In his biographical novel The Way to Paradise the Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa displays the lives of the French trade unionist and early women’s rights activist Flora Tristán (7 April 1803 – 14 November 1844) and of her famous grand-son, the post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (7 June 1848 – 8 May 1903). The author highlights the common traits of their character as well as their search for the ideal and free life. When I first read the historical novel a few years ago, I was quite impressed by the double biography of those two outstanding and strong characters, so it seemed obvious to me to review it here.
Mario Vargas Llosa was born in Arequipa, Peru, in March 1936. Already as a teenager he took to writing and worked as a freelance journalist for local newspapers. While studying law and literature at the National University of San Marcos in Lima, Peru, he began to pursue his literary ambitions more seriously. His first short stories were published. For two years Mario Vargas Llosa continued his studies at the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain, and moved on to Paris in 1960 where he started to write with more verve. His first novel, The Time of the Hero (La ciudad y los perros), came out in 1963 and was an immediate success. In 1966 The Green House (La casa verde) followed receiving even more acclaim and being considered the finest as well as the most important of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novels up to the present day. During the following decades the prolific author brought out a new novel every three to four years along with non-fiction work. The Way to Paradise (El paraíso en la otra esquina which in Spanish is the name of a children’s game, by the way) was first released in 2003. For his life’s work Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010.
The Way to Paradise starts in April 1844 in a room in Paris, France, when Flora Tristán awakes at four o’clock in the morning, the day when she travels to Auxerre where she’s expected to give a trade unionist speech. Memory takes her back to her childhood. As the illegitimate child of a rich Peruvian she grew up in Paris with her poor French mother whom she despised for her miserable existence and for giving her away to the first man who wanted to marry her, the owner of the graphics and lithography workshop where she had been an apprentice, a syphilitic and violent drunkard without any respect for women. Paul Gauguin’s story, too, is told mainly through flashbacks and streams of consciousness. The account begins in Mataiea, Marquesas Islands, in 1892, when the painter had already been living in the Pacific Islands for a couple of years. In the novel the lives of Flora Tristán and her famous grand-son are interweaved although in reality they never met as Flora Tristán died before her grand-son was born. Alternating their stories throughout the twenty-two chapters of the novel, Mario Vargas Llosa shows the parallels of their respective flight from the social conventions of their time. Flora Tristán left her husband and devoted her entire life to the fight for women’s rights, workers’ rights and socialism. Paul Gauguin gave up his comfortable existence and his family in France in order to be a painter who seeks inspiration not only abroad, but also in sexual excesses with often very young Polynesian women. Their longing for freedom implied that they both had to face many struggles and hardships along with failing health caused by syphilis.
Overall The Way to Paradise gives an interesting insight into the character of those two historical figures who themselves never arrived in paradise, but inspired others to follow their way and continue their strivings for an ideal life and society. I’m not in the position to judge the historical accuracy of the novel, to me it seems close enough to the facts, though, and it introduced me to Flora Tristán who I had never heard of before. The narrative is written in a style that can capture readers like me and that shows that the author was an experienced one who knew what he did. At any rate, I enjoyed reading the book very much although critics say that in this novel Mario Vargas Llosa didn’t show his usual genius. I can’t judge it since The Way to Paradise is the only work of Mario Vargas Llosa that I know so far. Besides, there’s no accounting for tastes, is there?