With matchless empathy and insight, the great Peruvian author analyzes two contrasting quests for the ideal.
Dual narratives alternate the stories of two fascinating historical characters: early feminist social activist Flora Tristan (1803–44), of mixed Peruvian and French heritage, and her grandson (who never knew her), the great French rebel-painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). Employing both omniscient narration and a teasing, confrontational second-person address, Vargas Llosa (The Language of Passion, 2002, etc.) juxtaposes Flora’s pursuit (throughout a tour of southern France) of her vision of an international “Worker’s Union” with Gauguin’s flight from his Danish wife and five children (in the wake of the 1881 Paris stock market crash) to the South Seas islands, motivated by desires for artistic success and to submerge himself in a “pagan, happy culture, unashamed of the body and untainted by the decadent notion of sin.” This is a formidable, learned novel that embraces the conflicting opinions of social theorists (Fourier, Saint-Simon, Proudhon, et al.) with whom Flora does intellectual battle; 19th-century political history, and rival artistic theories and practices (expressed, e.g., in Gauguin’s memories of his combative friendship with “the mad Dutchman” Vincent van Gogh). It’s also a replete and lively story, whose assured construction and pacing very gradually reveal such crucial life patterns and details as Flora’s abandonment of her abusive husband and her children and discovery of sexual fulfillment with a sympathetic Polish demimondaine, and Gauguin’s aggressive grasp of liberation, awakening artistic consciousness, and exhausted surrender to the ravages of syphilis. It’s Gauguin’s conflicted odyssey that stimulates Vargas Llosa’s imagination most powerfully. But there isn’t a page of this magnificently imagined and orchestrated story that does not vibrate with the energy and mystery of felt, and fully comprehended, life.
It’s hard to believe, but Vargas Llosa just keeps getting better. What are the Swedes waiting for?