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Island of Last Resorts
John Gimlette's At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay

In At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, John Gimlette explores the distinct regions and history of Paraguay.

To borrow from Voltaire, if magical realism didn’t exist, Paraguay would invent it. Only it would be even darker and more nightmarish than what we have on the shelves today.

Like all dream worlds, Paraguay lies detached from the world beyond. Indeed, despite living in a landlocked country, Paraguayans see themselves as living on an island and even use terms like “islands,” “coasts” and “bays” to describe their country’s outer (dry) margins. As John Gimlette tells us in his hugely addictive At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay, “Paraguay is not merely isolated, it is almost impenetrable. Small wonder that it has become a refuge to Nazis, cannibals, strange sixteenth-century Anabaptists, White Russians and fantastic creatures that ought long ago to have been extinct.”

He’s not exaggerating.

Gimlette had visited Paraguay in his youth, and as the fearless young often do, he found its violent political flavor intoxicating. At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is his account of what he found when he returned, years later.


At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is decidedly not the memoir of a bemused Englishman wandering wide-eyed through the Third World. Gimlette’s own presence is too small to count as a memoir, and his account mixes healthy doses of well-researched history—both old and recent—with his observations.

From Asunción (the country’s capital and its largest city) to Eastern Paraguay (where most Paraguayans live) to the Chaco (the sparsely populated, arid span of grassy plains, scrub and salt marshes where the horrific Chaco War raged in the 1930s), Gimlette offers a solid, well-detailed look at the country’s sharply divided regions. (The Paraguay River splits the country in half.) The narrative’s course is casually paced, and Gimlette uses his contemporary settings as jumping-off points for extended historical writing that gives the book much of its structure.

Paraguay’s history is not happy. Conquistadores arrived in the 1500s, and many soon abandoned their search for El Dorado in order to dabble in polygamy with the locals. The region remained under Spanish rule until 1811, but even then the newly independent nation didn’t become a bastion of democracy. It declared its first ruler a dictator for life, and he was followed by a series of dictators remarkable, even among dictators, for their sadism and insatiable greed. “Between 1870 and 1936,” Gimlette writes, “there were thirty-two presidents (two assassinated), six coups, two successful revolutions and eight failures.”

Nevertheless, with all that (seemingly) fertile land shimmering from a distance like an unspoilt paradise, Paraguay became a hotbed for both left- and right-wing groups looking to form their own often desperate, ill-conceived utopias—a place of last resorts, as one soil scientist put it in conversation with Gimlette. Among them was a group led by Bernhard Förster, Nietzsche’s brother-in-law, who tried to establish a master race there in the 1880s. Förster committed suicide without Nueva Germania doing much to purify the human race or preserve human culture, but his widow became, decades later, a popular figure among Nazi party leaders. She gave Hitler her brother’s walking stick, and as Gimlette points out, “the Third Reich supported thirty-one schools in Paraguay and educated 1,161 children; it sent books and brown uniforms and bales of swastika flags; a pastor called Carlos Richert toured the country emulating the Führer with his own piping version of the Nuremberg rally.”

Hitler also had German soil scattered over Förster’s grave in Paraguay.

In turn, Paraguay, which boasted the first Nazi party to be created in South America, declared war on Nazi Germany only after the Nazis were clearly doomed in 1945, and Nazi war criminals found it a convenient place to hide after the war. Gimlette even puts in a little travel time tracking the movements of Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s Angel of Death, who spent time in Eastern Paraguay.


A fair amount of the appeal in travel writing comes down to the writer’s descriptive powers, and Gimlette’s talents are wickedly formidable. His descriptive passages are nicely telegraphic and evocative, as we see in this scene from the book’s Asunción section:


The San Lorenzo fair was in its third and last day. It was like trudging into a giant hangover. The air was muzzy with roasted offal and disjointed songs and the farm-hands—the peones—were dreamy and broke. Ancient, battered fairground machines whirled emptily around our heads, animated scrap. Some of the peones were still colourfully drunk. Others were already tucked up in their hats and leathers, snuggled into doorways and gutters. Around their feet nipped flurries of icy sand, brought in on a goose-pimpling southerly. Blunt with rum and poverty, they slept on.


He also has a good eye for visual comedy, as we see here in this passage in which Gimlette talks a grocer into giving him a ride (for an inflated price) after he missed a bus:


He was soon packing me into his fancy new pick-up, with his wife out on the back. I was pleased that she was coming because it took the hard edge off our transaction, turning it into more of a family outing. Mrs. Berera brought her swimming costume, a beach towel, a garden chair and a bottle of frozen cherryade. It was obviously an excursion they’d enjoyed many times before and Mrs. Berera wasn’t the least perturbed when her chair slid backwards and forwards across the truck as Lino whirled along in a tornado of red volcanic gravel. We tried to keep an eye on her in the mirror but sometimes Mrs. Berera slid completely out of view and it wasn’t until the next fold in the earth’s crust—and the reversal of centrifugal forces—that she made her stately reappearance.


He can also be amusingly harsh with the people he meets. In this passage, he encounters an American who, he writes, “loathed me from the start” primarily because he hated humankind in general:


Our lives had been thrown together by mutual contacts in Asunción and a particular source of irritation was that I was British. As we drove along, he probed at this.

“It is true you drink your beer warm, like piss? What you got a queen for?”

It was like discovering that The Catcher in the Rye wasn’t just a nightmare, that

Holden Caulfield had emerged from tortured adolescence and was now a tortured agronomist in central Paraguay. Just in case he can blush, I’ll call him Garth (although his real name was Brian). In Garth’s world, there were only two redeeming features: plants and insects.

“This is the fuckin’ ant capital of the world. More species than anywhere else.”

He particularly admired the insects that devoured mankind.


For centuries, Paraguay has done just that: it has devoured a variety of humans who sought to change it, for better or worse, and it has carried on, ravenously unaltered. But the outside world is impinging on Paraguay, and it is, Gimlette predicts, about to change forever. What, pray, could be next?

—Review by Charlie Onion

Posted March 15, 2004



About the Author

John Gimlette is a practicing attorney in London, where he lives with his wife. He is a regular contributor of travel articles and phtographs to Condé Nast Traveller, as well as other journals and newsapers in England. At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is his first book.



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