I rarely read novels more than once. There are some I have read several times, but the list might just run to double figures. I have read The Way To Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa twice, but not for the usual reasons. First time, though, I was so disappointed with the book that I thought I had to be mistaken. So I waited a few months and read it again. Second time through I enjoyed it much more but, on finishing it, I had many of the same reservations as I did the first time around.
The Way To Paradise juxtaposes two stories which, in essence, deal with how people pursue ideals. It identifies the inevitable selfishness associated with a person’s obsession to achieve, how pragmatism and compromise inevitably dictate daily routine, and how fate, unpredictable and unyielding, has the ultimate say on all of our endeavours.
The two stories of The Way To Paradise are related by family. One describes how the French painter Paul Gauguin left his job as a mildly successful stockbroker to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. A closet painter while he acted out the humdrum of nine-to-five to provide for his thoroughly and properly domesticated Danish wife and five children, Paul Gauguin drooled over canvases by impressionist painters such as Manet. The latter’s nude depiction of Olympia played a significant role in crystallising Gauguin’s ambitions. A provocative and highly erotic painting it is, for sure. What Gauguin did not know, it seems, was that the sitter shared the name of his grandmother’s lesbian lover. It would add poignancy to the story if the painting’s subject was actually the grandmother’s lover, but the decades don’t add up.
Flora Tristan, Paul Gauguin’s grandma, was born into potential wealth. But she was illegitimate, her wealthy Peruvian father having sired her via a poor French mother. So she grew up in poverty. She marries. She hates sex, abhorring everything to do with the act, so the marriage to an impatient husband does not last. There is a child, but there is also violence, threats, public scenes and estrangement. Flora takes up the struggle for women’s rights, workers’ rights and socialism. She dresses as a man to research the experience of prostitutes. She travels from town to town giving presentations and speeches to guilds, assemblies of the poor and groups of women.
Both Paul Gauguin and Flora Tristan travel. The artist, of course, as we all know, went to live on various Pacific islands, where he painted most of the works that now make him famous. But at the time, the experience was far from idyllic. Having wanted to escape the constricting conventions and conservatism of France, he found it reincarnated in the officialdom that dealt with him, his poverty, and his illness, syphilis, which rendered him smelly, pussy and unsightly. One can only imagine what his grandmother would have thought of his processing of local women, whom he painted, infected, made pregnant and then deserted, sometimes in that order. The grandson was doing what the grandmother would have despised, derided. But then the women on the receiving end weren’t Europeans, were they?
Flora travelled to Peru in an attempt to claim the inheritance of her birthright. In South America, with colonial heritage all around, she brushed shoulders with the rich, with a way of life she could only dream about in Europe. The experience galvanised her, created the resolution to seek change, a resolve that drove her through her remaining years, prompted her to write, to seek self-expression that might widen and convince her audience.
And so both grandmother and grandson pursue their own ideals, never consciously attaining them, of course, but the pursuit, like the life that bears it, is the point. The process is the end, the product merely existence.
In reviewing The Way To Paradise I find I have taken much more from the book than I thought. I had problems with the style in that its unidentified narrator constantly seemed to address Flora and Paul directly, referred to them as ‘you’, almost implying that they were acquaintances. On reflection, that might be part of the book’s point, in that celebrity renders those who possess it the friends of anyone. Both characters are thus part of our own common history. We already know them as Paul and Flora. In the case of Paul Gauguin, however, we meet a much lauded, selfish, self-obsessed, perhaps, painter whom everyone recognises. In Flora Tristan, Mario Vargas Llosa tells us, we have a member of the same family who ought to be known better than she is. In contrast with her grandson, however, her selflessness, her energy, her purity, paradoxically, identify her as a figure worthy of respect, worthy of history. The Way To Paradise was clearly worth its second read.