An amazing and as far as I know little-noted literary event took place in 2004. One element of the drama was the publication of Lilly Tuck’s national book award winner The News From Paraguay, an historical novel based on an obscure 19th Century South American military conflict between Paraguay and her neighbors–Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. I read News a couple of years ago and found it in every way deserving of its award. I even had an accidental lunch with Lilly Tuck at Sewanee, where I commented that I’d been disappointed that she was not teaching there that year, as I had led to believe. She told me I should be happy, that she was a terrible teacher. Not a terrible writer, though, and we all thought it a shame that only one of the five women nominated that year could win.
The second element of the said 2004 event came into my consciousness in the last month. After I was inspired by my reading of last year’s Booker Prize winner, The Gathering, by Anne Enright. I went looking for more Enright and picked up Eliza Lynch. I’d forgotten the name of Tuck’s heroine, but I was only a couple of pages into the Eliza Lynch before I realized this was The News From Paraguay revisited. What are the odds of that? When I realized they were both published in the same year, I wondered even more about the odds. Why and how would two fine authors fall upon the same obscure story accidentally and independently and publish novels virtually simultaneously? I did a little googling, but still don’t know the answer. On the web page of an unlikely organization called The Institute of Latin Irish Studies I discovered that said Lynch was the subject of a widely published biography and that she has become sort of the Evita of Paraguay, a heroine in death as much as she was a disgraced and celebrated sybarite in life. However, that twin novels about her would emerge this way seems passing strange, but a good deal for such as I.
So, what about Eliza, anyhow? She’s Irish, but both Enright and Tuck pick up her story in Paris with her meeting with Francisco Solano Lopez. Tuck has her meeting Lopez aboard a horse. Enright, in one of the best openings of a novel I’ve ever read, has Lopez aboard Lynch:
Francisco Solano Lopez put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1874. They were in a house on the rue St.-Sulpice, an ancient street down which people have always strolled in a state of pleasant imagining. In he spring of 1854, no imagination was needed as Francisco Solano Loperz pushed his penis into Eliza Lynch and pulled it back again, twenty times in all.
We then get a countdown of Lopez’s strokes and a rather complete account of the events and feelings of Eliza’s life from birth to the present as each thrust inspires another memory and emotion. Utterly masterful–breathtaking, really–writing.
The rest of the book is similarly magical as we follow Eliza to South America, through her simultaneous rise and disgrace (Lopez’s family refuses to accept her.) as the powerful courtesan of Paraguay’s megalomanic, possibly insane, dictator. We see her situation through her own eyes as well as those of others, particularly a Scottish alcoholic Dr. Stewart, who is both infatuated and repelled by her. What we see is an ambitious, sensual, and sensitive woman. A woman with a lust for beauty, flesh, power, and affection, one with whom we greatly sympathize because she is such an outcast and because she acts out of a sort of innocent immorality. I know that’s an oxymoron, but that’s who she is.
When Lopez’s war fails, she leaves the country with great wealth and returns to Paris. Lilly Tuck follows her there and into the penury that surrounds her unto her death in 1886 at the age of 51. Enright, instead, chooses to follow Dr. Stewart to Scotland, where he lives with the Paraguayan maid he has married. The last sight we have of Enright’s Lynch is a glimpse as she climbs the steps of a courthouse, where her suit to seize some of Stewart’s property is about to be heard. Tuck follows her life’s collapse, Enright leaves us with an image of her as a warrior.
Lynch was obviously a woman with beauty and power to spare. More important to me at this moment, is that her beauty and power have inspired two such terrific books. Tuck’s and Enright’s writing goes beyond craftmanship into the realm of high literary art. It would be wonderful to have read both books in tandem, but a real treat to have read them both at all. Viva la coincidence.