International Writers Magazine: The Chaco War
picked up a copy of a high society magazine from a glass topped table
and stretched herself out on a leather and chrome S shaped lounger that
she said afterwards was more far comfortable than it looked. Maia was
never quieter than when she was engrossed in glossy society magazines
and she turned over the pages with the measured precision of a Rabbi reading
from the Talmud.
We arrived a
little early for Theos party and were shown into an ante-room
that led off from the highly polished marbled floored hallway by
a young Mestizo maid servant who said that we should not have to
wait too long before Senor Ortega would come to welcome us.
Through a tall window that overlooked the landscaped gardens I could see
some workmen busy uncoiling strings of coloured electric light bulbs that
they were then weaving through the floss silk trees that lined the edge
of the lawns. Maia wanted me to look at an article on this years
New York Autumn fashion designs and handed up the magazine open at the
page to see if I liked the navy blue overcoat with or without the real
fox fur trimmed collar. I said that fur is okay until it gets wet and
then it looks sad and cheap. I kept the magazine and turning to the front
cover page saw that inside there was an exclusive interview with Mrs Wallis-Simpson
but found that strangely it had been removed earlier.
Meanwhile Maia had got up and was looking out of the window.
Ughh! She shivered, I hate snakes.
Sorry, I dont understand, whatd you mean snakes.
I asked her.
She said that the coloured light festoons looped throughout the trees
looked like snakes and that her and snakes have a history and positively
do not get along. I told her to just think of the lights as the coloured
beads in a childs threading game and they would look far less frightening
at least until they were switched on at dusk and then they would
look gay and beautiful.
To keep her mind off the snakes I passed Maia back the magazine and she
began once again purposely slowly turning the pages. Just then the door
opened and in came Theo balancing a tray of empty champagne glasses on
Henderson, Maia, so really good to see you both, he
paused and turned his head to one side and said mischievously.
You are still an
a, a couple I hope?
Dont be silly, Theo, you old sweety , said Maia, were
almost joined at the hip now you know. She looked across at me and
I could see that see that she really was very happy.
Theo looked a lot younger than his 62 years and put his youthful looks
down to bachelorhood coupled with more than a touch of exoteric Catholicism.
The maid came back into the room and carefully took the tray of glasses
from Theo who we then followed through the cool hallway, where it seemed
that every inch of space on the walls was covered by an interesting old
painting or an object, past the library and out into a trellis roofed
Hend, said Theo, he had a habit of shortening my name to a
I want you to meet a good friend of mine - Nitsuga Mangore, hes
Nitsuga Mangore sat on the edge of a white wicker chair. He wore his glossy
black hair long and swept back from his forehead that accentuated his
dark melancholic eyes. He was handsome though in that South American way
that some ladies find irresistible and wore a neat moustache. He was dressed
in the colourful native dress of the Paraguayan Guarani Native Indians
and was quietly strumming cords on a short necked folk guitar.
Pleased to meet you, Mangore, I said and we shook hands. I
noticed that the finger nails on his right hand were long and had been
carefully manicured almost to points. Theo told us that Mangore was a
fellow guest at the party but if we were very very lucky he may even play
something for us tonight. Theo looked at Mangore who simply raised an
eyebrow as if to say that he was a little put out by the request but nevertheless
it was fine by him. Mangore then turned to me and said in clear unaccented
Mister Hend, he said, his voice soft and lyrical I am
glad to meet you and your most attractive wife, youre very lucky.
Oh, Maia is not my wife, not yet anyway, and my name is Henderson,
So sorry Mr Henderson, Mangore carefully emphasizing the son,
I assumed when I saw come in that you were a married couple as you
both totally at ease with each other.
Richard is with the British delegation, said Theo, a
junior civil servant or something or other.
Yes, Im afraid that I am a very junior civil servant all right
but I work for the defence attaché. I added.
