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At The Tomb of The Inflatable Pig [Hardcover]

John Gimlette
2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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From Publishers Weekly

Over the past 500 years, Paraguay has been invaded by successive waves of conquistadors, missionaries, Mennonites, Australian socialists, fugitive Nazis and, perhaps most improbably, Islamic extremists. "An island surrounded by land," bordered by vast deserts and impenetrable jungles, Paraguay is a country uniquely suited for those seeking to drop out of sight or, like Gimlette, find themselves. The author was 18 when he first traveled to Paraguay more than two decades ago; return visits only deepened his appreciation for the nation and its tragicomic past. Gimlette seems to have gone everywhere and talked to everyone. He boats down piranha-infested rivers, hobnobs with Anglo-Paraguayan socialites and hunts down the former hiding place of notorious Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele. Gimlette, a travel writer and lawyer in London, proves a chatty, amiable guide to local institutions like the national railway (which has no running trains) and native wildlife, like the fierce, raccoon-like coatimundis (who, Gimlette writes, "make up for their absence of pity with fistfuls of dagger-like claws"). Yet he doesn't shirk from the nastier aspects of Paraguay's bloody history. Gimlette describes in horrific detail, for example, the rape and conquest of the Guarani Indians as well as the brutally repressive regime of Don Alfredo Stroessner (whose U.S.-backed dictatorship lasted longer than any other in the Western Hemisphere). Gimlette could have used some judicious editing-the narrative drags in parts, and its scattered chronology can be confusing-but he never fails to impress with his ingenuity, sincerity and sense of humor. 16 pages of color and b&w photos, not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

If some Americans can't locate Canada on a map, it's likely many haven't even heard of Paraguay. Yet this California-sized South American country has endured an astonishing run of totalitarianism, instability, and war. Travel writer and attorney Gimlette shares that chilling history, drawing anecdotes from survivors and descendants as he explores the country. While his own doings seem unavoidably flat compared to the outrages he relates (one war killed four-fifths of the country's population, and 9 out of 10 men), it is interesting to glimpse the country today, which is happier yet still a place where the black market dwarfs the gross national product. Gimlette's prose has an almost cartoonish cast at times (a past ruler of "the hookwormed rabble" is "rutting, greasy-pawed"), yet sometimes he turns a perfect phrase ("They already had chimneys and now they wanted fireplaces"). Moreover, he conveys, though he can't explain, a national character that it doesn't seem cliched to call inscrutable. Fascinating and compulsively readable. Keir Graff
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

Review

Landlocked, almost impenetrable and a long-time experimenter in tyranny, Paraguay is visited by few tourists yet becomes intimately open through this idiosyncratic travel book. Each bizarre incident on Gimlette's visits etches its contradictions, deceptions, eccentricities and extraordinary inhabitants ranging from Nazis to the stationmaster of a railway that no longer runs. One US ambassador said that in Paraguay the poor go to prison and the rich go to their clubs. Who are the rich? "Arms-dealers, drug-dealers, arbitrage manipulators and real-estate tycoons; girlfriends like ponies and mistresses like rocking-horses, a pimp, a hustler and the head of a dynasty...". A marvellously rumbustious, enjoyable and evocative debut from barrister Gimlette who won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for the travel essay which he expanded into this book.

From the Back Cover

"Colorful and meandering, by turns hilarious and horrifying, often delightful. . .and very, very odd. . . . An entirely faithful reflection of its subject." --The New York Times Book Review

“[Gimlette’s] account is so rich in anecdotes, so suffused in color and dialect that we are left with a sense of having somehow inhaled all this Paraguayan history and then experienced it through a nightmare or a dream. Gimlette has given us a cast of characters as vivid as any by Dickens or Waugh.”-- The New York Times

“Gimlette knows his subject cold, and it’s a subject bound to have something for everyone . . . Charming and vivid. . . crammed full of a wild cast of characters and incredible experiences.” --San Francisco Chronicle

“A hilarious, informed anti-travelogue . . . with generous detail grounded in the author’s personal experiences, this is a travel book of the mind.”--The Boston Globe

