At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig by John Gimlette

At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: A Riotous Journey into the Heart of Paraguay is an extremely comprehensive and wry look at more than 500 years of Paraguayan history. In what was Gimlette's first travel literature book, he has shown a wonderful eye for the absurd and fascinating and put together what in all likelihood is the best all round book on Paraguay's unique history that exists today.

Gimlette has had a long association with Paraguay. He first visited this landlocked South American country as an 18 year old in 1982 - an interesting time for a Brit given his own country was in the opening stanza of its war with Argentina over the Falklands. Returning again in 1996, he then went on to make a further extended visit after yet another attempted coup d'etat in 2000, and from which he then wrote At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig.

Travelling extensively throughout Paraguay enables Gimlette to play back the engrossing history of this relatively little known country and which often appears more like a work of fiction than truth. Beginning in the country's capital Asuncion, Gimlette then ventures through Eastern Paraguay and thence the hot and semi-arid region known as The Chaco. Each of these regions, has its own stories and accompanying histories to tell, which Gimlette provides in an unchronological and somewhat disjointed fashion.

This writing style means there is fair amount of to and fro-ing in time. A train of thought or topic might last a page or so, before flitting back to continuing a story which we'd momentarily left, and which might then might run for a few pages, before again switching back to the prior story. Of help, to keep all of this somewhat ordered in our mind, is the Chronology provided at the back of the book and also, the map, provided at the front, without which, we'd remain forever lost. 

When retelling Paraguay's tortured history, Gimlette views it through the lens of a reasonable degree of humour so as to better suppress the feeling of anger of those in charge who have let down this country and its people so badly. All the main players that have shaped Paraguay's history are here: Francisco Lopez and his father Carlos, Afredo Stroessner and "El Supremo" Dr Gaspar Francia, as well as a whole cast of other players in this tragicomedy such as Madame Eliza Lynch, "The Angel of Death" Josef Mengele, Sir Richard Francis Burton and the "Bonsai Horseman" Lino Oviedo.

Paraguay's insensible wars that at times beggar belief soak up a fair amount of pages within the book - the worst of which was one of the bloodiest wars of all time known as the Paraguayan or Great War against the Triple Alliance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Following the Paraguayan defeat in 1870, it was estimated that 80% of its population had been killed from this war and its aftereffects, and only 220,000 people, of which 28,000 were adult males remained (these figures are however, much disputed).

Not satisfied with hosting one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 19th century, Paraguay then went on to engage in the bloodiest military conflict fought in South America during the 20th century, this time against Bolivia. When not content trying to beat up or be beaten up by its neighbours, Paraguay would then fight amongst itself in two civil wars and numerous coups such that they had thirty-one Presidents  between 1904 and 1954.

Beyond these conflicts, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig also devotes itself to a range of other back stories involving its indigenous people, the Guarani, and subequent settlement by a range of colonists including the Jesuits, Mennonnites, Australian utopists and Nazis. It also keeps us abreast of more recent events such as why Asuncion has more Mercedes than any other city in South America and why the country imports more whiskey per capita than anywhere else in the world. Also of interest is an explanation of how the Itaipu Dam came to be the worlds's largest producer of hydroelectric power in the world, which during its completion submerged the Guaira Falls, which at the time (in 1982) was one of the largest waterfalls in the world by volume, easily surpassing the volume of water discharged by Niagara, Iguazu and Victoria combined!

While Paraguay might describe itself as the Switzerland of South America, others are more likely to call it the empty quarter of South America. At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig isn't likely to dispel that belief and as such isn't a book that's going to make you book a flight to Paraguay in a hurry.  However, it does provide a mesmerizing wander through history that has been crafted by Dons, Generals, Dictators, Conquistadores, Jesuits, ex-Nazi's, whores, real life Cassanova's and a whole raft of two-bit players, chancers and reprobates looking to make a name for themselves. So, for anyone looking for a book where the historical truth plays out as weirder than most fiction, then this is definitely the book for you.

3 and a half stars

Credit: Banner photo by Arcadius