Way to

Mario Vargas Llosa
Natasha Wimmer,


Part I
Way to Paradise is a club sandwich: bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, cheese, onion, pickles, hot peppers, roast beef, mustard, ketchup, brautwurst and dog pizzle.

Sorry. I got carried away; I take it all back. It just seems like a club sandwich. In reality, it's a ham and cheese on wry. For the ham we have Paul Gauguin, off there in the South Seas to paint the natives, to go native, to go mad, to die.

For the other ingredient --- I take that one back too: if she's cheese, she's Gorgonzola, one of the tastiest in the world. Flora Tristán, radical, feminist, crusader, rabble-rousing speaker, a woman driven as one can be in France of the Second Republic.

She's Chapter #1, he's #2, she's #3, etc. And what do Flora and Paul have in common? At first it seems not much. He is out and out bonkers over art and what we used to call "the primitives;" he thinks that "art" and the patrons of "art" have been swindled by the new emerging space between the soul and the canvas; he believes that not since the Middle Ages (or off there in the far off isles of the Pacific) have art and the divine and music and painting and worship been so tangibly interrelated, because in those days, "feelings were more important than reason."

    Painting should be the expression of the whole human being: his intelligence, his skill as a craftsman, his culture, but also his beliefs, instinct, desires, hatreds.

"Like primitive man."

And where did this romantic theory come from, Paul? "You were inventing it as you went along."

I stuck the question and answer in the second person singular there because one of the quirks of Vargas' writing is that we'll be humming along in our literary Hummers on the superhighway of Paradise and these questions addressed to our two main characters will flop up out of nowhere. What was it that came along to kill your marriage Koké? And exactly what was it that got on your nerves when you were living in Arles with "the Mad Dutchman," Van Gogh? How were you able to seduce the beautiful young Teha'amana of Tahiti? How come you got in such bad trouble with the authorities there, Paul? The author, suddenly, without prior notice will enter into dialogue with the painter.

It does, at first, seem quirky to be jumping back-and-forth between the second and third persons, as well as going back-and-forth with Flora the revolutionary and Paul the I-will-be-primitive but then we learn on page 110 that Tristán was Gauguin's grandmother, and that they both --- like the author --- lived in Peru, and that in more ways than not, their passion is fierce, uncompromising, and, ultimately, deadly.

§     §     §

After cranking it up, I was fairly sure that I would not get wrapped up in Paradise, but there is something else going on here. Mario Vargas Llosa is one of those writers you and I have been hearing about since God was a little boy (as my Mum would say) and this is his twentieth novel.

You find yourself thinking "I'm not so sure I want to be reading this, maybe he's just another Danielle Steele," but off the bat he snares you with his fluid style and the astonishing homework he put in, giving us honest and true visions of the 19th Century.

It's the facts that get you: Paul and his successful stock-broker career and his marriage to the Danish Mette Gad and his fights with the Catholic bishop of Atuona and the ghastly, stinky syphilitic sores on his legs (treated in those days, by an arsenic powder, which he also used to try to poison himself) and at least twenty of his paintings described, not only what they are about, but what he may have been thinking when he did them. This on The Secret of Hiva Oa, addressed to Gauguin: "Tohotama talked to him about the painting. Why were you always so interested in mahus, men-women, Koké?"

    He gave her a silly explanation --- "they're picturesque, striking, exotic, Tototama" --- but the question nagged at him for the rest of the day, and he kept turning it over in his head that night, in bed, after he had eaten a bit of fruit, changed the bandages on his legs, and taken a few drops of laudanum dissolved in water for the pain. Why, Koké?

And the answer: "Maybe because in the evasive, semi-invisible, persecuted mahu, detested as a sinful aberration by priests and pastors, there survived the last untamed vestige of those Maori savages who, thanks to Europe, would soon cease to exist."

Go on to
Part II

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