- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004


By Mario Vargas Llosa

Translated by Natasha Wimmer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 373 pages


By the time Paul Gaugin left Europe for good, journeying to Tahiti in the 1890s, he had had it with Western civilization. To him, Europe had become a miserable, decadent place, obsessed with materialism, corrupted by industrialism, empty of spirituality. He dreamed of a virgin landscape, a primitive place where art could be purified and renewed, a place inhabited — to use the language of the Enlightenment philosophers — by innocent and noble savages. He would be the anti-missionary; rather than imposing the West upon the Maoris of the South Pacific, he would learn their secrets and share their earthly paradise.

In 1890, Gaugin wrote a letter to the Danish painter J.F. Willumsen, expressing his hopes for a Tahitian Eden. “I want to forget,” he wrote, “all the misfortunes of the past, I want to be free to paint without any glory whatsoever in the eyes of the others and I want to die there and to be forgotten there.”

He never did find the idyllic world he was looking for. It didn’t exist, of course. And though Gaugin painted several masterpieces while in Tahiti, including the allegorical “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?,” he increasingly became an isolated figure. To make matters worse, many of his Maori neighbors thought of him as just another European. He may have declared, before leaving for Polynesia, that “the European Gaugin has ceased to exist,” but when the Maoris gazed upon him, they failed to see the savage he so desperately wanted to be.

Gaugin’s final years in Tahiti and in the Marquesas, where he died in 1903, are dramatized in Mario Vargas Llosa’s uneven new novel. The fictional Paul, like the real Gaugin, arrives in Tahiti “full of expectations,” in search of “the thing he would never find in Europe, where it had been extinguished by civilization.” (Anyone who has read D.H. Lawrence’s “Etruscan Places,” among other books, will recognize this yearning, on the part of a European artist, for an unspoiled, pre-civilized culture.)

His sexual appetite is massive, and despite his syphilis, he soon takes up with several young Tahitian girls. Here is one of the contradictions in Paul’s character: He has come to Polynesia seeking innocence, incorruptibility, and purity, whereas he himself is perverted, corrupt, and decidedly impure, his syphilis resulting in the slow, painful disfigurement of his body, beginning with the malodorous rashes that attack his legs and culminating with blindness. (Disease abounds in “The Way to Paradise,” and not just Paul’s; the writer uses illness to dispel the myth of the noble savage who lives a carefree existence in an untainted, idyllic land.) Paul wants nothing more than “to live in nature, off the land, like primitive man — the healthiest of peoples.” He is anything but.

But if sex has disfigured Paul, it also leads to great bursts of artistic creativity. He emerges from a sexual experience invigorated and ready to paint, his senses heightened, his imagination stimulated, his eye sharpened. In Tahiti, however, his carnal longings veer toward the ambiguous. He becomes interested in “androgynes, hermaphrodites, that third, in-between sex, which the Maori, unlike prejudiced Europeans, still accepted among themselves with the naturalness of the great pagan civilizations, behind the backs of the missionaries and ministers.” Though acutely masculine, Paul begins to feel an inner feminine impulse.

Mr. Vargas Llosa suggests that sexual ambiguity is an archetypal quality that Paul possesses. And so, a Tahitian woodcutter named Jotefa, to whom Paul becomes attracted, resembles someone “remembered from a long time ago.” After a journey through the lush Tahitian interior, in search of wood that Paul might carve, Paul and Jotefa have a sexual encounter, which the writer prefaces with a highly symbolic passage:

“This was the first time he had set out through the forest like a Tahitian, burying himself in the dense growth of trees, shrubs, and brush that tangled overhead and blocked out the sun; the paths were invisible to him, though Jotefa could follow them easily. In the glimmering green shade, livened by the song of birds he hadn’t yet heard, breathing in a damp, oleaginous, vegetal scent that penetrated all the pores of his body, Paul had a feeling of intoxication, fullness, exultation, like something produced by a magic potion.”

