At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig

Published by Alfred A. Knopf on 1st January 2004

Paraguay – the name conjures up all that is most exotic and extreme in South America. It is a place of hellish jungles, dictators, fraudsters and Nazis, Utopian experiments, missionaries, and lurid coups. It’s the world’s greatest importer of Scotch Whisky and was the setting for the bloodiest war mankind has ever known (eighty per cent of Paraguayans perished). It’s not a place for the timid. It doesn’t even have it’s own guidebook.

But Paraguay, as revealed in this outstanding new book, is among the most beautiful and captivating countries in the world. John Gimlette has written a brilliant evocation which captures its originality, passion, quirkiness and contradictions.

It is a story of cannibals, Jesuits, Nazis, Mennonites, appalling dictators and their mistresses (one, the extraordinary Irish courtesan Madam Lynch, wore a ball gown to battle). The author follows their ghostly trails through the countryside to battlefields, sunken ironclads, lost treasure and the greatest public works since the pyramids.

The trail leads west to the Chaco, ‘the Green Hell’ which covers two thirds of the country. This is Indian country and a harsh landscape of heat, thirst and snakes. The wildlife is extreme and exotic, including armadillos, jaguars, prehistoric lungfish and great fighting river fish.

Best of all are the beguiling Paraguayans. They adore Diana, Princess of Wales, as if she were alive and hundreds volunteered to fight for Britain in the Falklands War. They are enthusiastic smugglers and harp-players, enjoy Caledonian Balls and Worcestershire sauce. Their politics are Byzantine but when the Vice-President is murdered they call Scotland Yard.