Paradise with Serpents [Robert Carver]

One of the kidnappers had been heard to speak with an Argentine accent, it was claimed.  Some theorized that it had to be a foreign operation, as it had been so slick and efficient, a Paraguayan – organized kidnap like this would have gone awry – the car keys would have been lost, the wrong girl snatched, the car run out of petrol, something of that sort.  The national inferiority complex even extended to crime it seemed.

The closest I have been to Paraguay is the three frontiers, between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, near Iguazu (or Iguacu depending on where you are).  I turned down the chance to go shopping to Ciudad del Este, but I often fancied heading back and venturing across the river.
I haven’t had the chance yet, but to keep my interest up I picked up Paradise with Serpents.  Having read it, I doubt it is much endorsed by the Paraguayan tourism agency.

Carver, who had a distant uncle who travelled these lands in days long gone, paints a picture of a country that is barely functioning, whose government is bloated, corrupt and inept and whose people long for the days of ‘Alfie’, Alfredo Stroessner, who, while diabolical, apparently kept the country running, in some fashion (in between making people ‘disappear’ presumably).  Carver spends a long time in Asuncion, visiting the English Ambassador and trying to piece together the countries idiosyncrasies.  Thousands of people employed by a government with no money, armed guards everywhere and unpaid police frame the city.  He doesn’t speak Guarani, and he is  chased down a side street by someone brandishing a machete, but the people he does speak to paint a picture of a population who have no trust in their state, who seem lost as to what democracy can do for them.

Yet the allure of the place seems to take a long time to dull for Carver, he travels intrepidly throughout el interior, to start with to avoid being in the capital when a coup is mooted by general Oviedo,being bitten by bats, questioned at gun point and slowly coming to a realisation that he is way out of his depth, and by the end he is relieved to get out of the country.

His research into Paraguay’s history is thorough, but sits comfortably amongst the travelogue, and he often rails against traditional western society in general, although in this respect, he comes across as an old man (I have no idea how old he was when he travelled to Paraguay) moaning about how good it used to be, but given how little interaction he seems to have throughout the book it makes sense he becomes introspective.

Strangely though, the book did not put me off wanting to visit Paraguay, but then reading reviews on other websites it is widely derided as fantasy and myth making, and even the history research I had been impressed with, it’s not thought to be worth much.  John Gimlette’s Tomb of the Inflatable Pig (which Carver also recommends) is given as a decent alternative.

Having not been, I can’t comment on the veracity of the book, I read it, in the end, as a frightened old man who may have exaggerated his travels for effect, but who did so with some humour and self awareness.  If it’s myth making then so be it, I’ll get a footprint guide when I go.

 I explained to Veronica what I was looking for – a skilled, experienced, intrepid and knowledgeable local guide, trustworthy and honest, dependable and reliable, with whom I could entrust myself in my voyages into el interior. She nodded brightly.  “This person will not be Paraguayan.  I do not think this person is existing, actually ever in the history of South America”

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