“I have come to an unalterable decision—to go and live forever in Polynesia. Then I can end my days in peace and freedom, without thoughts of tomorrow and the eternal struggle against idiots.” Paul Gauguin, October 1874
Some years ago I went through a beachcomber phase. I was fascinated by a slew of books and films featuring men who had thrown off the bonds of civilisation and taken refuge on a South Seas island. Generally barefoot, with rolled up khaki trousers and a partially unbuttoned white shirt with its tails hanging out, they eked out a precarious existence trudging the beach looking for something salable surrendered by the sea. Unshaven and often drunk, you wouldn't think they'd seem attractive, much less like role models to me, but being the single mom of two energetic pre-teen boys, working two and sometimes three jobs, I savored the idea of escaping to an island paradise. I read books by Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Somerset Maugham. I plastered my home and office with pictures of beaches and palm trees. I left piles of seashells and driftwood on tables and desks. I went to the huge Gauguin exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington.
I had always liked his paintings, not just the Tahitian ones with their intense colors and inscrutable figures, but also the early works from Brittany. I walked through room after room of paintings and carvings, dreaming of following in his footsteps. I was further intrigued to discover that when he arrived in Tahiti, finding that the indigenous culture had succumbed to colonial influences, he set about creating his own gods and devils, carving wooden idols, including them in his paintings. I admired his persistence, his refusal to give in.
However, I lost interest in the man when I discovered that he never saw his wife and five children again after he first left for Tahiti and did not provide them with any support. On the island, he took 13 and 14-year-old girls as wives and concubines right up to end of his life, which was even more despicable because he knew the syphilis that would eventually kill him was contagious.
Llosa's novel alternates between Gauguin's life in the South Seas from 1892 to 1903 and that of his grandmother, Flora Tristán, traveling through France in 1844. Hers was a new story for me: illegitimate daughter of a Peruvian aristocrat who died young and a Frenchwoman, she grew up in poverty. Flora's nightmarish difficulties escaping an abusive marriage combined with her concern for the working conditions of the poor to inspire a zeal to reform, not just French society, but the world. She traveled to Spain and London, where she worked “to show the world that, behind the facade of prosperity, luxury, and power, there lurked the most abject exploitation, the worst evils, and a suffering humanity enduring cruelties and abuse in order to make possible the dizzying wealth of a handful of aristocrats and industrialists.”
Both women and workers were society's victims, and she founded the Worker's Union to fight for the rights of both. We get descriptions of the horrible working conditions and the injustices women suffered. In her 1844 tour she went from town to town, giving speeches, meeting with workers, trying to found chapters of the Worker's Union. In doing so she gave up the only love she had known in her life, the only relationship that showed her what love could be, in order to devote herself to the cause.
The alternating stories made me think about the pursuit of paradise. Both Flora and Gauguin hurt themselves and others as they chase their obsessions. Both believe in the value of their work, Flora to protect the rights of women and workers and Paul to bring the vitality of an indigenous culture to a wan and artificial Western society. The line between self-indulgence and devotion to a cause can be blurred.
I found the style a bit odd at first. Llosa occasionally breaks out of the close third-person narrative to address his protagonists directly, often using the nicknames Florita and Koké. “You had to paint, Koké. The flicker deep inside that you hadn't felt for so long was there again, urging you on, galvanizing you, making you incandescent. Yes, yes, of course you must paint.” Eventually I became accustomed to it. I was more interested in Flora's story because it was new to me and less distasteful than Paul's. However, the author apparently felt the opposite; I think Paul's life is portrayed with more rich detail than that of his grandmother. Both are, to me, sad stories, showing the cost of trying to change the world. I admire single-mindedness and wish I had more of it, but in the end I'm glad I didn't abandon my children to go off and become a beachcomber.