The Way to Paradise, by Mario Vargas Llosa.

November 16, 2003|By Judith M. Redding | Judith M. Redding,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Way to Paradise, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 384 pages. $25.

Mario Vargas Llosa's historical novel, The Way to Paradise, takes its title from a children's game, much like hide and seek, in which one child asks the other players, "Is this the way to Paradise?" The response is always "try the next corner;" but as the child runs to the next corner, the others reconfigure themselves so that "paradise" can never be found.

In this fluid melding of Vargas Llosa's usual biting socio-political commentary with actual history, he metaphorizes the concept of an elusive Paradise through the novel's main characters, French social reformer and feminist Flora Tristan and her grandson, painter Paul Gauguin. Although Tristan died 40 years before her grandson set sail for Tahiti, Paradise parallels their quests, detailing how each was thwarted by Vargas Llosa's usual suspects: government, religion and faux social mores.

Vargas Llosa depicts Tristan's social-reformist quest as a desire for a populist paradise where women and men achieved equality, workers' rights were paramount and education was available to all. Her memoir, Peregrinations of a Pariah, chronicled her childhood poverty, the hypocrisy of her father's wealthy Peruvian family (she was his illegitimate child) and abuse by her husband.

The book catapulted her to fame but opened her to attacks from the French government, the Catholic Church and the abusive husband she fled. Despite these travails, in 1844 Tristan organized a tour of France to enlist members for her Workers' Union and campaign for women's rights, during which she succumbed to typhoid.

Gauguin sought his paradise in a free, "savage" place - Tahiti - where he could paint people as they really were, stripped bare of artifice. This work, for which Gauguin gained eventual fame, was received poorly in Paris after he returned to France in 1895. Plagued by financial ruin and familial strife, Gauguin fled once more to Tahiti (leaving his wife and five children).

Searching for a more untamed society than that which had rejected his work and ideas, Gauguin moved on to the Marquesa Islands. There, despite being immersed in the kind of society he had sought, he found himself longing for France but was too ill to return home.

Gauguin's bold use of color and adaptation of a primitive style would finally be recognized by the post-Impressionist art world, just as his grandmother's reformist vision would be embraced a century later. The parallels between the lives of Tristan and the grandson who never knew her evolve slowly and provocatively in this expertly crafted novel.

Vargas Llosa explores those parallels and their influences on each character: Both Tristan and Gauguin initially sought bourgeois family lives, but abandoned these in their individual paradisiacal quests. Both had shattered health: Tristan lived with an unremovable bullet next to her heart, souvenir of an attack by her husband; Gauguin was felled by syphilis. And although both achieved limited fame in their lifetimes, their true geniuses went unrecognized until well after their deaths.

This meticulously researched novel presents Tristan's and Gauguin's stories in alternating chapters, seductively written in a tabloid mix of narratives. In Paradise, as with his other novels (notably Who Killed Palomino Molero?), Vargas Llosa proffers a compelling narrative interwoven with sharp social and political commentary, the technique that has rightfully cast him as one of South America's best writers.

Despite Vargas Llosa's use of more intractable historical figures, rather than more malleable fictional ones, Paradise retains all of the author's usual ironic touches as well as his humor. Tristan and Gauguin are larger-than-life creatures of wit and substance, capable of self-examination as well as self-recrimination. Paradise stands with Vargas Llosa's other novels: as beautifully, boldly and invitingly painted as anything by Gaugin.

Judith M. Redding is the editor of several books and co-author of Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors with Victoria A. Brownworth. An award-winning filmmaker and film critic, she won a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Screenwriting Fellowship for her noir screenplay featuring African-American detective Teresa Dash. She teaches screenwriting in Philadelphia.

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