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the complete review - fiction
The Way to Paradise
Mario Vargas Llosa
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- Spanish title: El paraíso en la otra esquina
- Translated by Natasha Wimmer
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B : interesting lives, rather awkward presentation
See our review for fuller assessment.
|Neue Zürcher Zeitung
|The New Criterion
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|San Francisco Chronicle
|The Washington Post
Not quite a consensus, but most impressed, enthusiastic
From the Reviews:
- "It is fascinating to watch as Vargas Llosa’s two characters insist on accomplishing their missions -- if they do not usher in an earthly paradise, at least they will die with the bittersweet satisfaction of having caught a glimpse of it. And, such is Vargas Llosa mastery of his art, the resulting book is both funny and pathetic, and full of surprises despite its foreordained conclusion." - Roger Kaplan, Commentary
- "Llosa is enjoying something of an Indian summer as a writer. His last novel, The Feast of the Goat, was an equally ambitious story, set in the Dominican Republic. The Way to Paradise is more streamlined, more satisfying and, in the questions it begs about life, art and ambition, genuinely stimulating." - David Robson, Daily Telegraph
- "It lacks the tense drama of his last effort. But, as one has come to expect from Mr Vargas Llosa, the book is meticulously researched and cleverly crafted. Some readers may wonder whether this is really fiction. It is. The author's imagination is hard at work. The implicit thesis is that the two protagonists are linked by more than just kinship. Both gave up the possibility of bourgeois comfort in pursuit of an ideal, of radical social reform in one case and of art in the other. And both found inspiration far from France, in less formal and less developed societies." - The Economist
- "Tristan and Gauguin never met in real life; and their stories do not so much coalesce as challenge each other in their descent to ever greater depths of disillusion and misery. Even a novelist of Vargas Llosa's powers has difficulty leavening this material sufficiently -- The Way To Paradise can feel pretty purgatorial at times. But it offers a welcome corrective to the image of Gauguin as the dashing savage who casually gave birth to modern art on a beach. Here, the visionary painter of paradise emerges as a misunderstood genius of the kind it takes a genius such as Vargas Llosa to understand." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian
- "The Way to Paradise weaves an extraordinarily rich double fantasia around Gauguin's life, strenuously explores qualities in the works, and sets the moral issues in a far wilder, more real historical world. (...) It's riveting stuff, beautifully written; wild, exact, and visually stunning. En route it makes wonderful sense of the paintings." - Ruth Padel, The Independent
- "So gelingt es Vargas Llosa glänzend, das enorme Material zu bändigen. Nicht nur bietet der Roman das beeindruckende Lebenspanorama zweier beeindruckender Figuren, er überzeugt auch als Epochengemälde. (...) So ist denn Das Paradies ist anderswo bei allen Qualitäten mit Vorsicht zu geniessen. Mario Vargas Llosas lateinamerikanisches Erzähltemperament hat sich von der Magie der Figuren hinreissen lassen." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "As with his grandmother so with Gaugin: it is courage that dominates Vargas Llosa's brilliant novel -- a tour de force that by some magisterial sleight-of-hand combines pain and frustrated idealism with the touching humanity that characterizes his writing." - Renee Winegarten, The New Criterion
- "It is this inability to leave his characters alone that lets the book down. Vargas Llosa combines the most Whiggish kind of history with a novelist's disregard for the truth. This leaves him in a lonely place, somewhere between fact and fiction, where the novel reads like the shadow of a historical account that has been lost." - Jonathan Heawood, New Statesman
- "Only occasionally does the book even amount to filling in history, and rarely very shrewdly. It is more in the nature of lavish personal decorating, with speculative sorties." - Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review
- "Grandmother and grandson, who no more coincide in the book than they did in real life, afford Vargas Llosa the chance to do what he does best. To ruminate repeatedly on the fraught but frequently passionate relationship between different worlds, including the afterlife (though, curiously, he does not mention Tristan's devotion to the theme); between artist and citizen; obsession and vocation; and on the nature of love, life and, most fascinatingly, disease and death. Vargas Llosa's imaginative meditation on Gauguin's dying has to be one of the most consummately composed pieces of literature ever written on the subject." - Amanda Hopkinson, The Observer