Sex, violence, creation — all three swirl around Mr. Vargas Llosa’s protagonist in a great frenzy. And all three things are intimately related. Sex, for Paul, is an act of violence. It “had burst into his life … like the light in his paintings, with uncontainable belligerence.”

Painting, too, can be an act of violence. Paul’s first mature works, inspired by the brilliant Caribbean sun of Martinique, contain shades of black that “clashed with the ferocity of gladiators, battling for control of the painting,” while “life erupted at last like a blaze on the canvas.” Should it surprise us that death can be a source for creative inspiration, as well, that after failing to commit suicide, Paul returns to his home to paint a masterpiece?

In Mr. Vargas Llosa’s characterization, Paul Gaugin is a tormented, conflicted figure who is transformed into “a repulsive mess, a living ruin.” His relationships with the Roman Catholic Church and with the French colonists of Polynesia are volatile, to say the least. The portrait of the artist is skillfully rendered, and the narrative is often moving.

The trouble is, “The Way to Paradise” is not merely about Paul Gaugin. In alternating chapters, Mr. Vargas Llosa also tells the story of Gaugin’s grandmother Flora Tristan. The daughter of a wealthy Peruvian man and a French woman, Flora is a champion of women’s and workers’ rights — a thankless profession in 19th-century France. Having been badly mistreated by a brute of a husband, from whom she manages to escape, Flora spends the duration of the novel traveling from one French town to the next, trying to recruit workers into her union, which, she hopes, will liberate the poor from their oppression, while granting equal rights to women.

But Flora’s story, unlike Paul’s, is pedantic, one-dimensional, and often tedious, especially by the middle of the novel. Mr. Vargas Llosa is clearly trying to set up thematic contrasts and parallels between the artist and his grandmother: Paul is attracted to savagery, Flora recoils from it; Paul embraces physical, passionate love, Flora finds it incompatible with her work; both have abandoned their families to selfishly pursue their callings; both fight with the moral authority of the church; both suffer from physical maladies that signify deeper emotional turmoil; both seek to transcend the the hardships of life and inhabit a paradise on earth.

If only Flora weren’t such a detestable character. At least she seems so to me. At heart she is selfish, even, perhaps, a narcissist. She claims to care deeply for the common worker in France, and yet she is openly contemptuous of the people she aims to help. As a result, she is unable to relate to any of them.

Of a group of workers she encounters early in the novel, the narrator says, assuming Flora’s point of view: “They knew nothing, they were completely lacking in curiosity, and they were content with their animal lives.” Other workers are described as “pious, idiot workers, impervious to any intelligent idea, altruistic sentiment, or social initiative.” Still others are “mute, illiterate, ignorant workers” who lack “even the most basic curiosity.”

When Flora meets with a group of ladies who spend their time organizing charity drives, she ends up lecturing them, coming off like a didactic, out-of-touch preacher. While speaking to a priest, she denounces the church and all it stands for, then naively (and amazingly) is shocked when the priest refuses to donate money to her workers’ union.

Perhaps it was Flora Tristan’s Peruvian connection that first interested Mr. Vargas Llosa in telling her story. She lived for a time in the very town in Peru — Arequipa — from which Mr. Vargas Llosa comes.

Unfortunately, the connections between Flora and her grandson are too often forced. I wish the writer had limited himself to Gaugin’s tale. The artist’s journey toward disillusionment is, after all, the most compelling aspect of “The Way to Paradise.” Paul’s paradise exists not in the world, but only in his fertile imagination. As Mr. Vargas Llosa puts it, near the end of the novel, “things never succeed as well in this life as they do in dreams.”

Henry James expressed that sentiment in a slightly more artful way. In his short story “Four Meetings,” the narrator tells a young and innocent woman: “What experience does is merely to confirm and consecrate our confident dream.” Of course, these words turn out to be deeply ironic. Experience very rarely either confirms or consecrates our dreams, no matter how confident they may be. This Paul Gaugin knew all too well.

Sudip Bose is senior editor of Archaeology Odyssey magazine.

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