Saturday, December 06, 2008

The way to paradise

I just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa's novel, "The Way to Pardise," about Paul Gauguin and his grandmother Flora Tristan. Tristan was a proto-feminist author and revolutionary. Gauguin, as you probably know, was an influential French painter most famous for the work he did in Tahiti. They were both of Peruvian descent and each spent an influential period of their lives in Peru, which is probably why they came to be the subjects of a Vargas Llosa novel.

It was the first new (to me) work of high quality fiction I've read in awhile. Part of it is related to my general intellectual decline but I think part of it is that I've again run out of authors. So I'm left with trying somebody completely new and superficially unappealing or reading the lesser, or at least lesser known, works of authors I've read extensively in the past. And of course I go way back with Vargas Llosa. I first read him in Spanish way back when I lived in Peru.

If you are unfamiliar with his work, know that Mario Vargas Llosa is easily one of the greatest living writers. He has an incredible command of storytelling's multiple tools and usually puts them to use in constructing compelling fictions that push, at least slightly, the established boundaries of literature. I consider "The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta" one of the best novels I've ever read. The story itself is great and the way it is told is both masterful and avant-garde, somehow managing to come off as traditional and ultra-modern at the same time. I very much enjoy reading "The War of the End of the World" and consider that a masterpiece as well. I'm not so sure about the ultimate literary value of "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," but it is one of the funniest works of fiction I've read.

I doubt that The Way to Paradise" will be considered a masterpiece, but it is an interesting read. As usual, Vargas Llosa's mastery of form is exceptional, but it is the historicity of the characters that carries the novel. Paul Gauguin, after all, is an interesting character and if you don't know much about him, as I didn't, you will probably find his story fascinating. I doubt if much of anyone has heard of Flora Tristan, but her life and place in history are fascinating as well.

The link to Gauguin's Wikipedia page above is worth clicking on for the jpegs of some of his major works, many of which are discussed at length in the novel.

But the heart of the story is summed up best by Gauguin's epitaph provided by the Catholic bishop on the South Pacific island where he died: "The only noteworthy event here has been the sudden death of an individual named Paul Gauguin, a reputed artist but an enemy of God and everything that is decent in this world."

That, my friends, is an epitaph worth dying for.