The Eliza Lynch Story

It's an irresistible story, better suited to grand opera than to history. An unhinged autocrat wages war on a much larger country, reducing the male population of his own Latin American nation by 90 percent. He takes for his lover a voluptuous, wealthy Irish courtesan and passes a death sentence on his own mother. No wonder so many authors have been drawn to the saga of the Paraguayan War (1865-70). The subject has spawned a massive bibliography, much of it centered on the dictator Francisco Solano Lopez and his scheming mistress, Eliza Lynch. By happy coincidence, that bibliography has just been enriched by three new volumes.

Sian Rees's "The Shadows of Elisa Lynch" (256 pages. Review) and Nigel Cawthorne's "The Empress of South America" (320 pages. Heinemann) are two very different retellings of the story. Lynch arrived in Paraguay in 1855, the latest in a long line of Irish--Alejandro O'Reilly, governor of Louisiana; Ambrosio O'Higgins, viceroy of Peru--who had come to rule Spanish America. But as Cawthorne points out, Lynch represented not Ireland nor Spain but France, where she had made her career during the Second Empire, and whose glittering court she and Lopez dreamed of taking to South America. In short order, she became South America's leading conspicuous consumer. Lopez partook in his own shopping spree, importing from Europe all kinds of railroads and warships; when he finally invaded Brazil, his Army was the largest on the continent.

Cawthorne revels in the lurid aspects of the story. In one apocryphal scene, Eliza persuades a talking statue of the Virgin Mary to give up her jewels for Paraguay (i.e., Eliza). Cawthorne reserves special venom for Lopez: "He made no effort to clean his teeth... Those that remained were unwholesome in appearance and as black as the cigar he kept permanently clenched between them. His heart was blacker."

Rees is less exuberant, yet vividly re-creates the horrors of the war as an increasingly insane Lopez turned on his own people. In one scene she describes how his henchmen tortured a traitorous commander's wife: "The men... stripped her, took away her necklace and bracelets, dragged rings from her fingers, threw her face up on the ground and lanced her, twice, for there were two traitors there." But Rees's book is undermined by errors and lacunas. Strangely, she does not mention the prototypical Latin American tyrant, Paraguay's founder Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia. And she writes, for example, that the Paraguayan tricolor was created by Lopez in a pathetic imitation of France--though the flag dates to 1811, 15 years before Lopez was born.

For writers who don't want to worry about facts, another form exists. This is why Anne Enright's slutty and pungent novel "The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch" (244 pages. Cape) comes as such a delight. Enright gets to the point in the first sentence: "Francisco Solano Lopez put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854." This congress marks the beginning of a long romance--and the beginning of Francisco Solano Lopez's son and heir. The boat trip that returns the new lovers to Paraguay forms the narrative spine of the novel. In an inspired move, Enright shifts to first-person narration by Lynch, giving a voice to a woman who has been--with some justice--reviled as the Lady Macbeth of Paraguay.

Enright never loses sight of the operatic nature of her heroine. She shows Eliza arriving in distant Asuncion, where she is greeted with carefully crafted scorn. The country envies her "simple, easy house of pink marble"; her carriage, "so beautifully sprung you could ride it across country without spilling a cup of tea," and above all her beauty, "the kind of flesh that might redeem a man." Despite many careful efforts to cultivate the worthies of the nation, Eliza finally boils over when she invites le tout Asuncion to a sumptuous lunch party onboard the same ship that brought her to Paraguay. The ladies cannot ignore an invitation from the president's mistress, but neither can they bring themselves to greet their smiling hostess. One by one they file past her. "There was no person so unwatched as Eliza. Fifty pairs of eyes refused to see her." Enraged by such rudeness, Eliza orders the whole French feast tossed overboard. "There was a slight scum on the river, of hollandaise sauce and sauce a la Soubise, but even that sank, in time."

Through five hellish years of war, Eliza keeps up her standards, her silks and her sauces, unblemished by mud or famine. "You might think the men would find it an irritation, but the truth was that her face was a solace to them, her smile a balm... in some lovely, easy way, she belonged to them all. The most beautiful woman in the world." This is Enright's great discovery: the truth of a woman who, more than a figure of fun or camp, more than a greedy adventurer, was to her fellow colonials a symbol of beauty and love in a barbarous place, a woman whose pleasures were not only taken but given. By avoiding the trappings of historical truth, Enright succeeds in revealing a far more convincing human reality.