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Mario Vargas Llosa Book – Art Historical Fiction based on the Painter Paul Gauguin

Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the greatest Peruvian authors, writes a book about the post-impressionism painter, Paul Gauguin. What you many not know (I didn’t) was that Gauguin spent time in Peru in his childhood years. However, the book doesn’t focus on that chapter of Gauguin’s childhood life. Rather, the book takes you, the reader, to where Gauguin thought he would find paradise, Tahiti.

Gauguin & Tristan – Each One Searching for their own Paradise

Mario Vargas Llosa’s book “The Way to Paradise” follows the lives of two daring and independent characters–Paul Gaugin, the post-impressionism painter, and his grandmother Flora Tristan, the revolutionary socialist & union activist.

The book is set in France in the 1840s and Tahiti in the 1890s. The paths of Flora Tristan and her grandson, Paul Gauguin, never cross as they live in different times. However, both travel and search for their own ‘paradise’ here on Earth.

Paul Gauguin Painting from Tahiti
Paul Gauguin Painting from Tahiti [Public Domain]

What is Flora Tristan’s & Paul Gauguin’s Paradise?

In 1844 Flora Tristan, aged 41, is appalled by European culture. She seeks the paradise of a utopian society where women and workers enjoy basic human rights.  She travels across France, campaigning for the downtrodden. Her dreams are to change the world and make it a better place.

Nearly fifty years later, her grandson Paul Gauguin, at the age of of 43, travels to Tahiti, to escape bourgeois civilization. Paul abandons his wife and five children as he wants absolute freedom. He decides to pursue his art, follow his dreams and live in an idyllic paradise. He sails to Tahiti with the hope of escaping the corruption of European culture & commerce.

Flora Tristan dies before Paul Gauguin, her grandson, is born. However the book takes us on their travels in alternating chapters. Throughout the book, you will see many parallels between the two.

Paul Gauguin self portrait
Paul Gauguin self portrait [Public Domain]

Two Characters Critical of their Societies & Going Against the Grain

Both Flora and Paul have ambitions, passions and obsessions. They both choose to escape their conventional lives in order to pursue their dreams. Both characters are critical of the societies around them.

Flora Tristans’s dream is fight for social reforms and make the world a better place for the downtrodden. Paul Gauguin wants to escape the West and change the world with his art. Along the journey to their Paradise, they both deal with failures, challenges and illness.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s book is a meticulously researched and cleverly written book. You may even wonder whether this book is actually fiction. It is! The author’s contention is that the two protagonists are connected not just by family ties but also by their flight from middle class comfort in pursuit of a better world.

Gauguin & Tristan are two people who did amazing things despite great hardships. Paul Gauguin in real life actually said the following:

” Life has no meaning unless one lives it with a will, at least to the limit of one’s will. Virtue, good, evil are nothing but words, unless one takes them apart in order to build something with them; they do not win their true meaning until one knows how to apply them. “


I wonder when he said these words, if he was also thinking about his courageous grandmother, Flora Tristan?

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