"Blends travelogue, history and flights of descriptive whimsy to highly tonic effect. . . . For all his mastery of Paraguayan history, it's Gimlette's extravagant prose and unhinged enthusiasm that make the book. . . . You couldn't ask for a more entertaining guide." --The Seattle Times

"Hilarious. . . . What keeps you reading about Paraguay, maybe in spite of yourself, is Gimlette's marvelous wit and eye for character." --Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Reading the book is like watching a Komodo dragon eat a tethered goat. Paraguay, as Gimlette portrays it, is . . . completely bizarre. . . . Conquistadores and Nazis, whores and cannibals, all of them rather awful, all of them splendidly rendered. . . . Graham Greene would have approved.” --National Geographic Adventure

“A glorious travel book . . . in which the country’s craziness is portrayed with humor, insight and considerable deftness of touch. . . . As a historian of the absurd [Gimlette] is superlative.” --The Sunday Times (London)

"A wildly entertaining read: a raucous blend of history, travelogue, and guide." --Conde Nast Traveler

"At The Tomb of the Inflatable Pig should be ranked among the very best explorations of its kind: at once a history and a guide to one of the least hospitable nations on earth." --The Washington Times

"Irreverent and rambunctious. . . . [A] superior travel book." --Foreign Affairs

“An extraordinary book, part history, part travelogue . . . so vivid that nobody reading it is ever likely to forget the country. . . . A book that sheds fascinating light on a forgotten corner of Latin America’” --The Daily Telegraph (London)

“A richly detailed catalog of oddities and horrors, the kind of eccentricities that flourish in isolation. . . . [Gimlette] spills Paraguay’s cruelest, most shameful secrets, but his admiration for the forlorn middle country is real on every page.” --Outside

"Howlingly entertaining. . . . There [is] no resisting Gimlette's rollicking account." --San Diego Union-Tribune

"A truly wonderful exploration of one of the world's most captivating countries ... Brilliant." --Sunday Express

"[A] wonderful, wacky book. . . . Filled with the offbeat and the bizarre. Gimlette's narrative attempts to flesh out a country that is as difficult to define as nailing Jell-O to a wall. Vivid, riotous, fascinating and never dull, his book is wildly entertaining." --The Tucson Citizen

"Compelling. . . . Blackly comical. . . . Spicy, exuberant prose." --Mail on Sunday (London)

"Eccentric and richly descriptive. . . . The best travel writers are those with both a sense of history and a sense of humor, and Gimlette qualifies on both counts." --Richmond Times-Dispatch

“[Gimlette] has a firm grasp of the country’s intriguing past, and a watchful eye on its perplexing present.” --Literary Review

“Terrifically funny. . . . A great book in the noble tradition of British travel writing.” —Hartford Advocate

“Perceptive and entertaining.” --The Times Literary Supplement (London) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Although this is his first book, John Gimlette is already well established as a travel journalist, having won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for an essay which has led to this book, and the Wanderlust Travel Writing Award. He writes regularly for the Telegraph. When not deep in the jungles of Paraguay he practises as a barrister in London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

My hostess was studying me with renewed interest.

"Did you say," she said slowly, "that he cut the child's hands off with a blowtorch?"

"Well, yes." I fidgeted. "Doesn't anyone remember?"

Down the table everyone shook their head, except the thief.

"I remember it," he said.

Attention swivelled in his direction. The thief was pouring more wine into his Coca-Cola. It was rumoured he'd skinned his own bank and almost got away with it. Overnight, they said, his eyes had turned black like a panda's, and his Dalmatians had run away.

"Didn't they make a film," he piped, "about The Blowtorch Case? With Antoni Opkins and those moths. That was here, wasn't it, Mónica? That was Paraguay?"

There was dissension from the silverware and glass.

The hostess was examining me again. "When did you hear these things, John?"

"When I first came here. About twenty years ago."

Ah, they all said, twenty years ago. Things were different then.

2

Throughout the summer of 1982, Asunción had been gripped by a good murder.

The body of the boy, fourteen years old and horribly mutilated by the blowtorch, had been discovered in a wealthy suburb. The details of the story were happily never very clear and the press had shown a maddening indifference to the whole affair, doubtless on the General'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 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 heat, they made themselves giddy with fantastical tales, each more grotesque than the last.

