I'm very happy to say that Mark Sarvas (TEV) has agreed to join me in reviewing Lily Tuck's National Book Award-winning novel, The News from Paraguay. This is the first of a series of reviews of all the NBA-nominated books that will appear on this site over the next weeks. Perhaps this endeavor will add some perspective and some insight on the books that otherwise are perhaps mostly known as the source of a controversy that arose over the NBA nominating process.
The News from Paraguay
By Mark Sarvas
More than half of Paraguay's population was wiped out in the War of the Triple Alliance. During the six years of the ill-advised conflict (1864-1870), in which the dictator Francisco Solano Lopez invaded neighboring Brazil (which subsequently brought Argentina and Uruguay down on his head), the country's numbers fell from 525,000 to 221,000.
The impulse for this catastrophic military adventure is traced by some to his 1853 trip to Europe, during which time he was deeply impressed by two things in particular: the imperial grandeur of the French Empire, and a beautiful Irishwoman named Ella Lynch.
From these under-traveled historical backwaters, Lily Tuck delivers The News from Paraguay, winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Fiction. Any consideration of this novel after the fact must address this controversial distinction that engendered a number of pitched battles of its own. But more on that shortly. First, the book on its own terms.
Tuck propels the story fast and furiously from the first chapter, in which we learn at the outset:
At age ten, Eliza Alicia Lynch had left Ireland; at fifteen, Elisa Alice Lynch married a French army officer; at nineteen, divorced and living with a handsome but impecunious Russian count, Ella Lynch needed to reinvent herself.
Despite a nice of bit of business with the evolving names of Ella Lynch, we feel at the outset like we're in something that's dismaying like a literary treatment of a Harlequin romance. And despite Tuck's fine, restrained prose style, that sensation never fully departs as Ella progresses from her poverty in Paris, to mistress of the heir apparent, to mother of the children of the president (bastard children though they may be), to her final poverty back in Paris. It's the familiar arc of many a bodice-ripper, in which the plucky, self-assured, stylish heroine faces the dangers of the wild. It all reaches an unintentionally hilarious apotheosis in which Ella, protecting her children from rebels, wields sword and dispatches a blackguard.
Ella looked up and saw two Brazilian infantrymen with bayonets running toward them through the woods. From where he was sitting on his horse, Colonel von Wisner fired at one; in his haste, Colonel von Wisner fired too close to his horse's head and the horse reared and bolted. Left alone, Ella picked up Lazaro's sword, which lay next to him on the ground, and standing up, she faced the other infantryman. The man was black, a slave probably, and startled to see a woman, he did not fire right away. Ella saw him frown then open his mouth to say something but he was too late. Before the man could shut his mouth or move to defend himself, Ella pursued her next advantage, that of a left-handed fencer, and lunged forward with the sword. She cut him in the neck.
The narrative beats that comprise The News From Paraguay more or less conform to the romantic archetype. Beautiful woman down on her luck catches the eye of powerful man. Abandoning the comforts of the known, an arduous journey is undertaken. Headstrong heroine arrives intact in foreign land, is established in comfort by her lover, provides offspring. Withstands the slings and arrows of jealous backbiters and schemers, pines for home, is susceptible to the advances of lovers. Enemies begin to coalesce and collaborate. The center cannot hold, things begin to fall apart and inner reserves of pluck are summoned. In the end, tragedy envelopes all. There's even a pair of fat, evil sisters. Can a glass slipper be far behind?
This summary is, perhaps, a bit glib. It's clear that Tuck has stumbled onto an episode of history whose players and events have captured her imagination. And amid these machinations, we're treated to remarkably detailed and vivid glimpses of Paraguayan life. Although it's a short book, Tuck introduces many characters, travels over a wide and diverse landscape, and is a trustworthy and diligent tour guide. She manages to render the supporting players vividly and memorably, and they subsequently linger in memory. But Tuck herself concedes a central difficulty in her Afterword: " … the need to explain and the need to dramatize are often at odds." And in the end, The News from Paraguay feels more like a history lesson than a novel.
This may be partially attributable to Tuck's choice to use a coolly omniscient third person voice. Although there is a taut, spare elegance to her prose, an absence of flourish, this leanness creates a distancing effect that extends to her treatment of her central characters who remain frustratingly opaque. One is unsure what to make of Ella, who fiddles as Rome burns. Neither her letters to a friend in Paris detailing her newfound life nor her journal entries--the news from Paraguay--mention the brutalities of the Lopez regime. As the population is being slaughtered, Ella's thoughts are primarily for her beloved horse Mathilde. In the end, Ella seems irretrievably vain, shallow and selfish. Clearly, Tuck has chosen to lay these events before us at from a distance and allow us our own conclusion. But as the self-destruction of the Lopez administration reaches its climax, the depiction of unrelenting cruelty, violence and paranoia, though no doubt accurate, becomes tedious and numbing, particularly with no real sense of Ella's reaction to the madness that surrounds her.
