Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa

Reviews of Mario Vargas Llosa's The Way to Paradise.

The bold, dynamic and endlessly productive imagination of the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the writing giants of our time, is something truly to be admired. It feeds almost always on the material of history and transforms such matter into fiction quite personal without ever losing the effect of universality. Nothing demonstrates this better than his latest novel, "The Way to Paradise," a dual narrative about the life and work of Paul Gauguin and his grandmother, the political organizer Flora Tristan.
As with any great writer, Mario Vargas Llosa makes us see clearly what we have been looking at all the while but never noticed -- in this case, the Peruvian connection to one of Europe's first utopian activists and one of the late 19th century's greatest artists -- and their links to each other.

You can find the review here

In Latin, the title of Vargas Llosa's new novel might translate as Sic Itur Ad Astra. But it is another Latin tag which the book suggested in this reader: Ars longa, vita brevis.

It is the story of two real-life figures from the 19th century: one an artist, Paul Gauguin, whose immortality is secure; the other a female suffragist and pamphleteer, Flora Tristan, whose legacy has been largely forgotten. Everyone knows those incomparable Tahitian nudes. But who now reads Peregrinations of a Pariah or On the Need to Give a Warm Welcome to Foreign Women?

Llosa has combined the two life stories in one novel, alternating between the two with fugal delicacy, for the excellent reason that Flora Tristan was the grandmother of the painter. She died before Gauguin was born and went down in family folklore as "that meddlesome madwoman".

You can find the review here

Might it be possible, for once, to judge Mario Vargas Llosa's novel by its cover? Exotically curled around the spine of the book is a striking reproduction of Paul Gauguin's masterpiece, Manao Tupapau, a disturbingly voyeuristic vision of the painter's adolescent Maori lover, tormented in her sleep by ancient Tahitian demons.

Gauguin lived the kind of life that even his literary idol, Victor Hugo, would be hard-pressed to invent: a sailor, stockbroker and Sunday-painter who, in his mid-30s, abandoned his bourgeois wife and family to rediscover the primitive in himself; first in Brittany, where his best friend made a present of his ear, before booking a passage to French Polynesia on an outward ticket to disaster. Romantic novelists and film-makers have rehashed and travestied this story ever since. What is remarkable is the transformation when an unromantic novelist such as Vargas Llosa takes over.

It was perhaps inevitable that the greatest living Peruvian novelist should be attracted to Gauguin, as the painter himself spent his formative years in Peru. Surprisingly, Vargas Llosa glosses over this childhood period, as his chief interest lies in the strange combination of stasis and inspiration Gauguin experienced in Tahiti. Having travelled to the South Seas, Gauguin did not paint what he saw so much as express his frustration with what he found. His putative paradise was not quite as simple as he imagined. Rather than an untramelled Eden, Tahiti turned out to be a decadent colonial backwater - the first time Gauguin plunged naked into a stream, a gendarme popped up and charged him with offending public morality.
Vargas Llosa wryly dramatises this and many similar instances of Gauguin's troubles in Tahiti - not least the fact that he meekly accepted minor bureaucratic office in the colonial administration to pay his hospital bills. But where the novel really flares into life is in the fleeting descriptions of the creative process - the maddeningly unpredictable moments when Gauguin briefly found what he had been looking for.

You can find the review here

His new novel, ''The Way to Paradise,'' draws heavily on history, or rather two histories. There is no question of transfiguring. Only occasionally does the book even amount to filling in history, and rarely very shrewdly. It is more in the nature of lavish personal decorating, with speculative sorties.

The histories have twin protagonists: Paul Gauguin and Flora Tristán, his Franco-Peruvian grandmother. Just two of the celebrated degrees of separation lay between them, but they were enough to mark out a vast distance between the tumultuous-living painter of polychromatic, totemlike figures in Brittany and the South Seas and the puritanical, self-unsparing woman who struggled around France in the 1840's to campaign for workers' and women's rights.

What did Tristán and Gauguin -- born four years after her death -- have in common? A fiery temper, a fierce unconventionality and a driving impulse toward their two very different extremes. Vargas Llosa's novel follows the extremes in alternate narrative loops without constructing a fictional mean, or even much of a fictional connection. The main connection, in fact, is the author himself. Besides relating his characters' lives he interrogates them persistently, and in an intimate second person that quickly does more than irritate, and creates special awkwardness for Natasha Wimmer's otherwise diligent translation.

You can find the review here

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