Monday, November 19, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“TICKET TO PARADISE” by Ben Stubbs (ABC Books – Harper/Collins, $NZ34:99)

            As any modern writer of travel books knows, you cannot now serve up books that simply describe foreign sights and sounds, or ask readers to gasp at what is exotic. Too many travelogues and TV documentaries have been made for such an approach to justify a book. Leave the bland descriptions and listings to tourist guides, Lonely Planet handbooks and private travel blogs. A full-length travel book, intended to be read from cover to cover, has to have a gimmick, or at least a hook of some sort, to justify the book-length narrative.

            In his first book, the young Australian travel writer Ben Stubbs has a very good hook indeed. He wasn’t just travelling to Paraguay to take in the scenery. He was travelling there to find out what became of the descendants of a bunch of idealistic Aussie socialists, who went to Paraguay over a century ago to set up a perfect community.

            Ticket to Paradise cuts back and forth between slices of Paraguayan history, and the author’s experience of modern Paraguay, or “el culo del mundo” (“the arsehole of the world”) as other Hispanics sometimes rudely call it.

            In 1891, after the cockies, squatters and army had broken the big shearers’ strike in Australia, the radical socialist journalist William Lane persuaded over 200 Australians that they could build a socialist paradise in some isolated corner of the world, far from capitalist bosses. After some scouting, they found a place in deepest Paraguay. The Paraguayan government was ready to unload it for free. (Shattered by a genocidal war a few years before, the Paraguayan government was anxious to assist anyone who would help them repopulate.)

            In 1893, the Australians arrived and began to set up “New Australia”.

            William Lane had that odd mixture of  genuine communitarianism and white-supremacist racism which was common to many working-class movements in the late nineteenth century. His original rules told the settlers “It is right living to share equally because selfishness is wrong; to teetotal because liquor drinking is wrong; to uphold marriage and keep white because looseness of living is wrong.” [quoted Page 19]. So he expected all the males of the community to drink no alcohol and to shun native Paraguayan women – especially the Guarani Indians, whose land they were really taking over. As Stubbs puts it: “Despite the Guarani’s claim to the area, Lane and his Utopians simply couldn’t cohabit, as these dark-skinned natives would cloud their precious colour line and break rule three of their racist creed”. [Page 72]

            Inevitable tensions arose, and in a very few years the mass of Aussie settlers had rebelled against Lane’s autocratic rule and reverted to capitalist ways of private ownership – as well as drinking whisky and taking Paraguayan wives and mistresses. The minority who remained loyal to Lane’s vision hived off to form their own true socialist community which they called New London. But this too fell apart after Lane himself gave up and left. By 1908 all lands of the two Aussie settlements were divvied up for private ownership and only a third little settlement called Cosme was trying to wave the red flag.

            New Zealanders will have a horse laugh when they discover that William Lane gave up his original socialism. He became a staunch conservative and upholder of the British Empire and white overlordship. In his later years he settled in Auckland and during the First World War became editor of a rag that then supported his new creed – the New Zealand Herald.

            So where does this leave the young travel writer in 2010, as he visits the descendants of the Aussie settlers? He finds some people who speak only Guarani or Spanish, but have names like Smith, Kennedy and Casey. He finds very ambiguous attitudes towards Australia. Many descendants profess to be not in the least interested in their Australian ancestry. Others are angry that Australia still has no official representation or consulate in Paraguay, so it is impossible for them to establish Australian links. Most think of themselves as Paraguayans. Some have enough ancestral knowledge to make wry comments. One descendant says of the Utopian enterprise: “They were looking for an impossible dream. Single men used to shearing sheep and drinking beer all of a sudden expected to act like squires.” [Pg.212]

            Stubbs is rather alarmed to discover that a number of these Aussie-Paraguayans, living in an isolated area far from the city, tell him that things were a lot better for them under the long and brutal dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1953-89). Then, they say, they knew where they stood and they were left in peace. Now, with Paraguay’s very shaky democracy, there is corruption everywhere, public officials are slacker and more palms have to be greased to get things done.

            Stubbs is an amiable guide and a fluent speaker of Spanish who obviously has an emotional connection to South America. A couple of times he tells us that his wife is Argentinian. Before the book gets to Paraguay, it lingers first in Buenos Aires and then in Montevideo. There are times when Stubbs’ writing can go slack and dip into purple clichés, as in the first part of the following:

            “Buenos Aires is one of the world’s most intoxicating cities, known for its football, curvaceous women, tango, passion, carnivorous delights and the arrogance of the beautiful people. Portenos (the people of the port, as they call it in Buenos Aires) call it the Paris of South America; most Argentinians have never been to France and they don’t feel the need to confirm the description. My wife often delights in telling me that ‘God is everywhere, Ben, but of course he has his office in Buenos Aires’ ” [Page 35]

            As he reaches the end of his journey, there are also signs of a little exasperation with Paraguayan ways, and a growing homesickness for Oz, as when he tells us:

            “In Australia the road rules are easy. You drive in your lane, you use your blinkers to indicate, and you use the horn to get attention. In Paraguay, things are much more fluid. Traffic lights are suggestions rather than impediments, people drive two to a lane or wherever they are comfortable, and seatbelts are only used in the front seats – and  fitted more for police to make pocket money than as a safety device.” [Pg.236]

            The toxic-smelling grot of the huge slums; the sense of menace in the cities; the sweaty “green hell” of the Chaco; the crudity of a local bullfight – this is all conveyed vividly enough.

            I would have to add, however, that the last sixty pages of this 300-page book seem a bit of an afterthought.

            Having dealt with Paraguay’s general history, and the general history of the Australian Utopias there, Stubbs devotes five swift, magazine-article-like chapters to other groups who have attempted to set up ideal communities in Paraguay. First the Jesuit “reductions” three hundred years ago, which attempted to protect the native tribes from the worst predations of European slave-traders, until the King of Spain put the boot in and expelled the Jesuits from Spanish territories. Then a moderately successful settlement of Japanese after the First World War. Then the terrifying “New Germany” colony that was planted by Friedrich Nietszche’s sister among others (anti-Semitic and pure Aryan, it lasted long enough to be a haven for at least some fleeing Nazis after the Second World War). Then a chapter on a formerly-cannibal tribe, the Ache. And finally the terribly efficient (and Indian-exploiting) Mennonite community, derived from a German Anabaptist sect.

            I think the author dashes through these things a little impatiently, and without making the same connections he makes in the “Australian” bits.

            Ticket to Paradise still justifies itself as the new style travel book which expresses an attitude and has more to offer than a naïve gasp at exotic peculiarities.

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