Tuesday, 19 February 2008
The Way to Paradise
MARIO VARGAS LLOSA
As soon as my eyes fell on the cover of Llosa's 'The Way to Paradise', I knew I had to read it and read it fast. The cover photograph showed Paul Gauguin's master piece painting 'Manao Tupapao' - The Spirit of the Dead Witches. More surprises were in store for me - the novel turned out to be biographical in nature - featuring Paul Gauguin, Post Impressionistic Painter and of Flora Tristan, his grandmother. A little research and it rather stunned me to realise that the dates, paintings and the the names of characters mentioned were true to a T. Even then Llosa's Docu-novel is more fiction than real. As I read the book, I could think of nothing better to describe it than those oft quoted lines, Life is stranger than fiction and at times, truly Fiction is sranger than Life.
The two protagonists, Flora Tristan and Paul Gauguin, both in search of their own Paradises. Paradises so different that time seems suspended between the travails of the two. The novel alternates between the two in a unique style, which I have not read so far - the narrative, powerful and turbulent - seems to zig- zag between the two.
Flora Tristan embarked on a tour of France in 1844 to compaign for worker's and women's rights. Her grandson, Paul Gauguin set sail for Tahiti in 1891, determined to escape from civilisation and seek inspiration for his primitive masterpieces. Flora is the illegitimate child of a a wealthy Peruvian father and French mother. Flora grows up in utter poverty and after fleeing a brutal husband, journeys to Peru to demand her inheritance, which she is denied. On her return she makes a name and space for herself as a writer and champion of the depraved and the dispossessed. Flora's arduous journey to achieve her goal is breathtaking and stupendous in its very inception. She tours the vast countrysides of France to recruit members for her Worker's Union.
On the other side, there is Paul Gauguin whose journey brings him to Tahiti, and to an entirely different way of life. He has abandoned a cushy bourgeosie job as a stock broker at Paris Stock Exchange, though he remembers his mother Alina and daughter of the same name. Alina, his mother was brutally raped by her own father to avenge Flora Tristan's escape from the hell she underwent in her marriage. Gauguin in his search for Paradise, looses all his civiity but sruggles against poverty, syphilis and the stifling forces of French Colonialism, though he has his pick of teenaged Tahitian lovers. As a profligate painter, using vibrant colors, Paul paints some of his greatest masterpieces.
Both Flora and Paul are are fired by ambition and determinedly pursue greatness in the face of illness, death and destructive forces. But there the comparison ends. Paul's degenerate life throws up no vision, though he is a profligate painter who achieved fame after his death in 1903. Flora Tritan's sstory looms in front of the reader as the penultimate story of a born fighter in search of an impossible dream and and an unimaginable paradise.
Llosa's work is a rare study in passion, ambition and the determined pursuit of greatness. This work shows that Llosa is the contemporary genius and a master story teller.
Earlier I had not got a chance to read 'Lust for Life' based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh. In Paradise, there are several references to Van Gogh, the mutilation at Arles ( Van Gogh had cut off a portion of his ears and presented it to his favorite prostitute as paynent ) and his suicide later by shooting himself. Gauguin calls Van Gogh, the mad Dutchman. We call him the Mad Genius. In the same vein, Gauguin is referred to as the original Western savage.
I am left stunned at the mastery of Llosa - the desriptive and knowledge power that is packed into every line of the book. Every point being well researched or is it perhaps intuition that takes over when a writer of such caliber puts pen to paper? The four stages of Syphilis described in meticulous detail, the daring of Flora as she battles for life with a bullet lodged in her feeble chest, her hatred of men and sex, her trysts with lesbianism as also Paul's encounter with homosexuality - every color is etched on to the canvas with an unwavering pen.
A great work. A must read.