- "But, to be honest, the book is quite slow, if not sluggish, as it moves forward, telling the story of each life in great detail and making their differences stand out (.....) But even though it moves with little more than glacial speed, it takes us ultimately to the vividly described master projects of the great painter, in his paradise of work, and this is worth the long journey" - Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle
- "(E)legant and involving (.....) It switches seemingly at random between the third and second person, an experiment which serves the story well: addressing the characters as ‘you’ shapes the book’s tone, which is reminiscent of a fond relative recalling recent exploits -- sympathetically, but with occasional intrusions of rue or regret. (...) Usually allergic to themes in fiction, I was drawn into Llosa’s novel. It drags a little towards the end, but it is fluently told and filled with particulars which animate not only its surfaces but its depths." - Sebastian Smee, The Spectator
- "Unlike his preceding novel, The Feast of the Goat (...) El paraiso en la otra esquina is a cooler, more controlled work. More cerebral and intellectual than Vargas Llosa's earlier novels, it nevertheless combines its philosophical elements with deep instinct, particularly in the moving descriptions of Gauguin in Polynesia, and the often hilarious descriptions of Flora Tristan in Peru." - David Gallagher, Times Literary Supplement
- "Vargas Llosa certainly knows everything about the nature of fiction, but that doesn't preclude making misjudgments. To evoke the obsessive quality of Flora and Paul's views of the world, he never quits their consciousnesses. As a result, The Way to Paradise gains textual intensity but must also settle for a kind of narrowness and claustrophobia. (...) As narrative The Way to Paradise is virtually inert. The book loops backward and forward in time to describe the lives of its protagonists, but almost as though this were experimental biography, not fiction." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Way to Paradise is told in alternating chapters, eleven each devoted to the stories of Flora Tristán (1803-1844) and the grandson she never knew, French painter Paul Gauguin.
Flora Tristán was the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Peruvian man and a French woman.
She eventually became a fervent social activist, and the chapters in The Way to Paradise follow her through France between April and November, 1844, as she tries to win support for her cause.
The Gauguin chapters cover a much greater period, from April, 1892, to May, 1903, focussing on the time the painter spent in the South Seas.
In all these chapters, however, the pasts of both characters are also filled in.
Both had the opportunity to lead bourgeois lives -- and both did, for a time being.
Though the transformations are only slowly revealed, much of the novel is devoted to describing these, a long, arduous passage in each case.
Gauguin was a stockbroker, married and with children, before slowly finding that painting was his only passion.
Flora Tristán was also married, and had three children with André Chazal, but she detested her husband (and was repelled by sex) and left him, only to be hounded by him for years to come.
Flora Tristán even went to her family in Peru, hoping to find escape there, and admitting to "dreams of becoming a prosperous little bourgeoise", but as an illegitimate daughter she has no claim to money from her family, and, in any case, the lifestyle there did not suit her.
Both ultimately find civilization as they know it -- especially of the French-, European-, Church-dominated (and proto-capitalist) sort -- to be at fault for the world's ills.
Flora Tristán sees the only hope for the future in workers uniting to assure themselves of what they deserve.
Nevertheless, she is not a utopian: among the few who offer her some support are the Fourierists, but her hopes are far more down-to-earth than theirs.
She is more realistic in her ambitions -- which include equality for women, and respect for all -- but finds it difficult to get people to listen to her, much less agree to support her cause.
Gauguin looks only for freedom for himself (and his art) and seeks out places unpolluted by civilization -- though he is disappointed by even Tahiti, and even finally the Marquesas, as they have already had too many of the ways of the French administrators and especially of the Church imposed on them.
Nevertheless, both continue to try to struggle to find a way to their respective paradises (never really coming all that close, except for fleeting moments or the occasional canvas).
