'THE WAY TO PARADISE' by Mario Vargas Llosa (NPW - 2010)
So I had no idea about this book whatsoever, or its author, except he's Peruvian, which after Paddington and Michael Bentine, increases my knowledge of Peruvians by 50%. As a novel, it's a fantastic work of biography - actually it's two fantastic works of biography. Who knew that Paul Gauguin's grandmother was a French-Peruvian pre-Marxist revolutionary who travelled throughout England, France and South America (sometimes dressed as a man) recording the terrifying working conditions and appalling exploitation of workers and women? Not me, and the detail Llosa describes of both 19th century life and early 20th century Tahiti are immaculately researched and utterly fascinating.
There's no doubt that these are two astonishing stories; I knew nothing about Flora Tristan and it turns out she was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable women of the 19th century. As for Gauguin, I was aware that, in the words of Nick Cave, 'he'd buggered off and gone all tropical', but I knew nothing about his earlier life, his travels in Latin America or why he actually went to Tahiti and what he did there. So, result there - I learned enough about both characters to probably wing my way through either as a specialist subject on Mastermind (if they asked me on today, before it all slipped away). Shame about the writing though...
Llosa choses to go for a simple (and slightly irksome) double narrative of alternating chapters between the life stories of the two. It's actually a smart and well-used technique, to alternate between two p.o.v's, but it's one that's more commonly used for characters who's lives actually intersect, so we can get a sense of perspective, foreshadowing etc. In this case, as Gauguin never met Flora Tristan and barely knew anything about her, I can't help thinking that Llosa could have just written two separate books and spared me the hassle of having to skip back 20 pages each time to remember where we left the last chapter. Yes, there are parallels in their lives, but I can't help thinking that they're parallels that Llosa has chosen to weight in his favour, and ultimately, he doesn't draw any conclusions from those parallels, so why bother?
None of this is helped by Llosa's turgid writing style. I did get the impression that I wasn't reading neccessarily the best translation, but the translator can't be blamed for some of the terrible segues into flashback that Llosa employs. I once worked with a new writer on a massive script, and at one point his central character suddenly remembers an encounter from the day before. I told him he couldn't just have the character remember something; the audience needed a visual trigger to let us know why it was that the person popped into her head. All wide-eyed and innocent (I should stress, I love this writer dearly) he said 'Yeah, but she's looking out of the window. The first time she met xxx she was looking out of a window too'. We both laughed long and hard as I explained to him that 'looking per se' really isn't enough of a visual trigger.
Llosa could learn something from this... time after time we get links along the lines of 'And then you sneezed. Remember how you sneezed too that time twenty years ago in Peru?' as a device to begin a flashback sequence. And that's another thing; for some bizarre reason, Llosa chooses to address the entire narrative TO the central character, speaking directly to either Tristan or Gauguin. I'm sure there's some smart-ass literary term for it, and I imagine there might be some cunning purpose to it, but most of the time it makes the author sound like someone gently shaking and waking an elderly amnesiac to remind them who the hell they are and what they've been up to. Making your central characters seem enfeebled is not an endearing trait.
There's been a lot written on 'the imagined biography'; where a novelist writes a fully factual account of someone's life, but takes the liberty of getting inside the subjects' head and explaining their motivation. Peter Carey did a stunning job on Ned Kelly, and to be fair, everything in here rang true to Llosa's painting of the characters, but I always get a little rattled about a writer making up emotional reactions such as just how Gauguin actually felt after his sole homosexual encounter (if indeed it was the only one). Just how does Llosa know this stuff and is he doing a disservice to a real human being, who he clearly admires, by just making it up?
In essence, this is two amazing stories, written in a fairly irritating way. I'd recommend reading it, but only for the biographical reading and only if you're into Gauguin or 19th century French and Peruvian political history and proto-feminism (which fortunately, I am, so huzzah!)
Next up, Herta Muller, a Romanian German who apparently writes almost exclusively about oppression under Ceaucescu. Should be full of shits and giggles, I'm guessing.