The Irish Quarter
"Was she really Irish-and what kind of Irish was she, while we are at it? The right kind Stewart answered, in the main her manners seemed bred, not learned. Though it was possible she was about as Irish as any woman who wanted to do well in Paris".
Anne Enright (1962, Dublin, Trinity College) is one of Ireland's leading contemporary writers. She won the Man Booker Prize in 2007 for her novel, The Gathering. I have posted on some of her short stories and liked them a lot. I wanted to read one of her novels and I read through descriptions of her several novels on Amazon and read the blog posts I could find (I am prejudiced but I trust posts by book bloggers more than paid reviewers under who knows what obligations to publishers) and the one that sounded most interesting to me was The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch: A Novel.
It is based on the life of an Irish woman, Eliza Lynch, who became the life long mistress of Francisco Solano Lopez, who was, following his father, the dictator of Paraguay. Lopez ruled from 1862 to 1870. Lynch was born in County Cork Ireland in 1835. She left Ireland for Paris in 1845 at age ten, with her family to escape the Famine. At age 15 she married married a French Army officer. Her husband was sent to Algeria where she initially accompanied him but she returned to Paris because of questions of the legalities of her marriage at such a young age. Through some lucky contacts she began to move in elite social circles and soon became a well known courtesan (in many cases, probably most actually, this is a euphemism for expensive prostitute). She met the future dictator of Paraguay and became his mistress and bore him six children. (The common place comparison is with Eva Peron though Eva had some redeeming qualities and Eliza did not.) He took her back to Paraguay with him. We first meet her pregnant on the sea voyage from France to Paraguay (Lopez was sent there by his father to gain military knowledge in the French Army.)
The novel is told through the perspective of Eliza and Dr Stewart, who was brought along to take care of her and remained in Paraguay. The high society of Paraguay look down upon Eliza as "an Irish whore" who pushed Lopez into senseless wars with Brazil and Uruguay. Lopez's own family regarded her with contempt. He never married her using as his excuse his prior marriage. One of them says of her "that she would rather break bread with a nigger than eat at the house of the Irish whore."
The book does not paint Eliza in at all a sympathetic way, there is nothing especially likable about her and she was probably just very lucky to some how captivate Lopez. The opening pages of the book give a very graphic description of her first sexual encounters with Lopez. I think she was smart enough to see what he wanted sexually and give it to him.
|"Eliza, good job on fleecing Lopez"|
I really liked this novel a lot. It made me feel ignorant in that I had never heard of Lynch and realized once again as a side effect of the reading life the great vastness of my ignorance about so many aspects of world history.
The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch: A Novel is, as far as I can see, Enright's only historical novel. I greatly enjoyed it and recommend with the only caution that the opening pages are very graphic sexually.
I hope over the next few months to read at least one work by the major 21st century Irish novelists. What and who should I read?
In 2004 Lilly Tuck won The National Book Award for a book based on Lynch, The News from Paraguay. Please leave a comment if you have read this book or any others based on Lynch.