Vargas Llosa knows where paradise lies
Blinded by syphilis, rotting alive, Paul Gauguin, just before his death, attempts to turn the wild secret of the South Seas into color. Around 50 years earlier, Flora Tristán heads to the shantytowns of major European cities, she sees the excesses of prostitution in London, the adverse conditions of workers, their wives and children in Paris.
The revolution of modernity has different faces. Mario Vargas Llosa, in his most recent novel “Paradise Elsewhere” (“El Paraíso en la otra Esquina”, 2003), dedicated himself to the portrait of two notable nineteenth-century rebels: the artistic revolutionary Gauguin and the social fighter Flora Tristán.
The amazing thing: Beyond biological affinity – Gauguin is a grandson of Flora – Vargas Llosa discovers mental parallels in seemingly contrasting, incoherent lives. The author alternately presents a chapter from the life of Flora and one of the Gauguin, creating a mutual illumination, contrasting and, above all, a consequent parallelization of destinies, visions and ideas. It is incomprehensible because it seems to be two stories that would be better told separately; unbelievable, because the reader then realizes: the historically founded biographies and circumstances describe one and the same fight against the civilized civilization with all its injustices. “Paradise is Elsewhere” is a book about the social and artistic revolution of modernity, which has brought spiritual history into the 20th century – and within 50 years, within a family – within a book. A real trick full of seditious speech.
The novel begins with the rebellion of the characters: Flora, abused by her rightful husband, raped and charged in court, persecuted by the police, who passes escaped wives to the hangman, has declared war on French civilization. From then on she fights in pamphlets such as “L’Union ouvrière” or “The Rides of a Paria” – to whose new edition (2004) Vargas Llosa wrote the preface – for social justice for workers and women. She moves from city to city, hostile to the authorities, and collects supporters for her modern state concept. Paul Gauguin, on the other hand, has no reason to complain about his fate: he sits firmly in the saddle of the company as a well-paid stock exchange employee. But he catapults himself from civilization into barbarism. At the age of 30, he discovers his passion for painting and questions the way of life of his time. He flees from bourgeoisie and marriage to the land of savages, freedom, simplicity and sexual freedom. From then on, he paints with his South Sea images against the social concept of the Western world.
This struggle, culminating in both Flora and Gauguin’s destruction of the family and the self, in dire illness and agonizing death, unites the two characters. They are rebels against the fetters of society. Both have their reckless visions: they dream of paradise. Vargas Llosa combines this central theme with a children’s game that spans the novel and meets Gauguin and Flora. The game is the search for the lost paradise, which continues in an endless chain of hope and disappointment, for a lifetime, across generations. For Gauguin, paradise is the wildness, the natural people. However, first in Tahiti, then on the Marquesas, he has to realize that the western world has already arrived. This does not change his attempts to incite the natives to resistance. For Flora, paradise is the overcoming of wildness, the creation of a true, just civilization. And here you realize: Where the ideas of Flora and Paul intersect, they begin to diverge. Both want something similar, only with different means, with different motivation. Thus, in the first Gauguin chapters, the sexual act of the painter is portrayed with ruthless language and attention to detail as a means of self-realization. Sometimes too shocking for the reader. But the intention has succeeded: Gauguin should not be stylized alone to the artistic innovator. Vargas Llosa also provides the reader with the dark side of the French, who seemed to be sucking out his environment for his own inspiration. The woman as a sexually subordinate and exploited being (“She was just a pair of sweaty thighs, a pair of firm breasts, one sex”) – this is the point where Gauguin and his grandmother are diametrically opposed.
Overall, “Paradise is Elsewhere” has from the beginning a pull that makes you forget the thickness of 500 pages. The novel is not only colorful and varied, but extremely well researched and descriptive. Vargas Llosa tells so aptly that the images that arise in the mind’s eye, surprisingly coincide with the original paintings. A misunderstanding in the German edition is there only the cover picture – although a major work Gauguin from the South Seas, “Nafea fea ipoipo – When do you marry?”, But not described by Vargas Llosa in the novel. Suhrkamp would have preferred to choose “Pape moe” or “Manao tupapao – the spirit of the dead wakes”, which are important in the novel.
But the art-historical heart is reconciled when it goes back to the narrative that quotes the nineteenth-century history of artistic development: from Gauguin’s break with Impressionism in the guise of his friend and teacher Camille Pissarro about Van Gogh’s vision of an artistic community the color theory Zumbul-Zadés (“Paper Gauguin”) to the influence of Edouard Manet on the impressionists and post-Impressionists – Vargas Llosa knows all this.
The greatest recommendation for a fascinating book full of struggle and zest for action, which incites the reader to cheer, to investigate, to learn more about Gauguin, his paintings and his unusual grandmother, the visions of the 19th century and the social and artistic ideas of the time.
The Way to Paradise
by Mario Vargas Llosa , Natasha Wimmer (Translator)
Kindle Edition , 464 pages
Published March 4th 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2003)