindling band of followers before himself dying in battle. Eliza buried his body herself, and died some years later in obscure poverty back in Paris.

It's a fascinating story, and unfortunately Rees doesn't always quite rise to the level required; I'd have liked a bit more reflection on the role of women in politics in the period in Europe, and on the roots and effects of her attempts to bring high culture to Asunción. I see there are a load of other books about her published recently (including a novel by Anne Enright which begins with the arresting sentence: "Francisco Solano López put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854"), but I don't think I'm sufficiently moved to search them out.
Tags: bookblog 2007, bookblog: biography, world: paraguay

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