The Way To Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa

I’m a big admirer of Vargas Llosa, but this one isn’t much fun. It’s two separate narratives, one of Gauguin, not a painter or person for whom I have much admiration, and one of his grandmother, Florita Tristan, a socialist idealist and campaigner earlier in the 19th Century. Her story is the more interesting – she is passionately committed to her campaign for social justice, against absurd odds, implacable opposition and apathy and fear from those she wants as her allies, workers and women in particular. She’s also wonderfully bad tempered and sharp of tongue, so this does offer some good moments, and lots of convincing and quite interesting detail about the workings of factories and society in general back then. This is pretty grim stuff, of course.

The Gauguin stuff convinces too (it fits all that I know of him; I know nothing of his grandmother, so don’t know how grounded in known facts that half is – the sometime shapelessness of it suggests it’s largely factual). It skimps rather on his early life, and instead focusses on the time in, in particular, Tahiti. He’s pretty loathsome, with his exploitation of local girls, his noble savage drivel and his arrogance, and it’s hard to make good prose out of describing a painting.

The link is that Gauguin was seeking a paradise in a fantasy version of the uncorrupted island savages, while Florita was trying to carve one out of a grotesquely unjust society. But I’m not sure that we have so much to learn from 170 year old attempts at political reform, and we have surely grown out of the noble savage notion long ago too. I see why the parallels tempted Vargas Llosa (and she was descended from a prominent family from his native Peru), but I don’t think he has made an awful lot out of them.