Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Way To Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in November 2003. English language translation by Natascha Wimmer.

Where to buy this book:
Buy the book from
Buy the paperback from Speedyhen
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository
Buy the paperback from Waterstones

How I got this book:
Swapped for in the book exchange at Camping Casteillets near Ceret, France

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 1844, Flora Tristan embarked on a tour of France to campaign for workers' and women's rights. In 1891, her grandson set sail for Tahiti, determined to escape civilisation and seek out inspiration to paint his primitive masterpieces. Flora died before her grandson was born, but their travels and obsessions unravel side by side in this absorbing novel.
Flora, the illegitimate child of a wealthy Peruvian father and French mother, grows up in poverty, and after fleeing a brutal husband, journeys to Peru to demand her inheritance. On her return, she makes her name as a popular writer and a champion of the dispossessed, setting herself the arduous task of touring the French countryside to recruit members for her Workers' Union. Paul, struggling, profligate painter and stubborn visionary, abandons his wife and five children for life in the South Seas, where his dreams of paradise are poisoned by poverty, syphilis and the stifling forces of French colonialism, though he has his pick of teenage Tahitian lovers and paints some of his greatest works.

I was delighted to spot a copy of The Way To Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa in a campsite book exchange. I loved the wonderful visions of The Feast of the Goat and The War of the End of the World so was hoping for more of the same this time around. As it turned out, I think The Way To Paradise is a far more accessible and straightforward novel, but it's none the worse for that. Set in two periods of the nineteenth century, Llosa imagines detail around the lives of the artist Paul Gauguin and his ought-to-be-even-more-famous grandmother, Flora Tristan. Historical facts of their lives are woven into two fabulously written tales that mirror each other in their protagonists' desires to create perfection, albeit in vastly different circumstances.

Paul Gauguin is already moderately famous when we join him. He has already lived with the 'mad Dutchman' (Van Gogh) in Arles and I loved being able to accurately visualise these scenes based on our recent visit. Llosa follows Gauguin to Brittany and then to Tahiti where his dissolute lifestyle and failing health both drive him to paint masterpieces and to descend into alcoholism and decrepitude. Llosa writes in a blend of third and second person narration which I found especially effective in allowing us to understand the minds of both Paul and Flora. Paul's desperation to become a part of Tahitian society while also remaining aloof enough to observe as an artist, and lacking the cultural history to fully comprehend Maori beliefs and attitudes is wonderfully poignant. Llosa takes time to immerse his readers in several of Paul's paintings as they are created and I enjoyed viewing them online with such insights. Plus I don't think I have read a death so delicately and powerfully portrayed since I read Jack London's To Build a Fire.

Flora Tristan's story is set fifty years before Paul's and I cannot believe that I had never heard of this amazing woman before. We follow her on a tour of France as she endeavours to recruit downtrodden labourers to her Worker's Union, a socialist concept that she devised herself. Llosa uses her travels to highlight the vast social differences in 1840s France with some disturbing descriptions of then standard working conditions. I became almost as frustrated as Flora at the workers failure to understand how they could use her ideas to help themselves - much like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - and their frequent dismissal of her words simply because of her gender. With Flora, we also travel to her lavish Peruvian ancestral home and I learned of her real-life memoir, Peregrinations Of A Pariah which I would now love to read. (If anyone knows where I can download an English language version, please let me know!)

In The Way To Paradise I think Llosa has written an amazing book which kept me glued to its pages despite its long-for-me 424 small print pages. I felt completely part of both Paul's and Flora's worlds even though I found it almost impossible to feel any sympathy for Paul at all, and Flora is so dedicated to her cause that she really isn't always likeable! Brilliant book!

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Mario Vargas Llosa / Historical fiction / Books from Peru


  1. I haven't read a book by this author - that's not really surprising because my choice of books as of late hasn't been as internationally diverse as yours. lol. Keep exploring!

    1. I think this is one of his most accessible. Others get quite surreal