We sat on the plump blue and silver padded cushions that were scattered
on the chairs and Mangore got up and placed his guitar back in large black
carrying case the came back over to join us. He spoke very good English
and had a keen interest in the affairs of the British Royals. I wondered
if it been him who had cut the article about Mrs Wallis Simpson out of
the magazine. I wanted to ask him, but I did not want to appear foolish
if he knew nothing about it. Eventually I mentioned it to Theo that there
was an article in the magazine in the ante-room about the American women,
or there should have been. Theo laughed and held up both hands and said
that he was sorry as he was guilty of removing that article and had pasted
it in his scrapbooks of news items that he finds interesting in the world
Theres not much that misses my attention Hend'. He said, Its
a habit that I just cannot break myself of.
Maia and Mangore began discussing the great Spanish classical guitar musicians;
Fernando Sor, Terraga and Segovia and they seemed to be getting along
like old friends.
Theo said that he wanted a word with me in private. He indicated that
we should leave the garden and I followed him back inside the house into
the library. Theo closed the library door before telling that there were
some Americans from an oil Company staying in Asunción and that
hed invited them tonight as well.
'Hend', he said gripping my arm, Its all about oil in the
Chacos you know. They think that theres millions of barrels
of the stuff just lying out there waiting to be extracted and the snarling
wolves of capital are gathering to be a part of the exploitation.
I lied when I said it was the first I had heard of this, as at the Embassy
we knew only to well that there was a growing political and military tension
in the region since the talk of oil being discovered with Bolivia doing
some pretty aggressive sabre rattling and Argentina publicly aligning
itself behind Paraguay there was going to be bad trouble in the
Chacos alright, it was just a matter of time.
I said that maybe it would be a good thing for Paraguay or maybe
it would be the worst thing... as its a fact that where theres
oil theres trouble. Theo agreed and hoped that something good would
come out of it but he couldnt see anything good at the moment. What
I want to know Hend is how many of those devilish little tanks has your
country sold to Bolivia and please dont insult our friendship or
my intelligence by feigning ignorance of the matter?
You know I cant tell you that Theo, I said. 'But I do
know that those tanks you talk of were manufactured in Birmingham and
were shipped out of Southampton earlier on this year and have been transported
by rail and road to somewhere in Bolivia Im afraid I really
do not know exactly where.'
'Let me tell you where they are then', replied Theo, his tone hardening
a little. 'Those six tanks you say left England are now on the Izozog
marshes along with over 5000 Bolivian troops who are just waiting to cross
into Paraguayan territory. Hend, my dear old friend, Im convinced
were about to be invaded and Im getting very concerned'.
I could see Theo was really worried about what may happen. I asked him
what he thought Paraguay would or could do if they were invaded. Theo
said that the peoples army of Paraguay would try to repel them with
all of the means at their disposal.
You British, suddenly asked Theo, what do you want out
of this? Are with us or those currently poised on the edge of the marshes?
Of course we British wanted something out of this we always do
want something out of every regional or national conflict. I was genuinely
fond of Theo and found it hard to manipulate the situation for our ends
without feeling guilty about using him.
I recalled the words of Sir Leon Chalfont, whose series of lectures entitled
Political morality and the ethics of imperial intervention,
had dealt with the concept of the British Foreign Office being somewhat
erroneously considered as the puppet master of the world politics . He
had asserted that it wasnt quite as simple as that, as even puppet
masters needed to be identified; they need the financial support to set
their puppet shows up and thereafter to be continuously and intelligently
supported whilst they pulled the strings and that precisely is the area
where the British diplomatic corps must strive to operate in and moreover,
excel at what they do. Anyway, Theo was my puppet though, through and
through and we had every intention of supporting Paraguay if there was
I also knew that Theo had good reason to be worried as the Bolivians were
intending on crossing into Paraguay to seize some of the land where oil
was thought to be. There seemed little now that would stop them and according
to our intelligence the Paraguayans were in for a tough time. The Bolivians
not only had tanks, but they also had aircraft too Junker bombers
from Germany flown by experienced pilots that could rain death and destruction
from 20,000 feet with impunity. Theo did not know about that and I could
not tell him either as we wanted to see the effectiveness of high level
bombing on ground troops. It was going to be an interesting one I thought.
We met the two American oil men on our way back to the garden. They had
that distasteful air of financial and moral superiority that Americans
seem to display when travelling outside the USA. Reno was an exploration
man, grossly overweight and sweating profusely, whilst Grover was a geologist
with an interest in minerals and hydrocarbons. They had both been admiring
the walls paying particular interest to a painting of two magnificent
lapacho trees in bloom.
