Annamaria Alfieri's first novel, City of Silver, was set in seventeenth-century Potosi. Now, in Invisible Country, she carries us two centuries forward, and a thousand kilometers away, to the little Paraguayan village of Santa Caterina.
Thus begins my review of this, her latest obra prima. You can, and I hope you will, read the rest of it on Amazon, Shelfari or Goodreads. It's a great book, one you are sure to enjoy.
In the writing of it, Annamaria became somewhat of an expert on the life and times of Eliza Lynch, a subject on which she'll be holding forth tomorrow at the New York Public Library.
If you're going to be anywhere near the New York Metropolitan area, here's the information you need to attend:
But, if you're too far away (as I am, alas) or otherwise can't make it, here's a taste of what it's going to be about, a post she has entitled The Lost Gold of Paraguay. Enjoy!
Leighton - Monday
Some months ago, Leighton wrote a post about Eliza Lynch, one of those fascinating and enigmatic characters that people the history of South America. Leighton’s post reported what quite a number of writers have stated as truth: that the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70), the most devastating war in South American history, was started to satisfy Señora Lynch’s lust for fame, fortune, and power. Today, I want to take another look at that conclusion.
This is not to say that La Lynch was an innocent bystander. She participated in the events. But many historians say she fomented them. Hold on a minute there, Sherlock. Perhaps, in this case, hanging all the blame on the only woman in the story is just another instance of mankind’s (and I am being gender-specific here) penchant—since Adam and Eve—of blaming all catastrophes on women. And let’s face it; “cherchez la femme” always seems to make more sense if the woman in question is beautiful and sexually powerful, as Eliza Lynch evidently was.
However, there are a few other things that might have caused all the uproar. Most historians agree that the politics of the La Plata region were a mess at the time. Argentina had for decades been mired in a persistent identity crisis, unable to make up its mind whether it wanted to grow up to be a republic or a unified country ruled by a strong man from Buenos Aires. The Argentinos had been killing one another over this question since the last Spanish Viceroy turned tail and fled at the beginning of the century. Also, Brazil and Argentina had an ongoing feud, each rising up from time to time to flex its muscles and try to prove it was the biggest kid on the block. Poor little Uruguay. Stuck between the two coastal would-be super powers, it suffered as a frequent battleground in proxy conflicts between the pro-Brazilian and pro-Argentine factions in its midst.
Enter, for my money, the real villain of the piece:
Francisco Solano López, the son of Paraguay’s second dictator, Carlos Antonio López. When Francisco Solano ascended to the “throne” on the death of his father, he took over a wealthy country and the most modern nation on the continent: Paraguay had what no one else did—a railroad and a telegraph system. In 1850, the Ybycuí foundry began to turn out cannons, artillery, and bullets, using every bit of metal it could lay its hands on, including the bells in the church towers. With all that political tumult and materiel at hand, there was bound to be a war.
The precipitating factors could have been any of several. Many texts posit that Solano López coveted a port on the Atlantic and set out to conquer a swath of Brazil so he could have one. The evidence in support of this is heavy: Lopez shot the opening salvo by declaring war on Brazil on December 13, 1864.
Three months later, because Argentina refused to let him march his army through its territory to get to the battlegrounds, he declared war on Argentina. Uruguay later joined in making it a Triple Alliance against Paraguay.
López has his apologists, who claim that he was not after territory but rather was defending the rights of Paraguay and Uruguay not to be meddled with by the two local heavy weights. There is some supporting argument in favor of this, too.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, revisionist historians floated a new theory, saying that real culprit was Great Britain, variously motivated by its need for a source of cotton (having lost its supply from the American South because of our Civil War) and better yet because it stood to make enormous amounts of money supplying armaments and engineers and importantly by lending the warring powers bags of cash at favorable—to Britain—interest rates. Since Britain actually was the only entity to come out ahead in the awful struggle, lots of people believe it entrapped the warring parties to participate. Profiting heavily from such a horror show does seem a nasty way for any country to make itself rich, but it is hard to imagine that Britain could have gotten the war started if the other participants had not been looking for a fight, as well as cruising for a bruising.
Of all the possibilities, I would say the least likely cause of strife was Eliza Lynch.
But what was Eliza Lynch doing in the five years while Paraguay was going down to the worst defeat in history, while 90% of its male population was perishing, while major numbers of noncombatants were starving to death, and her consort was torturing innocents to assuage his frustration? Well, she was having babies and trying to take care of her children. She bore six. Five sons were alive at the war’s beginning. She was also collecting gold and jewels.
Before the war began, Eliza managed to acquire some pretty expensive trinkets, even in that middle of nowhere that was Paraguay in the 1850’s and early 60’s.
Lacking a Cartier showroom, she repaired to a local church that boasted a miraculous statue of the Madonna. As happened elsewhere in Christendom, many of the faithful entreated the Madonna to help loved ones survive life’s perils. When their prayers were answered, they bestowed gifts of gold and precious gems on the beloved image. Eliza took Mary’s real jewels and replaced them with dross.
Just before the war started, López instructed his agent in Buenos Aires to withdraw Paraguay’s hoard of gold from a bank there and send it up river to Asunción on the Esmeralda. He and Lynch added the ingots to their hoard. Not stopping there, as the conflict dragged on, they began to “induce” the upper class women to donate their jewels (or anything else of value) to the war effort. Well, of course, patriotic ladies would give their jewels for such a cause. Remember the collection of the gold scene in Gone with the Wind? The trouble was Eliza Lynch’s efforts took place after the Brazilian navy had taken control of the rivers leading in and out of the country—at which point there was no possibility whatsoever of buying anything even faintly resembling goods useful to an army.
It seems likely that they lugged the Treasure of Paraguay along with them as they fled before the pursuing enemy month after month, year after year. To her credit, maybe, Eliza stuck by López’s side throughout the war. Life with López meant breaking camp and running north repeated for literally years until he was finally felled on the first of March 1870. Many chroniclers report that she buried him and their oldest son, who also died that day, with her own hands.
What happened to the gold and jewels in the process is still a matter of hot speculation over a hundred and thirty years later.
Here are the main theories: Lynch and López tossed the trunks holding the treasure over a cliff in a deserted area of the north cordillera. He then forced the carters who had transported the goods to leap over the cliff, too, thereby ensuring that only the ruling couple would know where the gold and jewels rested. A friend of mine and fellow researcher on Paraguay at the New York Public Library tells me that treasure hunters are still scouring the landscape there looking to strike it rich. No one has yet found anything.
Another more likely possibility is that Eliza entrusted the treasure to a third party for safe-keeping. A close look at her life style after Paraguay’s bitter defeat indicates that she never repossessed the fortune. She did, however, go to Scotland and sue the family of a certain Dr. William Stewart, who had, during the war, been the chief surgeon to the Paraguayan forces. She sought to recover “certain valuables” that she had entrusted to his care. She did not win her case.
Eliza Lynch, shown here in her age, died in obscurity in Paris on 27 July 1886.
The treasure of Paraguay is still missing.
If you want to read a fictional explanation of what might have happened, along with a murder mystery and a few love stories, you will find them all in Invisible Country.