Paraguay - the name conjures up everything most exotic and extreme in South America. There are more hellish jungles, more dictators and their flamboyant mistresses, more surviving Nazis, more missionaries, more wild battles and lurid coups than perhaps anywhere.
For the timid it may be a country to avoid - a decision made easier because there isn't even a guidebook. But Paraguay, as revealed in this outstanding new book, is among the most beautiful and captivating countries in the world.
John Gimlette has written a brilliant evocation which captures its originality, passion, quirkiness and contradictions. It is a story of Jesuits, Nazis, Mennonites, appalling dictators and their mistresses (one of whom, the extraordinary Irish woman Madam Lynch, wore a ball gown in battle). The author follows their ghostly trails through the countryside to battlefields, sunken ironclads, hideouts and palaces. There are plenty of surprises; Japanese colonies, British railway stations and a vast lost national treasure (which Madam Lynch buried in a swamp and then had all the treasurymen shot).
The trail leads deep into the jungles of the north, where settlers have made themselves a tough new life. Then west to the Chaco, 'the Green Hell' which covers two thirds of the country but is only inhabited by 4 per cent of the people. This is Indian country and a harsh landscape of heat, thirst and snakes. The wildlife is extreme and exotic, including armadillos, jaguars, pre-historic lungfish and great fighting river fish.
Best of all are the beguiling Paraguayans. Despised and feared by their neighbours as Indians (although many are Slav, Irish and Korean), they are unfathomable. They adore Britain (hundreds volunteered to fight for Britain in the Falklands War) and are enthusiastic smugglers and harp-players. They have a taste for soccer and Worcestershire sauce and, when the Vice-President is murdered, they call in Scotland Yard.
John Gimlette is a well-established travel writer, having won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for the essay which grew into a book, and the Wanderlust Travel Writing Award. He writes regularly for a number of broadsheets and this is his first book. When not probing the extreme corners of the earth he practices as a barrister in London.