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'The Way to Paradise' by Mario Vargas Llosa

Vargas Llosa stretches his talents in novel of Gauguin, grandmother

Sunday, November 23, 2003

By Evan Pattak

Early in his career, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa was a master of the elliptical narrative, in which traditional linear presentation gives way to a series of ever-tightening circles that jumble time and perspective.

"The Way to Paradise"

By Mario Vargas Llosa

Translated by Natasha Wimmer

Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($25)


The voice changes from chapter to chapter, sometimes within a chapter. Characters may be identified only by inference; if your attention wanders, you might not know who's addressing whom, save by paging back through the book to rediscover the appropriate references.

At his best, Vargas Llosa maximizes reader involvement; his message stays with us because we work so hard to get it. At other times, we traverse the shrinking circles only to find no core at the center.

In his 2000 novel, "The Feast of the Goat," Vargas Llosa found a story to match his technical innovations. That historical novel about the Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo featured memorable characters, assassination, love and betrayal, and gut-churning intrigue. It's easily the best of the Vargas Llosa works with which I'm familiar.

So it's a disappointment to report that his latest isn't quite up to the Trujillo tour de force.

Here, Vargas Llosa offers the parallel stories of Flora Tristan, a mid-19th-century French pacifist, revolutionary and writer, and her grandson, Paul Gauguin, most famous for his Tahiti and Marquesas paintings. Their lives are at once the same and grotesque distortions of each other.

Tristan labors for a peaceful revolution to unshackle impoverished workers. Koke, as the Polynesians call Gauguin, seeks revolution as well, but only for the glorification of art and beauty.

To maintain her purity of focus, Tristan denies herself every creature comfort. Gauguin indulges so liberally in all of them that he contracts syphilis, his eventual undoing.

Abused and shot by her husband -- the bullet remained lodged in her chest -- Tristan rages against the exploitation of women. Her grandson is one of the exploiters, seducing the wife of a benefactor, groping the spouse of another, abandoning his European wife and five children, leaving his Tahitian wahine when she informs him that she's pregnant, and, oh yes, remaining a sexual tiger long after he realizes that his disease is communicable.

For all that, Gauguin is a sympathetic character, particularly in his decline. With the advancing syphilis robbing him of his vision and coherence, the hideous pustules on his legs no longer bearable, he limps on his cane (topped by a carved representation of an erect phallus) to an idyllic Tahitian mountain glade, gulps arsenic ... and succeeds only in retching all over himself.

He ends his productive days publishing a scandalous religious rag in which he pens racist diatribes and extols the virtues of cannibalism.

Gauguin's life is a corruption of his grandmother's dream. Yet he produces an artistic quake, if not an outright revolution. He leaves a body of work that benefits mankind.

Are those several dozen paintings sufficient to justify the sacrifices of Tristan, her daughter, Gauguin and his families? That's the large question Vargas Llosa poses without giving away any answers.

It's a stunning vision embroidered with characteristic technical touches -- quicksilver flashbacks and the circular foreshadowing of central events. Vargas Llosa nibbles, for instance, at the disastrous break between Gauguin and Van Gogh before finally detailing it, some 250 pages in. He even adds a peculiar voice that addresses the characters -- "Was that what you wanted, Florita?" "Would you paint again, Koke?" -- as if a kindly St. Peter were gently interrogating the protagonists while showing them films of their lives.

Jarring at first, this voice helps offset some of the book's dreariness.

That's really the problem here. Vargas Llosa's research is so prodigious that he feels obliged to include everything, overstuffing the novel with names and characters who disappear almost at once. Tristan's final organizing tour through France is particularly repetitive and numbing.

The Gauguin sections are livelier because of his roguish, contrarian nature, but Koke's rantings against European decadence and paeans to savagery soon grow old. One reads dutifully rather than voraciously, knowing that Vargas Llosa is onto something big but is not quite captured by its telling.

In one penetrating insight, we see Gauguin completing "Pape moe" ("Mysterious Waters") and forlornly carrying the canvas about, fearful that it's his final masterpiece.

Is that really you, Vargas Llosa, cradling your Trujillo masterpiece and wondering whether another will come? Fear not. You don't miss by much here, and there's more to write on the way to paradise.

Evan Pattak is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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