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The International Writers Magazine: The Chaco War

Paradise Lost
Des Daly

We arrived a little early for Theo’s 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.
Maia 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.

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 don’t understand, what’d 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 child’s 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 one hand.
‘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?’
‘Don’t be silly, Theo, you old sweety ’, said Maia, ‘we’re 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 garden area.
‘Hend,’ said Theo, he had a habit of shortening my name to a single syllable,
‘I want you to meet a good friend of mine - Nitsuga Mangore, he’s a musician.’

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 English.
‘Mister Hend,’ he said, his voice soft and lyrical ‘I am glad to meet you and your most attractive wife, you’re very lucky’.
‘Oh, Maia is not my wife, not yet anyway, and my name is Henderson, Richard 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, I’m 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 today.
‘There’s not much that misses my attention Hend'. He said, ‘It’s 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 he’d invited them tonight as well.
'Hend', he said gripping my arm, ‘It’s all about oil in the Chaco’s you know. They think that there’s 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 it’s a fact that where there’s oil there’s trouble. Theo agreed and hoped that something good would come out of it but he couldn’t 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 don’t insult our friendship or my intelligence by feigning ignorance of the matter?’
‘You know I can’t 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 – I’m 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, I’m convinced we’re about to be invaded – and I’m 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 people’s 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 wasn’t 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 trouble.

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 Theo’s 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 he’d 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 Theo’s 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 couldn’t quite catch what it as, but it sounded like Dent was drunk and had upset Theo with a comment about Theo’s 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 Mangore’s guitar and asked him what the hell he thought he was doing.
'Yo’ Limey boy', Dent slurred,' I’m playing this here guitar. Whass it look like? Anyway, I’m enjoying myself, something you Brits, with your stiff upper lips seem to find so difficult to do - so le’me have some fun won’t 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 Mangore’s 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 Reno’s Cuban heeled cowboy boots sticking up in the air. Eventually Dent was ushered out by Theo and two stocky chauffeurs who’d 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 and said,
‘Don’t worry darling. I know there really are no snakes in the trees.’

Postscript:: The Bolivians eventually crossed the border and invaded the Chaco’s. 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 people’s army fought a successful guerrilla campaign and the Guarani language was used for all military radio communications denying the Bolivia’s vital intelligence. Mangore named his new work ‘la cathedra’ and went on to become one of the world’s 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 Chaco’s.

© Des Daly December 2007

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