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Mario Vargas Llosa: El paraíso en la otra esquina (The Way to Paradise)

Another novel about real-life characters but this one is not nearly as good as La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat). In La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat), Vargas Llosa really got into the character of Trujillo, both through what we saw of him and what others saw of him. This novel, with its parallel story of two characters, tends to focus on one perspective only, namely telling their story in the third person and also in the second person (the narrator addresses the character in the second person, though does not seek nor get a response from the character.)

The two characters whose stories are told are Flora Tristán and her grandson, Paul Gauguin. Vargas Llosa tells their stories during the final part of their lives, though with continual references to their earlier lives, so that we learn the key events in their lives. Tristán, who is probably less well-known, was the daughter of a Peruvian naval officer and a Frenchwoman. The couple met in Spain and then moved to Paris, where Tristán was born. Her father died when she was five. As her mother had little money, she had to work and married the owner of the printing works, where she worked. She had three children by her husband but never loved him and eventually left him, because of his cruelty. She tried to claim her inheritance in Peru but was denied it, though did get caught up in a war while there. She also spent much time fleeing her husband, as, under French law, she had no right to leave her husband. Even after her husband sexually abused their daughter, she got no protection from the law. Only when he shot her (but did not kill her) was she protected from him. After a stay in England, where she saw how prostitutes were mistreated, she became a militant promoter of both workers’ and women’s rights. Much of the book is about her final Tour de France, when she visited various French cities, trying to persuade the workers to join her workers’ union and decrying the poor treatment of women. Many of the biographical details are told in a relatively straightforward way and though Vargas Llosa does try to get into what motivates her during her Tour, it is not nearly as well done as the previous book.

Paul Gauguin is, of course, far better known. We join him as he arrives in Tahiti, where he will paint many of his famous paintings, though as with his grandmother, we learn much about his earlier life. When he arrives in Tahiti, he is married to a Danish woman, who has returned to Copenhagen with their five children. He will not see either his wife or his children again, even on his one return journey to France. Gauguin’s journey to Tahiti is to escape what he sees as the constricted life in France, though he comes across it in Tahiti and, later, in the Marquesas, where he later goes and where he will die. He is in constant opposition to the French political and religious authorities, who do not approve of his going native and, in particular, his taking under-age native girls as his concubine. Indeed, in his mid-forties, he has realised that painting and sexual activity are closely linked and he paints better when sexually aroused. But he has other struggles, including financial and health. Like his friend van Gogh, his real success only came after his death, while he suffers both from a broken and apparently infected ankle as well as from the gonorrhea that will eventually kill him.

Vargas Llosa certainly tells the stories well – as a biographer. There are comparisons between the two, though not made overtly. Tristán hates sex while Gauguin loves it. Both have health problems. Neither seems to achieve the dream they want and they face a lot of opposition from the authorities. They never met – Tristán dying at the age of 41, four years before Gauguin was born. Gauguin knew little about his grandmother from his mother, as there seemed to be little love lost between mother and daughter, though he learned about her later. Vargas Llosa does not, however, make much of this. Both, of course, were influential in their respective fields, but Vargas Llosa ends the book with their respective deaths, so we do not learn about what effect they may have had. The book is certainly enjoyable and the stories are well told but, somehow, I expected more of Vargas Llosa.

Publishing history

First published in 2003 by Alfaguara
First published in English in 2003 by Farrar Straus Giroux
Translated by Natasha Wimmer