The Way to Paradise

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

During his childhood in Peru, Paul Gauguin may well have played a game called “el paraiso en la otra esquina,” or, translated literally, “paradise in the other corner.” Whether or not Gauguin later remembered the game, as Mario Vargas Llosa has his Gauguin character do in the novel El paraiso en la otra esquina, the painter was indeed obsessed by his search for an earthly Eden. What makes this book so fascinating is that Vargas Llosa has paired the life story of the famous artist with that of Paul’s grandmother, Flora Tristán, a social reformer, who was just as determined as her grandson to find what the translator of Vargas Llosa’s book called The Way to Paradise.

On the surface, Flora Tristán and Paul Gauguin seem more different than similar. Flora was at her best in public, haranguing crowds and organizing socialist cells; her memoirs are now primarily of interest for their insights into social history. By contrast, the paintings that Paul produced in the quiet of his studio are in museums throughout the world. Moreover, the two took very different directions in their quest for paradise. Paul sought it by fleeing from civilization toward a more primitive past. Thus he left Paris for the simpler life of Arles, then ventured to Tahiti, and finally, feeling Tahiti too civilized, settled in the even more remote Marquesas Islands. Flora, too, saw the defects of what was called civilization, but her focus was on the future, rather than on the past. Her goal was to eliminate poverty and exploitation by transforming the social institutions of her day; she was determined to awaken the working classes so that they would insist on the establishment of utopian socialistic states throughout the world.

As Vargas Llosa proceeds with his novel, relating the stories of his protagonists in alternate chapters, it becomes obvious why he chose to incorporate them into a single work. The grandmother and her grandson had more in common than one might think. In temperament, they were much alike. Both of them were rebels; both were hounded by the representatives of the status quo, especially by the Catholic Church; and if someone threatened them or those they cared about, both of them attacked, either verbally or physically, without any thought of consequences. When the villagers of Concarneau set upon his bohemian friends, Paul rushed into the fray; the result was a crushed ankle that tormented him throughout the rest of his life and eventually made it almost impossible for him to walk. As for Flora, it was no accident that she was widely known as Madame-la-Colère, for her tirades were directed at everyone she viewed as an oppressor and especially those who exploited workers or mistreated women.

One of the less likeable traits that Paul and Flora shared was their willingness to leave to others the care and responsibility for their children. Admittedly, in Flora’s case there were some extenuating circumstances. After she fled from her tyrannical husband, André Chazal, Flora lived in fear of his taking vengeance on her by taking the children, as he had a legal right to do. On three occasions, he seized their daughter Adele, though when Flora discovered that he was routinely raping the young girl, she managed to get her daughter away from him. One can also understand why Flora did not take Adele with her on that arduous voyage to Peru, where with the help of her wealthy uncle, Don Pío Tristán, she expected to claim an inheritance that would enable her to support her family. On the other hand, when she felt impelled to make a lecture tour, Flora did not let motherhood stand in her way.

By contrast, Paul had no compunctions about abandoning his Danish wife, Mette Gad Gauguin, and the large family they had produced, nor did he make any attempt to support his children. He was just as casual about the illegitimate offspring he sired. Ironically, in his later years Paul felt more sympathy for his mother, Aline Chazal Gauguin, than for the daughter he deserted, who was his mother’s namesake. In the chapter titled “Portrait of Aline Gauguin,” Paul recalled how beautiful his mother seemed to him and how intensely he loved her during that happy period in his childhood when they were living in Lima at the home of his great-great-uncle Don Pío...

(The entire section is 1758 words.)