I've never been sure what the purpose of historical fiction is supposed to be. Merely to re-create the past? Why? It is, of course, interesting enough to discover what "things were like" in the past, but what does reading a novel about the past--deliberately presented as "about" the past--do for us that just reading well-researched history can't provide? A fuller sense of character? The pleasures of narrative? So much so-called popular history is written as if the unfolding narrative and its cast of characters was indeed a novel that it's hard to see how a narrative about history that calls itself "fiction" really differs much from nonfiction history, except that the author considers him/herself more at liberty to alter minor details to suit dramatic convenience.
Some historical novels try to burrow beneath the received wisdom about history, or to illuminate some of its blurrier quarters, and while this is a praiseworthy endeavor, it's still hard to see how such an effort ought to be considered "literary" rather than a useful adjunct to history-writing. If the idea is still to re-create the past so we might consider it as the past, I'm still not clear how such work really advances the cause of fiction-writing.
Other ostensibly historical fiction, such as Robert Coover's The Public Burning or Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, aren't really concerned with reproducing history but rather with interrogating it, forcing it to testify, as it were, to the veracity of accepted representations of it, to the hidden truths behind these representations that have been hidden so well their revelation seems as surprising as any unexpected plot twist in a skillfully told tale. For these writers, "history" becomes just more material for the novelist's imagination to transform, at times simply offering itself up as the inspiration to the novelist's own powers of invention. (Other novels that belong to this category: DeLillo's Underworld, Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, T.C. Boyle's Worlds End, Pynchon's later Mason and Dixon.) Such writers approach history not as the ersatz historian hoping to recount the past but as literary artists for whom the past can be turned to use for present purposes. Is this the best approach for the novelist (or reader) interested in events from the past as subjects for fiction?
Lilly Tuck's The News from Paraquay again raises all of these issues for me as a reader of fiction, but unfortunately it doesn't much clarify them, except to suggest that the Coover/Pynchon approach finally does seem the more interesting. I don't think it's a bad book, but neither can I see why it really needed to be written in the first place. My awareness of Paraquay and it history is increased slightly (although, sadly, it would seem its past isn't substantially different than its present, both entirely representative of Latin America's troubled political history), but I probably could have learned as much, probably more, from reading a straightforward historical account of mid-19th century Paraguay. Moreover, the Paraguayan dictator depicted in the novel seems as predictably brutal and self-obsessed (with a dollop of superficial charm) as any other dictator, coming across as little more than a stereotype, and his mistress, on whom the novel ostensibly focuses, isn't really made to seem any more distinctive as a literary character. She's mostly quite unsympathetic in her indifference to what's going on around her, and it's difficult to tell whether this is the response from the reader Tuck was attempting to invoke, or whether Ella Lynch is meant to be some sort of proto-feminist in her assertions of self and her ability to survive. I have to confess that finally I myself didn't really have a strong reaction to her one way or the other, largely because I couldn't engage with her as anything other than a "historical figure" being put through her paces in a novel of mere historical re-creation. She remains rather ghostly.
The novel's episodic structure works reasonably well, and some of the individual episodes are affecting enough. Those scenes toward the end of the book depicting the ghastly consequences of the dictator Francisco Lopez's insane decision to go to war with Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina are particularly well-rendered. In general, the novel's account of the living conditions of 19th century Paraquay--the oppressive heat, the diseases, the primitive tools available for enduring such conditions--seems authoritative, and is in some ways the feature of this novel that one remembers most after reading it. But, again, this is the sort of thing one could discover by reading actual histories of the country and the period, and I, for one, don't really very often look to novels as an alternative way of gaining such information.
The writing in The News from Paraguay is never less than capable, at times rising to a kind of restrained lyricism that nevertheless avoids any obviously "poetic" language. Most often it gives the impression of aspiring to an accuracy of detail that would give the story being told the requisite degree of plausibility, as in the descriptions of Ella's ocean-crossing from Paris to Paraguay:
The sea was black, the waves, large arching ones, were veined and capped with foam. The booms swinging, the spars cracking, the ship bucked its way through the heavy sea: first landing heavily in a trough, as if to rest for a moment, before another wave broke over its bow, sending water rushing and swirling on the deck and forcing the passengers down below; then pitching up again.
On the one hand, such a style seems perfectly appropriate for a novel that seeks to capture the feel of life as it's lived for characters otherwise relegated to the past, to the superficial features of their already completed "life story." Certainly a historical novel of this kind needs first of all to seem credible. But finally that's really all this novel manages to be. I kept waiting for Tuck to draw on the novelist's most precious resources--stye, imagination--and transform the story of Ella Lynch and Franco Lopez into something more surprising or strange (beyond the "exotic" setting), frankly into something more interesting as a purely literary creation. But she never really does.
I do like the way in which the novel is fragmented into often brief accounts of relatively self-contained moments and sometimes veers off to give us glimpses of the lives of characters other than Ella and Franco. In particular, the stories of the women surrounding and waiting on Ella can be quietly moving, perhaps even more so than Ella's own story. (Although in the end this is probably a liability; is Ella meant to be such a cipher that all of the color is drawn off onto the other characters?) Among the fragments are passages from Ella's letters and diary, which do their part in forward the plot, but again even hearing about these events in Ella's own voice doesn't ultimately accomplish much toward making her a compelling character.
Fans of historical fiction, fiction that slices off a piece of the past and presents it to us as "drama," that converts figures from the past into reasonably convincing characters that seem to approximate what these figures might have been like, would probably enjoy The News From Paraguay well enough. If you really want to know what a place like Paraguay might have been like 150 years ago, this novel might be worth your time. However, had it not won the National Book Award, and had I not set myself the task of reviewing it for that reason, I probably would have stopped reading it after the first 50 pages or so. It seems to me a competent, but finally rather perfunctory novel that neither illuminates the past in any particularly discerning way nor reimagines history so that its bearing on the present becomes any more urgently apparent.