I long for Paraguay as much as I long to breathe. The existence of that country is one more thing that is there in my mind, perhaps an ambition, perhaps a place, perhaps the representation of a dream or a representation of the concept itself of simply wanting, perhaps simply the sound of a word.
It exists for me in a few different ways, some of which are more pleasant than others, and some of which ironically don’t exist for the locals themselves. It is the tropical flatlands with colourful flowers and paths of red earth that spread out into windswept plains that go far off into nowhere. Paraguay is heat, stifling summer heat. It is the rivers, the forest, the thousand of species of animals with Guaraní names, the lack of coastline. Paraguay is the nation that was once complete jungle. Paraguay is the people drinking local tea outside the front of their houses on a Sunday afternoon, born in a forgotten corner of the world who exist purely for themselves, forgetting the wider world that forgot them.
It is the name. No one is even completely sure where the word Paraguay came from. It is probably from the indigenous Guaraní language and probably means “The water that flows to the sea,” the country named after the massive Paraguay River that does what I’ve just suggested. Or it could be named after local birds, or a tribe of local pirates.
Paraguay is many things, my mind separating the promise of magic from the land of incessant difficulties. Paraguay is a people born in an economic prison without exit signs. It is without money from the legal sector yet a country that is one long black market whose profits are siphoned off by crooks. It is a tranquil country that snoozes yet has terrible problems with petty crime. The night I got there I was told not to go into town until the next morning. “That’s Paraguay,” the reservedly personable landlord shrugged.
Paraguay is quintessentially South American. It does not have Argentina’s tourists, or Colombia’s salsa dancing, or Bolivia’s Andes Mountains, or Peru’s connection to the Incas. It is sneered at by Brazilians in their hauteur who go there for cheap shopping. But it is authentic. Visitors describe the reserve of the locals, the quiet confederacy of purpose, the vague sadness and quietness that drifts, the straightforwardness of the locals who apparently have not yet discovered sarcasm and despite the arrival of 21st Century amenities, the internet, abundant mobile phones, have not quite discovered the modern world in its entirety.
The country was almost crushed by Brazil and Argentina in the 1870s. It was not wiped off the map but ceased to exist as a viable, self-sufficient nation, and the mood never really recovered. Then they shot themselves in the foot a few more times.
I was there for one day, on July 15, 2006, one week after the soccer World Cup had finished, when Zinedine Zidane had planted his head and the Italian team had put in all of its penalty kicks. My friend and I knew no one there and found the place impenetrable, too much of a mystery to crack in a few hours without someone holding my hand, which I didn’t have. I bought a famous Paraguayan book there called Hijo de hombre for 25,000 Guaraníes, which I simply paid for with a $us5 note. It’s next to me right now, one of my rarest possessions. Inside the story the country unfolds…
In the small town of Sapucai in the flowery countryside where people speak Guaraní to each other instead of Spanish, people without land or power struggle to rise up and are always defeated by the Paraguayan army. Memories of the town go back to a few years after Halley’s Comet flew past Paraguay, to 1912, when hope was denied and their best men were killed. Those without anything try again, and again lose. Army conscripts ask themselves: we’re one of them, it kills me to be ordered to fire on these peasants, I’ve become just like the guy who killed my Dad. Then a four-year war against one of Paraguay’s neighbouring countries unites the nation: The political prisoners are all freed and the focus shifts outward, to the Chaco Desert (this happened in the 1930s), the theatre of war where more soldiers die gruesomely of thirst than by the bullet. The war ‘won’, the soldiers, some who have had arms and legs amputated and some who will not get over the trauma of war return home to their farms. The old shouts and the graffiti of the disenfranchised begging for land, bread and freedom will once again start up. The narrator says: something has to change. A people can’t continue to be oppressed indefinitely. Man is like a river, who is born and dies in other rivers. A bad river is one that dies in an estuary, because stagnant water is contaminated, poisonous. It engenders miasmas of a malign fever, of a furious madness. Then, to cure the sick man or to pacify him, he has to be killed. And the ground of this country is already busy enough under the earth. The book is filled with an edgy, uncertain mood that ends like this:
“There must be some way out in this monstrous countersense of man crucified by man. Because if it’s the opposite it would be the case to think that the human race is cursed forever, that this is hell and that we cannot hope for salvation.
There must be a way out, because if it’s the opposite…”
I love Bolivia tenderly. But I’m in love with Paraguay.