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19 October 2005

The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch

By Anne Enright

Book description: "Beautiful, sophisticated, and adventurous, Eliza Lynch met Francisco Solano López in Paris when she was nineteen and he was in Europe to recruit engineers for the first railroad in South America. He left for Paraguay several months later with a pregnant Eliza beside him. Reviled by Asunción society and her lover's family, Eliza built herself a fine house, constructed a national theater for Paraguay, and had her son baptized, although he was a bastard. In less than a decade, López became dictator of the nation and plunged Paraguay into a conflict that would kill over half its population. By then Eliza had become notorious - as both the angel of the battlefield, inspiring the troops, and the demon driving López's ambition. Anne Enright has written a gorgeous, deeply resonant novel about this extraordinary woman, following the arc of a life from the joyous sting of meeting López, to burying him alone in a Paraguayan Golgotha."

You have to love the opening line: "Francisco Solano López put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854."

I enjoyed this book, with its quick-running prose and alternating points of view. Enright's narrative voice is witty, cynical, dark, and flamboyant, never allowing a potentially bodice-ripping historical subject (whore meets dictator) become a silly, romping caricature. This story is one of power - the struggle for it, the question of how to handle it - without thrusting the reader into some diatribe about the nature of conquest, thought control, or charismatic despotism. Eliza has a certain power over her "dear friend," yet she is unable to keep him from other women or convince him to marry her. López has a certain power over Eliza, making her love him despite his maniacal devotion to his ideal of Paraguay, his nation. And together, their grandeur and unreserved, unabashed greed fueled the imaginations of Paraguyans, leading them to unimaginable devotion and destruction.

I thoroughly appreciated the structure of the novel. While the prose was involving and very colorful, the structure gave the book its dualistic look at Eliza, as a woman and as a figurehead. In alternating sections, Enright told her tale from Eliza's point of view as she traveled via El Rio Paraná from Buenos Aires to Asunción in 1854, fat with her first child by López and full of self-indulgent ideas and escapades, and then from the perspective of Dr. Stewart, a Scottish physician employed to care for Eliza during her pregnancy.

With a nod, perhaps, to Eliza's stagnant egotism, all of her narrative sections take place on the river and in the first days her stay in Paraguay where she gives birth. Nothing of the later years - the war, the rumors, the downfall - is tackled from Eliza's point of view, which would have been a storytelling blunder, in my opinion. How would one provide sufficiently convincing first-person motives to a concubine who became the richest woman in the world while her lover led his nation into a hopeless war that depopulated Paraguay from 525,000 people to 221,000, of which roughly 28,000 were men? Instead, from the birth of her first son onwards, Enright wisely offers Eliza as a symbol to be observed only by outsiders, namely the drunken, hedonistic Stewart and his interpretations of the gossip that surrounds his patient. This dualistic structure - the intimate, first-person account and the baffled, quizzical third-person observations - serves to provide a picture of Lynch that both humanizes and idolizes her.

I found this to be a solid, entertaining and fluff-less (despite the opening line) novel portraying a lesser-known chapter of Latin American history with an impressionistic, sardonic style. I started it on Sunday - a fun, fast read after the weighty books I've been tackled recently.

Vocab: horripilation (useful!), abstemious, billets-doux, paternoster (reveals I'm not Christian), rictus (good), scro- fulisms, proscenium, lutzomyia, regardant, pelargoniums, bistoury, dishabille, (and two more nice ones) cavil, gelid

Blogger Mircalla said...

You may find interesting that many of these words you list are very similar to the modern Italian:

-Cavil=cavillo (same meaning)
-Bistoury=bisturi (same meaning)
-Gelid=gelido (same meaning: very cold)
-Abstemious=astemio (slightly different meaning: in Italian it means a person who does not drink alchol at all)
-Paternoster=Padrenostro (meant as the prayer, or as a metaphor for something you know by heart)

I don't get the meaning of *regardant*:
"Looking backward in profile" ?!?

A *scrofulous* person. This sounds funny!


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