Thursday, March 26, 2009

Paradise With Serpents: Travels in the Lost World of Paraguay

Paradise With Serpents: Travels in the Lost World of Paraguay by Robert Carver (Harper Perennial) 2007. 376pp. map.

Being more of an arm-chair traveller, there are better odds of my winning a major lottery than ever setting foot in Paraguay. After reading Paradise with Serpents: Travels in the Lost World of Paraguay, I imagine that could be said for the majority of the world's population. A troubled country which bewilders, saddens, and makes one shake one's head in disbelief.

Paraguay: Shaped like an internal organ of an indeterminate mammal, landlocked and located in the nether region of South America. That about summed up my knowledge of Paraguay prior to my having read Robert Carver's entertaining and perceptive travel narrative. I couldn't even recall the name of the capital. (Deceptione kept coming to mind, but that was obviously wrong.) My knowledge of the rest of South America is fairly sound in a basic sort of way: countries, capitals, history, landscape, music, literature, people, culture, but for some reason Paraguay had not entered my realm of knowledge. I felt less self-conscious about this ignorance when I read of Carver's experience while waiting in Sao Paulo for the flight into Paraguay: he noticed that, though there were newspapers and magazines from the U.S., Mexico, and numerous South American countries, there was nothing about Paraguay to be found in them. In addition, there were no periodicals from this isolated country to be found, and he comments that his "destination was as invisible as it had been in England."

Carver has done his research and, like most travel narratives, there is a mixture of information and experience. He actually begins the book with an autobiographical tale of a distant relative whose extraordinary life and disappearance in the wilds of South America is indeed stranger than fiction. This relative is one of the reasons he had wanted to visit Paraguay. It seems Robert Carver is the type of travel writer looking for the unusual experience. His first book, The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania, lays the groundwork for his visit to the equally uninviting destination of Paraguay, a dangerous and disagreeable country, and therefore a desirable spot for such a writer. Carver's travel narrative is in the English tradition of the individualist adventurer seeking the unusual, the anomalous. Most of Paraguay seems rather anomalous. Then again, perhaps anomalies are relative, for he finds that Paraguayans are shocked at how many laws, orders and strictures European countries experience. (It would be interesting to read a travel narrative of a true Paraguayan who experienced Europe.) The humour, at times dark, is generally evoked by the absurdity of the extreme situations he learns of, or witnesses, and the rather stressful situations in which he finds himself, which often involve either nature: vampire bats, piranhas, crocodiles, mosquitoes--night-time and day-time-- and the dreaded candiru fish.; or humans: police, thieves, muggers, smugglers, murderous drunks swinging machetes, and mad gun-waving Nazis.

But he does meet various interesting people who are the sources of much general and detailed social and historical information on the culture and history of the country, such as the youthful Welsh Patagonian Argentinian, Alejandro Caradoc Evans--the name clues us in to his character--a type of youthful remittance man exiled in Ascuncion, critical of everything Paraguayan, and eventually, everything South American. We learn of the maté addicted male population, the failure of the banking systems, the general corruption and criminality of the political elite, and the utter hopelessness that faces the average Paraguayan every day. Firearms are as common and visible as cell-phones in our world--perhaps even more common. Along with present day realities, Carver weaves into the narrative interesting historical information about Paraguay's past, such as the horrors and atrocities of the past regimes, the British involvement in the country, the Jesuits attempts to convert the Guarani indians, and the Australian attempts to build Utopian communities. His ventures into the interior lead him to many encounters with smugglers and odd characters but also with positive encounters such as with the Mennonite community of Filadelphia where the prosperous nature of their town and area make him feel as if he was in another country altogether.

Carver winds the story up to high suspense as the impending political unrest and stress drive him to the extreme feelings of panic, wondering why he ever set foot in the country, and we are also glad to be with him on the plane fleeing the country, and thinking, with a shake of the head, a book is about as close as one would want to get to Paraguay.

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