Serving one’s country: a Paraguayan offering

By 27 February, 2012

2011 was the year of Paraguay’s bicentenary, but with so much news exploding all over the globe, it was not going to be very likely that anyone in Britain would have heard the fireworks. Still, not only did the Paraguayan Embassy (currently only consisting of three personnel) and ordinary Paraguayans living in England, keep the squib from the damp, they also managed to achieve a celebration to make their nation proud. Robert Munro, a Paraguayan living in Oxfordshire, is a prime example of this tireless dedication and determination. He commissioned a book on Paraguay and organised cultural events that straddled both nations. I had met him on some of these occasions and was so intrigued by his Diaghilev-like aura that I asked him to allow me to write this feature.

The elegant house in Appleton revealed little of Robert’s character and apart from a couple of paintings of rural Paraguay, two Paraguayan harps and the chipa, prepared by his English wife Rosemary, there was nothing that offered a flavour of South America. Only when we withdrew to the drawing room, did the impresario and his cultural heritage come to life.

“My interest in introducing Paraguayan culture to England started in 2004. I had taken early retirement from my banking job and I was determined to give something back to England; I therefore hurried to Paraguay to see what I could arrange. Seeing as Rosemary played the harp, we came to know some talented young harpists and decided to invite them to stay with us for three months. The visit proved successful and the numerous concerts naturally aroused an interest in Paraguay. This resulted in an all-inclusive cultural tour of Paraguay for twenty people. That’s how it all started and we have been working at this ever since!”

Robert proceeded to describe highlights of these expeditions and then moved on to some sobering stories of his charity work with deprived children in Paraguay. Filth, drug addiction and violence cast a shadow on the romantic picture he had painted of Asuncion, of the sparkling waterfalls and of the remote Jesuit villages. The gloom was only dispelled by his glow as he enthusiastically leaped from one success story to another. Occasionally there was sadness as he described instances where the children would lapse back into crime and addiction. Rosemary joined in here and both were keen to emphasise the Christian aspect of this work. Religion had been the topic at dinner, so I was not surprised at this, but considering I had not been served any dogma in between courses, I expect the children were not proselytized indiscriminately either.

“What about the Bicentenary?” I suggested. I had always suspected that there must have been a kinder face to patriotism and there it was: the gratitude for all that one received from ones country and the joy in sharing it with others. The Bicentenary was an opportunity. Robert delighted over all that Paraguay had to offer, from its music to its inspirational testament to endurance. How, for instance, it had managed to maintain its independence continually after it had been declared (the only South American country in the nineteenth century to have been able to do so); or how it had almost been completely annihilated, when Francisco Solano López resisted the joint forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870).

Robert’s book tells many of Paraguay’s stories since that defining declaration of independence in 1811; including some of the more bizarre ones, like Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s 1886 experiment with eugenics. As the title suggests, Paraguay 200 is a reflection on Paraguay’s two centuries of independence. Robert said that he wanted contributors who were experts in their fields to discuss specific aspects of Paraguay. The aim was to create something intelligent and appealing, but nothing too academic or guidebook-like.

Contributors included Luis Szarán, the Director of the Asunción City Symphonic Orchestra, writing on Paraguayan music and the author and historian Richard Gott who covered the first contact between native Indians and Europeans.

The book was launched at Canning House in London, courtesy of the Paraguayan Ambassador His Excellency Mr Miguel Angel Solano-López, the great-grandson of Francisco, mentioned above. It was presided over by Baroness Hooper who shares a deep interest in South America. The book was also launched in Paraguay where it received a good amount of media coverage.

“We had worked very hard on Paraguay 200, as we wanted everything to be just right. The pictures alone involved selecting from over two thousand submissions, so it was all very rewarding in the end. And it is still selling… slowly.”

We then moved onto the Agustín Barrios Mangoré recital he had organised at Bolivar House in London in November 2011. Robert had not only secured the full participation of the eminent British guitarist and composer Richard Durrant, but he had also built up to it by taking Durrant to Paraguay on tour. There, Durrant was officially declared an Illustrious Visitor and he was so taken with the whole experience that he called his new CD on Barrios The No 26 Bus to Paraguay. The concert was a success and unsurprisingly, the proceeds went to Ko’ eju, a children’s charity in Paraguay.

At this point I realised there was another side to Robert I had not yet aroused. I had witnessed it once at a concert of recently discovered “Bolivian Baroque.” Robert had challenged the conductor with a blend of passion and diplomacy: “So what is your opinion on Guaraní music?” The conductor hesitated and replied that he did not know about that. “Indeed”, Robert said when I reminded him of this: “there’s no such thing as Bolivian baroque! What could he say? Bolivia did not even exist as a nation when the music was composed by the Jesuits in the area. It is Guaraní music and was composed in the region that includes what is now also Paraguay.” Things were warming up.

“What about corruption?” I ventured, “Lugo has just declared it to be Paraguay’s greatest problem.” This did the trick! I finally had some pyrotechnics of my own as Robert compared the corruption in England to that in Paraguay. By the time he had finished covering some of the highlights of political corruption in English politics, including the Kelly affair, the expenses scandal and the Murdoch debacle, he had made his case quite poignantly that corruption knows no borders. This was a fitting end to a wonderful evening.

As Robert drove me back to Oxford, he told me about another of his projects: a boat he was helping to restore and convert into a hotel on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. “It had been taken there bit by bit,” he said. So, as I sat on my coach to London, aware that I had missed the last train to Croydon, the image of Robert, as Fitzcarraldo, the eccentric visionary in Hertzog’s film of the same name, pushing his boat up the mountain, kept coming back to me.

You can buy Paraguay 200 at Amazon

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