The Way to Paradise
by Mario Vargas Llosa Translated by Natasha Wimmer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 384 pp. $25.00
Politics, specifically the violent politics of Latin American history, have a significant place in the work of the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. From the left-wing military junta that took power in Peru in the early 1960’s, which looms in the background of The Time of the Hero (1963) and Conversation in a Cathedral (1969), to the fascistic Trujillo dictatorship that controlled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961, which sits at center stage in The Feast of the Goat (2000), the brutal and arbitrary politics of his continent have inspired Vargas Llosa’s settings and, more importantly, his plots.
Indeed, Vargas Llosa, who was born in 1936, has himself taken an active interest in public affairs. His own political itinerary has taken him from a conventional position on the “anti-imperialist” Left to a keen appreciation of liberal democracy, with a special interest in the free-market economics promoted by his friend and compatriot Hernando de Soto. In 1990, he went so far as to contest the presidency of his country following the unhappy tenure of the last socialist president, Alan Garcia. He lost to the “samurai,” Alberto Fujimori, who, after defeating the Maoist terror movement “Shining Path,” proceeded to spoil his early success through increasingly authoritarian tendencies and corruption. The convulsions of those years are discussed in Vargas Llosa’s novel Death in the Andes (1993), and in the nonfiction A Fish in the Water (1993) and Making Waves (1997).
More so than politics, however, it is history, or more precisely biography, that inspires Vargas Llosa’s new novel, The Way to Paradise. Specifically, he is concerned with two real-life seekers after paradise: the French painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Gauguin’s maternal grandmother, the socialist and feminist agitator Flora Tristan (1803-1844). In alternating chapters, Vargas Llosa evokes the final days of these two figures as they mount their last assaults on the summits that, as we learn from extended flashbacks, they have separately sought for years. In Vargas Llosa’s hands, this interwoven method works nearly as well here as it did in his earlier The Feast of the Goat. Creating intimate portraits of his characters over time, he brings home, with an almost stunning familiarity, a set of obsessions with which any reader can identify—even though, in their own lives, the two fanatics who entertained these obsessions seemed bent on cutting themselves off from every form of normal human intercourse.
The Way to Paradise addresses, in fact, two disparate varieties of fanaticism, the one artistic, the other political. In Gauguin, Vargas Llosa depicts a creative genius, a man willing to sacrifice everything, including all conventional norms of behavior, to achieve his artistic goal. In the woman known in her own time as “Madame-la-Colère” (Lady Anger), he depicts a lover of humanity who abandons husband and family in pursuit of a better world, a new society founded on a “workers’ union” that will guarantee justice and ban war (as well as marriage).
Flora Tristan died before the birth of her much more famous grandson, but both grandmother and grandson shared a feminine connection. Flora’s mother, we learn from these pages, was a Frenchwoman; her father, a grandee from Arequipa, Peru, which happens to be Vargas Llosa’s home town. Although Flora herself would spend her life in France, her daughter Aline and her son-in-law Clovis Gauguin, a republican newspaperman, would flee to Peru when the liberal temper of the July monarchy gave way to repression. Clovis died during the journey, but Aline’s Peruvian family treated her and her children with great kindness. Thus, for several years of his childhood, until Aline returned to France, Paul was exposed to an exotic locale—a fact later seized upon by biographers seeking to interpret his eventual sojourn in Tahiti.
Not that the appeal of the exotic is sufficient to explain Gauguin’s truly momentous career move at the age of forty, which is when he quit a lucrative career as a stock broker to take up painting. Vargas Llosa’s portrait of the inner Gauguin is the novel’s most remarkable achievement. This is not the well-known figure of myth who championed the “primitive” as against the bourgeois but a man overflowing with a passion that, whatever outlets it may have found in the extolling of “primitive innocence” or in defiance of “civilization,” was in the end about something much greater and deeper.
As a youth, Gauguin had shipped out in the merchant marine and done military service in the French navy. Prior to settling down with a good job and a good wife, he had had his fill of adventure. The truth, as Vargas Llosa convincingly portrays it, is that his later wanderings, which brought him to Tahiti following periods in Brittany and Arles (where he infamously and tragically quarreled with his friend Vincent Van Gogh), accompanied a quest of fearsome intensity.
That quest was aesthetic, not anthropological or erotic. The lure of the Maori cultures of the South Pacific, with their appreciation of instinct and magic (rendering symbols both vivid and vital) and their absence of inhibitions (encouraging strong contrasts of color and form), was inexorably tied to the slow development of Gauguin’s artistic ideas. And the quest succeeded: he reinvented art. It also killed him, as it had to.
Just as Vargas Llosa gives us Gauguin the artist, not the Artist of sentimental legend, so with Flora Tristan he is more interested in the woman than in the Woman’s Champion. His portrait of her is sympathetic at every turn; in his telling, for instance, she emerges as less selfish in her behavior toward others than her grandson, and Vargas Llosa even defends her abandonment of her family by reference to her husband’s brutality.
Still, there is no doubt that he sees in the political activist a far more delusional character than in the artist. Art, for Vargas Llosa, transcends delusions, and when it is great it transforms them into delusion’s opposite: reality most deeply stated. Radical politics exacerbates delusions, manipulates them for the benefit of tyrants and incendiaries.
Other than biographical circumstance, what is the point of linking these two great stories of obsession? It would seem to be that the very notion of searching for paradise on earth requires certain common and identifiable character traits, no matter what the nature of the paradise being sought. It is fascinating to watch as Vargas Llosa’s two characters insist on accomplishing their missions—if they do not usher in an earthly paradise, at least they will die with the bittersweet satisfaction of having caught a glimpse of it. And, such is Vargas Llosa mastery of his art, the resulting book is both funny and pathetic, and full of surprises despite its foreordained conclusion. Both the young political firebrand and the middle-aged artist will die miserably, of (evidently) colon cancer in the former case, of syphilis and alcohol in the latter, yet as the characters approach their doom, Vargas Llosa builds up a dramatic momentum that becomes unstoppable.
His literary approach is quite different from that adopted some 80 years ago in The Moon and Sixpence (1919), an earlier novelistic treatment of the Gauguin myth by the British writer Somerset Maugham. Maugham undercut the myth by portraying the shockingly ruthless callousness of a man on an artistic mission, an amoralism pierced only by genius. Vargas Llosa, by contrast, tries to get inside the artist’s head and heart: he wants to show the pain that paves the way to an imagined paradise. His Gauguin is thus more accessible as a human being than Maugham’s Gauguin (aptly called Strickland), whose indifference to the world’s opinion is the armor that allows him to keep going even as his body fails him.
The Way to Paradise is a moving and profound meditation on the selfish single-mindedness, verging on madness, that comes with wanting to change the way things are—the way we see things, the way we live. It is a measure of Vargas Llosa’s achievement that, rather than feeling either dread or repugnance for his protagonists, we end by feeling both compassion and more than a little awe.