The Far Flung Review wishes to congratulate Mario Vargas Llosa for winning the 2010 Nobel prize for Literature. Llosa has always been one of our favorite figures in world literature, and we rally strongly to this decision. Llosa is preeminently international in scope and -- although his work is uneven in quality -- he has still written enough great books to be considered a major writer in every sense. He is also one of the most powerful standard bearers of what we might call (for want of a better word) the liberal tradition. For decades, he has been overshadowed by the other Latin American giant Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- but now he that he's gained the recognition he deserves he'll be read and appreciated for his own merits. Llosa's best work in our opinion is his (2000) The Feast of the Goat, a brilliant, horrifying portrait of a Caribbean (can anyone spell this word?) Trujillo like tyrant. His other undoubted achievements are Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a satire of magic realism, and (1984) The War of the End of the World, an epic and gripping account of a millenarian war that engulfed Brazil at the turn of the last century. The book reviewed here is one of Llosa's sweetest and kindest -- a rehabilitation of the bohemian cult itself in both its political and artistic dimensions. It is also a considerable artistic success.
The Way to Paradise
By Mario Vargas Llosa
UK: Faber & Faber, 2003.
“Sometimes he saw himself in Japan rather than the Marquesas. That was where you should have gone in search of Paradise, Koke, rather than coming to mediocre Polynesia. In the cultured country of the Rising Sun, all families were peasants nine months of the year, and artists for the remaining three.”
Chances are that Paul Gauguin (“Koke” in Maori), one of the two co-heroes of this book, would have been disillusioned with Japan as well, but it’s a lovely vision that the author Mario Vargas Llosa conjures up in the French expatriate painter’s mind as he waits calmly for death in his lonely hut on an island of the Marquesas.
The Way to Paradise by the famous Peruvian novelist is a compelling fictionalized twin biography of two figures not usually associated: Paul Gauguin, the legendary French post-Impressionist, and Flora Tristan, his grandmother, a social crusader and world traveler of the mid 19th century. Though they never met in real life, Llosa brings together their life threads in dozens of unexpected ways.
In a cleverly cross hatched pattern of alternating episodes, Llosa weaves together the two time streams of grandmother and grandson, who, though their narratives contrast starkly, had more in common than they realized -- both idealistic rebels, family deserters, and haters of the bourgeoisie (in which both could have lived comfortably). Gauguin, as is well known, gave up a career as a stockbroker for the undisciplined and impoverished life of the artist among the exotic tribes of the South Pacific. Flora, after a difficult adolescence, spent hers among the no less exotic political tribes of 19th century Europe, crusading for the rights of women and workers. Flora’s search for paradise took the form of leftist utopian futurism while Paul’s, ironically, took the form of an attempted return to the past – an apolitical primitivism.
If a page-turning contest between the two narratives were held, it might well be that Gauguin’s more sensational exploits would win hands down. He’s an outrageous monster, but bigger than life and so beyond judgment. Yet it’s Gauguin’s artistic vocation that interests Llosa more and where he has achieved the most in his recreation of the artist. Llosa not only recounts in lavish detail the high points of Gauguin’s career and travels, he also describes the creation of many of Gauguin’s most famous masterpieces, and at the end establishes their greatness as well as simple humanity. It’s a much deeper treatment of this artist than we find in the previous bet-known fictional work on Gauguin, W. S. Maugham’s otherwise delightful The Moon and Sixpence (he turns him into an unconvincing Brit).
Llosa’s novel can be seen as an intelligent defense of the long-embattled artist: he makes sure we note Gauguin’s anti-Colonialist leftist tendencies, and also emphasizes Gauguin’s multiculturalism before that term was invented; for good measure, Llosa gives Gauguin an amusing homosexual encounter with a mahu (man-woman) in Tahiti.
The author generally succeeds in enlivening the harsher materials of Flora’s disastrous marriage, broken family life and numerous energetic campaigns to “change the world.” Flora’s travels to England and South America, however, are in their way just as colorful and impressive as Paul’s journeys. On the way, the beautiful reformer is the object of many romantic designs (including one by Charles Fourier) -- but Flora’s rapist husband has soured her on sex – except for one affair with her disciple, Eleonore Blanc. Finally, her books, which were well-known at the time, have survived and generated a small scholarly industry. Flora holds her own with her grandson as she does with every other male she encounters.
The real connection between Flora and Paul is seen in their common cultural context and incendiary mood of 19th century France, in which artists, writers and politicos (generally anarchists, utopian and leftist) mixed it up in the revolutionary fervor of post-Napoleonic Paris. This 19th c. revolutionary ethos, by the way, links this novel with Llosa’s earlier War of the End of the World.
Though Paul never met his grandmother since she died before he was born, fellow gauchiste Camille Pissarro (Gauguin’s artistic mentor) did and was impressed by her Workers Union platform. In one of his final moments, Llosa has Paul remember Pissarro’s flattering words about Flora; though a physical and mental wreck, the aged painter is still combating the French colonial authorities who are threatening to imprison him over a tax revolt he organized among the natives to protest the colonial imposition. Flora, he thinks, “would be applauding.” Thus Flora and Paul, the social reformer and the libertine, join hands symbolically.
The Peruvian connection shared by the two principals may be what brought their intertwined stories to Llosa’s attention: Flora had rich relatives in the country and spent several eventful years in Arequipa; Paul came to Peru with his mother, Aline Gauguin, whose husband died on the same sea journey. Best-known for powerful political narratives such as The Feast of the Goat and The War of the End of the World as well as the delightful farce Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Mario Vargas Llosa has again produced a book of uncommon vitality and depth.
--HJ/JD Originally published in Kyoto Journal summer issue, no. 61: 93