Theo said that it was indeed a most beautiful painting, in fact his favourite
an original by Pablo Alborno, given to him by the artist himself
on his 60th birthday. Grover asked if that was where they get the native
medicine from and Theo explained how the native Indians had used an infusion
made from the inner bark of the lapacho for centuries to cure a whole
host of aliments. He said that it figured strongly in Guarani culture
and could be worth to the world more than that oil you parasites are looking
for. Reno seemed taken aback a bit by Theos directness but quickly
recovered his composure.
We rejoined Maia and Mangore in the garden and another guy was sitting
with them. He was another American with a ridged scar that crossed his
nose and ran down to his lip, an author apparently by the name of Dent
and hed said that he was just travelling the world looking for adventures.
He was slurring his words slightly and had been drinking prior to his
arrival He was an interesting guy though and, seemed to have done many
different things and had recently become a qualified radio operator.
Mangore asked the servant for a glass of water in Guarani. Dent seemed
greatly interested in the language Mangore had used and said that to him
it was completely unintelligible he wondered if privacy or security
could be almost guaranteed when communicating by radio if an obscure language
was used. The idea seemed to be a novel one but certainly had its merits
for military use and I saw Theo scribble some notes in a pocket book afterwards.
About an hour later the celebrations really got going and the place was
full of Theos quests. Maia had finally managed to drag herself away
from Mangore and she was full of him and his music. I asked her if she
wanted a proper drink rather than the Champagne that was a little too
warm for our liking and she said that a long tall Gordons dry with just
a dash of tonic and lots of ice and a lemon slice would be just fine.
The shiny-faced barman must have misheard what I ordered and poured out
a pink gin with no ice. Maia took it anyway and headed off to the bottom
of the garden to sit under the silk floss trees that were now lit by the
coloured bulbs and looked splendid.
I had tried to find Dent as the idea of using Guarani to communicate intrigued
me. I could hear guitar music coming from the garden and found Dent dancing
a lively Polka with the wife of the French Ambassador. That Mangore really
could play and seemed to be enjoying himself.
Later Maia came up to me and whispered something in my ear. With the music
and the general noise coming from the party I couldnt quite catch
what it as, but it sounded like Dent was drunk and had upset Theo with
a comment about Theos sexuality. We all knew that Theo had never
married and certainly was rarely seen in the company of women on his own
if anything though he was asexual.
I saw Dent standing on a tables strumming wildly on Mangores guitar
and asked him what the hell he thought he was doing.
'Yo Limey boy', Dent slurred,' Im playing this here guitar.
Whass it look like? Anyway, Im enjoying myself, something you Brits,
with your stiff upper lips seem to find so difficult to do - so leme
have some fun wont yer.
Clearly the champagne had got to Dent and he was looking the worse for
it. By now Reno and Groves was trying to wrestle Mangores guitar
from him but in the struggle Dent pushed Reno so hard that he fell backwards
over a low garden wall so all I could see were Renos Cuban heeled
cowboy boots sticking up in the air. Eventually Dent was ushered out by
Theo and two stocky chauffeurs whod been waiting in the hallway
and things quietened down.
After midnight we joined the few remaining guests sitting with Theo in
a group under the silk floss trees and Mangore played some of his latest
compositions for us, he said he did not have a name for it yet. Maia said
that she imagined that the music was being played in a cathedral
Mangore liked that idea.
The night air was getting damp and Maia began to shiver. She snuggled
up to me and I put my arm around her shoulders. She was still shivering
Dont worry darling. I know there really are no snakes in the
Postscript:: The Bolivians eventually crossed the
border and invaded the Chacos. Tanks and bombers were used together
for the first time in modern regionalised warfare and were closely watched
by the countries preparing for the pending war in Europe. The Paraguayan
peoples army fought a successful guerrilla campaign and the Guarani
language was used for all military radio communications denying the Bolivias
vital intelligence. Mangore named his new work la cathedra
and went on to become one of the worlds greatest classical guitar
musicians. Theo suffered a stroke the following spring and spent the remainder
of his life in a care home. After extensive exploration by oil companies
it was found that there was no oil in the Chacos.
© Des Daly December 2007
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