Tuck can also be surprisingly heavy-handed at moments. When the arrival of a new opera is mentioned, it is none other that La Forza del Destino--historically accurate, no doubt, but decidedly portentous. Elsewhere, during a fencing lesson, Ella is taught the technique of fléching, "a very difficult position because the fencer cannot protect himself and he cannot stop halfway. It's a total commitment to attack." It's one of several oddly on the nose moments for so skilled a writer. Similarly, motifs and symbols are dutifully deployed throughout in what begin to feel like a workshop exercise – pairs, particularly brothers and sisters, dot The News from Paraguay, as do miscarriages and cigars. The color blue is frequently deployed to tie together the elements of this canvas. (Although Ella's eyes are gray, they are mistaken for blue.) And then there are the parrots.
Ella and Lopez first meet when a (blue) parrot feather falls from Ella's hat, and parrots figure prominently throughout. Lopez advises his son (too late) that it's "Bad luck to kill a parrot," and the sickening of the birds in an aviary suggests the imminent disintegration and collapse of the country. And perhaps Ella – with her superficial dispatches to Paris – is the ultimate of parrots, as she increasingly adopts Lopez' positions in her letters home. In the end, la forza del destino is unavoidable and parrots die, Mathilde the horse dies, loved ones die and, of course, hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans die, the result of Lopez' ill-fated fléching.
The final toll is tragically high but The News from Paraguay only occasionally rises above the ploddingly solid – an earnest if minor work.
It's a mistake to assume one can know what informed the deliberations of the National Book Award folks. Still, one cannot fully consider this book without looking at it in light of its selection. Is The News from Paraguay the best that contemporary fiction has to offer? Surely not. (Despite 2004's having been, by common consent, a weak year for American fiction, even my own admittedly spotty reading would put The Confessions of Max Tivoli and The Plot Against America above it.) It may be a solid, respectable if somewhat staid effort, but one presumes the NBA is not an award for good intentions or near misses. Since one must take at face value Moody's assertions that no deeper agenda was at work, perhaps the more interesting questions are does the NBA undermine its own credibility with such choices? And does it really matter to a book? The questions are separate but intertwined.
If I may be permitted leave by my host to touch on an area that I know is a hot-button for him, the clearest measure of whether the NBA matters can be examined by its impact on book sales. An admittedly unscientific measure is to examine Amazon's rankings. The day prior to the National Book Award announcement, The News from Paraguay sat at 3,462. The award shot it up to 44, and it stayed in double digits for – precisely two days. It spent a month in the triple digits before settling back to 2,583, where it sits today. Compare that to Cynthia Ozick's Heir to the Glimmering World–- not nominated for anything --which is ranked at 3,297. Furthermore, last year's winner, Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire is nearby at 4,029 and Three Junes, Julia Glass' 2003 winner, is ranked 2,525 – a few points above this year's winner. (Only The Great Fire made it onto any bestseller list, and even that one was from the notably independent BookSense.)
What does this brief and imprecise examination suggest? Well for one thing, if Rick Moody's unstated mission was to elevate hitherto unacknowledged fiction, he appears to have flunked – the sales of The News from Paraguay are more or less indistinguishable from winners from prior years as well as from writers not even nominated. But perhaps the larger conclusion to be drawn is that the NBA doesn't particularly matter, at least from the vantage point of sales. It might succeed at pointing out a title to an audience already predisposed to following literary fiction but, unlike the Oscars, whose Best Picture award generally translates into significant box office impact, the NBA would appear to be relatively toothless. And if it fails to move books, what's the point?
Well, clearly, the point is to acknowledge the best that this country has to offer. And that seems, at least to me, like a worthwhile goal in and of itself, but on that score the NBA, at least recently, appears to have an uneven record at best. The 90s saw titles like Sabbath's Theatre and The Shipping News share space with the likes of Cold Mountain. And for all its ambition, The Corrections was a disappointing mess that probably claimed the award on momentum.
Which brings us back to The News from Paraguay. Setting aside for the time being post-modern notions of "best" or "better" (no doubt legions of MFAs are spitting out their Ticonderoga No. 2s in apoplexy), it seems reasonably clear that it isn't the best American book of the year, not by quite a bit. Can an award survive and stay relevant with such oddly hermetic tastes? Time will tell. The NBA isn't going anywhere, at least not soon. But it appears headed toward mattering less and less.
By Daniel Green
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.