"They say he's someone in the government-a sadist," I was told by a friend, Reynaldo Gosling. Reynaldo was a few years older than me and was already a student, but he seemed to enjoy our meetings at the William Shakespeare, feasting on my most mawkish tales from England. One grandfather, he explained, had been a British railway engineer and the other had distinguished himself in the Chaco War of the thirties. Although he'd never been outside Paraguay he affected a familiarity with England and nurtured a fondness for El Pub Inglés. "Apparently, he tortured the boy for hours with a blowtorch before strangling him."

"Yes," agreed his pretty Guaraní girlfriend. "And he smashed the boy's face in too. They must have been lovers."

"That's shit," said another man, who'd 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. Someone's 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, ploughed up and down Independencia. They didn't expect to find the blowtorch killer but they could at least stifle the rumours of their own ineptitude. In a further act of desperation, they took a sniff at the gossip and rounded up all of Asunción's homosexuals. Not knowing what to do with such a large number of patently harmless individuals, they locked them up for a few days and then released them. The citizens were unappeased.

But it wasn't immediately obvious how the rumours thrived or even spread about 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 Guaraní-baroque mansions were tightly shuttered against the fierce white light, their vast panelled doors secured shut 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 every season.

It seemed that at these times of day only the beggars stirred in the centre of the city, and they didn't gather to gossip. "Most of them are survivors of the Chaco War," Reynaldo told me. "They got shot up in our war with Bolivia. Then they got amputations and now they hang around on the Plaza de Los Héroes. 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 wouldn't be long now 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 that survived a war so terrible that nearly a third of Paraguay's fighters 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 Río Paraguay and the city was suffused with pink light, when the citizens, those that 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 whisky piled up like ammunition. Others took their seats under the lapacho trees, in the Plaza Uruguaya, kicked off their shoes and waited for the officious, unofficial curfew to begin. Perhaps they gossiped, exchanging the latest gothic details on the blowtorch murder, but most just sat, waiting silently for the end of the day.

As the light changed from pink to purple, Asunción's only neon sign, large bright red letters on the pediment of the National Bank, flickered into life: PEACE, WORK AND WELL-BEING 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 as though you could sit there as long as you liked, sluicing away the dust and diesel with icy pilsen called Antarctica. It ought to have been the perfect place for the traffic in good stories. It stood right at the centre of town and had even been described rather whimsically as lying "at the crossroads of South America." Inside, a great amphitheatre of tangerine-coloured bar swooped out into a brilliant white room. It was a room full of air that swirled in through the windows, was whipped by giant ceiling fans and then hustled out on to the street again. It was pure 1950s; you pulled upholstered stools up to the bar and gave your orders to the little duck-hipped ladies in tangerine aprons and tangerine hats who waddled around in the arena.

Paraguayans enjoyed it, but their enjoyment was reverential and mute. They sat huddled around the counter, inward-looking, facing each other across the gorgeous orange arena; there were the middle-class Hispanics with their brilliantined hair, pig-skin briefcases and buckled alligator shoes; there were mestizos and touts, Maká Indians selling bows and arrows and mercantes hawking lace as thin and light as cobwebs; there were ruddy, blond immigrants from Latvia, Ukraine and the Balkans spooning up bori-bori soup with big, farmers' hands; there were the German settlers pawing over Neues für Alle, while their wives, hair-dyed and lacquer-faced, sipped tereré, an icy privet-leaf tea; then there were Koreans, newcomers to the scene, who'd set themselves up around the mercado and who only occasionally came down to town for acupuncture or lumbago treatment and who stuck to the cold beer. They all ate and sipped and spooned and sucked in silence, while the orange ladies heaved great trays of parillada 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 the police informer, who was the whisky smuggler, who was the 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 wasn't even particularly English, 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 Paradise, 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 out of the tape recorder and they were thrilled to be in a place that could rumble with laughter. Above all they loved the way that you had to shout very loud-in English-to be heard. It allowed them to transport themselves in their imaginations away from the stifling conformity and oppression of Asunción 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?"

"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 fucking English. That makes me fucking Paraguayan."

"You speak good English,... --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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