The Way to Paradise

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The life of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) is a classic tale of the rebellious, farsighted artist whose avant-garde work is largely rejected by the public, lives in penury, and who only receives posthumous recognition. In Gauguin’s case, however, the rejection worked both ways: he reviled European civilization so much that he spent his final years in Tahiti and the even more remote Marquesas Islands, searching for an authentic primitive lifestyle.

Award-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa enriches this well-known story by examining the painter’s inner life and contrasting it with that of his grandmother, the labor activist Flora Tristán. On the surface there would seem to be little in common between the two. Gauguin was a man of unbridled libido who relished the sexual freedom of the Maori people; Tristán regarded sex as a form of violence against women. Gauguin fled European society with as much determination as his grandmother sought to reform it. Despite these differences, Llosa reveals that these two people—who never met in life—had much in common. Both regarded European institutions with visceral repugnance, and both were obsessed with shattering the status quo.

What enhances and ultimately unifies this novel is its complex and even innovative narrative format. Chapter by chapter, Llosa alternates Flora’s life with that of her more famous grandson. Within each chapter, the narrative is enriched by seamless shifts between the past and the present of these turbulent personalities. Utilizing this method, Llosa moves effortlessly through the inner lives of these dynamic individuals, using the freedom offered by fiction to go where no biographer would dare to tread. The Way to Paradise is the work of a master storyteller in his prime.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 2 (September 15, 2003): 181.

The Economist 368, no. 8333 (July 19, 2003): 71.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 19 (October 1, 2003): 1200.

Library Journal 128, no. 17 (October 15, 2003): 100.

New Criterion 22 (October, 2003): 70-73.

New Statesman 132, no. 4665 (November 24, 2003): 55.

The New York Times Book Review, November 23, 2003, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 39 (September 29, 2003): 40.

Time 162, no. 22 (December 1, 2003): 93.

The Times Literary Supplement, December 19-26, 2003, p. 27.