In 1868, the War of the Triple Alliance has devastated Paraguay. Ninety percent of the male population is dead. Most everyone is starving. The small village of Santa Caterina is no exception. Padre Gregorio Perez preaches a controversial sermon; he wants his congregation to enter into adulterous relationships in order to repopulate the dying country. Soon afterwards, he discovers an evil nobleman, Ricardo Yotte, lying dead in his church's belfry. Ricardo was good friends with Eliza Lynch, the vain, insensitive mistress of the country's maniac dictator, Mariscal Francisco Solano Lopez. Perez must find Yotte's killer before Comandante Luis Menenez arrests and tortures someone innocent in order to please the dictator and his mistress.
On the dedication page of her excellent historical mystery, "Invisible Country," Annamaria Alfieri states that her father, a combat Marine, returned from World War II a pacifist. He taught her to hate war. After reading "Invisible Country," I hate war more than ever. I too have become a sworn pacifist. I never knew the tremendous suffering of the Paraguayans during the War of the Triple Alliance until I read "Invisible Country." During some independent research, I was flabbergasted upon confirming that nearly ninety percent of the male population was destroyed thanks to the diabolical Lopez. I hope God has reserved a place for him in Hell next to Hitler and all the other warlords who began conflicts for personal gain. Lopez forced his men (some of them as young as ten years of age) to fight to the death; survivors were shot as traitors. The women were left at home to starve after livestock and other valuable possessions were seized for the war effort.
Paraguay is a beautiful South American country; unfortunately, because it is landlocked, its only access to the sea is via the Paraguay River. I don't think it was in a position to wage war with its neighboring countries of Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. With its wild fruits and flowering vines and trees, Paraguay appears to be a Garden of Eden. However, as the reader learns, there are jaguars that threaten farmers and their chickens. The people of Santa Caterina love to play music and dance but the war has turned their paradise into a living hell. More dead than alive, they walk like zombies with their hollow cheeks and empty bellies. Some of the surviving men have returned to Santa Caterina with body parts missing. It reminds me of the hopeless wars we've been waging in the Middle East. Because I live in Tidewater, Virginia, a military community, I often see soldiers who've returned from war suffering irreparable mental and physical damage. This is one of many reasons why war should be avoided.
"Invisible Country" does have much heartache and sorrow, but it also has a lot of romance and humor. Forbidden love abounds. A Romeo and Juliet type love exists between Xandra Leon and the man whose life she saved, Tomas Pereira da Graca, a Brazilian cavalryman and an enemy of her people. She must keep him hidden until he is well enough to travel. Perez, a priest, falls in love with Maria Claudia Benitez who lost her husband in the war. Together, they try to solve Yotte's murder. The humor stems from the men, especially the elderly ones, who are running around like fools trying to get women pregnant. Also, the Paraguayans call Eliza Lynch every foul name in the book from "harlot" to "trollop." However, I had no sympathy for her and for the evil Yotte. I was hoping his killer would never be brought to justice. The world doesn't need any more men like Yotte.
The mystery of "Invisible Country" takes a backseat to the historical drama and strife that occurs within its pages. It is merely the icing on an already delicious cake. Actually, the real mystery is whether or not these people of Santa Caterina, with whom I fell in love, would survive this devastatingly tragic war that nearly wiped out an entire race due to one man's devilish greed. The tension really increased towards the end when the Brazilians invaded and mass panic ensued. I feared for the safety of the characters, the names of which are all listed in the front of the novel. This made reading much easier and I am thankful to the author for providing it. I believe Agatha Christie often provided a list of characters in her mysteries. In fact, while enjoying "Invisible Country," I thought it read like an historical mystery she would've written.
With its unique setting, its wide assortment of characters, both good and evil, its soap opera-like drama, forbidden love and touches of humor, I think "Invisible Country" is a mystery that will be nearly impossible to forget. It has definitely opened my eyes wider to the horrors of war. The ones who always suffer the most are the women and children. My dad fought in Vietnam; I know what it is like to wonder if a loved one will return from war. Thanks to Annamaria Alfieri, the suffering that the Paraguayans endured during the War of the Triple Alliance has been made visible to the entire world. No longer is Paraguay an invisible country. Now, after having been exposed to Alfieri's unique writing style, I could kick myself for not having read her debut novel, "City of Silver" (City of Silver) Someday, I'll have to make time to read that one as well.
Joseph B. Hoyos