Both Gauguin and Flora Tristán are willing to abandon pretty much everything for their causes.
Neither concerns themselves greatly with their children, devoted instead solely and obsessively to their cause and art.
Each flees from normal life: Flora Tristán is on the road almost throughout the last months of her life, going from town to town and city to try to win workers over to her Workers' Union.
Gauguin goes even farther, trying to escape stifling civilization, first in Tahiti and then in the Marquesas (though he does look for a measure of stability, desperate always to have a native girl in house to look after him).
Both are also suffering throughout: Flora Tristán soldiers on despite being racked by pain, while Gauguin suffers from the ghastly effects of syphilis which get progressively worse (and more ghastly) over the years.
Vargas Llosa lingers over the suffering, too, presumably to show that their obsessions are more important to them than mere pain and hardship, that even complete physical decay won't stop them.
Both lives are fascinating, and the material Vargas Llosa works with is very rich.
The stories of Flora Tristán's manic husband and her struggles to remain independent despite the near-impossibility of doing so as a woman who abandoned her husband, her passage to Peru, her own literary efforts (she wrote several books), and her conversion to a proselytising life are often engrossing.
Similarly, much of Gauguin's life in the South Seas -- as well as the description of his earlier life in France and (briefly) Dennmark -- is of considerable interest, the exotic locales, Gauguin's lust for the natives (and a bit of sexual confusion on his part), and his own struggles to get by financially all making for good drama.
Despite the wonderful material, however, The Way to Paradise is, surprisingly, often plodding.
The Flora Tristán chapters detail her constant efforts, in town after town, to address and convince workers of her cause, and while each city is different -- in some she is welcomed, in others she is hounded by the authorities and ignored by those she wants to help -- Vargas Llosa is both too repetitive and too brief.
There is a sameness to city after city (as there probably was in real life -- but that doesn't mean it has to be related in this way), and yet there is also little description of how Flora Tristán actually tries to convince workers and industrialists and the clergymen she meets.
She has a strong personality, but Vargas Llosa relies on the claim of that too much in trying to convince readers of what she does.
As to her encounters, too often they are mere sound-bites, with Vargas Llosa offering only brief exchanges rather than convincing dialogue.
The Gauguin chapters also bog down in the domestic details, and Vargas Llosa is only occasionally successful in convincingly describing his artistic endeavours.
Both story-lines are, for the most part, at their strongest in the retrospective bits, as the past is filled in -- and Vargas Llosa admittedly does dose that quite well, only slowly revealing everything that led them here.
Odd, too, is when Vargas Llosa's lapses into the second person, addressing his main characters ("But you wouldn't last much longer, Paul") -- something he does throughout the book, though most of it is written in the third person.
Perhaps the reason The Way to Paradise disappoints somewhat is because of the very richness of the material.
These are two incredible lives, who did incredible things despite great hardships.
Near the end, Vargas Llosa writes of Gauguin:
Art had to break free from its narrow mold, from the tiny horizon to which it had been confined by the artists, critics, academics, and collectors of Paris; it had to open up to the world, mix with other cultures, expose itself to other winds, other landscapes, other values, other races, other beliefs, other ways of living and thinking.
Only then it would it recover the power that the soft, easy, frivolous, materialistic life of the Parisians had leeched from it.
While The Way to Paradise manages to convey something of what Gauguin and his grandmother had done to break free from the narrow molds of the societies they came from, the novel itself isn't daring enough in how these stories are related.
It often reads too much like actual biography rather than fiction, and it takes few of the opportunities that fiction might allow.
The contrasts and connexions between the alternating story-lines are fairly effectively done, and the stories are, for the most part, gripping despite Vargas Llosa's fairly conservative and simple approach.
It's just a pity that he wasn't more daring.
Worthwhile, but it always feels like it could have been considerably more.
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The Way to Paradise:
Mario Vargas Llosa:
Other works by Mario Vargas Llosa under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010.
He has written many works of fiction and non-fiction, and has run for the Presidency of Peru.
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