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Author:
• Saturday, June 13th, 2015

Mario Vargas Llosa was born into a middle class family in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, in 1936. His parents were separated a short time before his birth. Llosa spent his early childhood with his mother and maternal grandparents in Cochabamba in Bolivia, being falsely told by his mother that his father had died. Ten years later his parents reconciled, causing an abrupt change to Llosa’s life because, after being pampered by his mother and grandparents, he now found himself with an authoritarian, severe father. In 1947 Llosa went to the Christian middle school, Colegio La Salle.

Discovering his only child’s passion for writing when in his early teens, Ernesto Vargas, Llosa’s dictatorial father, wanting to prevent him pursuing a literary career – which he considered good for idle rich people – sent him to the rigidly disciplined Leoncion Prado Military Academy in Lima. This period will later be described by Llosa in his first novel, The Time Of The Hero, published in 1963 as “the discovery of hell”.

Living in a country led by an oppressive dictator and having a despotic father will make Llosa fight strongly to condemn any stifling, abhorrent dictatorship that suppresses individual freedom in any shape or form.

After dropping out of the academy, Llosa pursued his studies in Piura, north of Peru, while working as a journalist for a local newspaper. In 1953 Llosa studied literature and law at the National University of San Marcos and in 1958 won a scholarship to study in Madrid and later went to live in Paris. Llosa became a journalist, an essayist and a politician, running unsuccessfully in the presidential elections of 1990.

Mario Vargas Llosa is a prolific writer, having written many novels, non-fiction and drama. He has also received numerous awards and honours including the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature about which he was informed in a telephone call received in New York when teaching a semester at Princeton University. He has been married twice and has three children from his second wife.

The Way To Paradise recounts, in alternating twenty-two chapters and by moving back and forth, the historical biographical story of two extraordinary destinies: the post-impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, and his illegitimate, socialist reformer and feminist grandmother, Flora Tristan. Flora was born to a wealthy Peruvian father and French mother and grew up in poverty following her aristocrat father’s death when she was just four years old. At the time, French law did not recognise her parents’ marriage and consequently she did not inherit her father’s estate as she was considered an illegitimate child.

Flora, who died in 1844 at the age of forty-one, never saw her grandson, Gauguin, born in 1848. Although they didn’t know each other and apart from their kinship, they both had one target, namely to aspire to achieve an insatiable and unrealistic dream in order to reach their much-coveted paradise on earth.

Flora wanted a complete change in the society of her time, where workers were poor, crushed and exploited by factory owners who worked them hard for a pittance in an unhealthy environment, while the destitute women and children were earning half a pittance for the same work. Flora was also campaigning for women to have a dignified and better life, whether they were poor, enslaved women workers or enslaved bourgeois women. Her fight for workers’ rights and women’s equality and emancipation from oppression is unprecedented and well ahead of her time.

In order to achieve her goal, Flora doesn’t spare any effort. She abandons her three children and André Chazal, the husband she detests and who made her hate sex. During the last months of her life she tours incessantly all over France for the sake of promoting her cause, travelling from town to city to recruit members for her Workers’ Union and encouraging workers to unite because unity is strength against the exploiters.

She publishes many works, her best-known being: Peregrinations Of A Pariah, published in 1838, Promenades In London in 1840 and her famous final work, The Workers’ Union in 1843, in which she criticises capitalism and its exploitation of workers in France. She is sometimes made fun of, threatened and rebuked but never gives-up her dream.

As for Gauguin, he quits his successful, well-paid job as a stockbroker in Paris in 1884 at the age of thirty-six and decides to become a full time artist. Soon after he abandons his Danish wife, Mette Gad, and his five children. In order to escape the civilised world, he looks for an unspoilt life in rural Brittany, in Pont-Aven then close by in Le Pouldu where he “went in search of the savagery and primitivism that seemed to him fertile ground for the flourishing of great art”. After a short, unfortunate conflictual cohabitation with Van Gogh in Arles, he travels to Panama followed by Martinique then Tahiti, which he finds a disappointment having been defiled by French colonialism.

Frustrated when realising that things are not as easy as he imagines and that his dream might never be fulfilled, and now consumed by syphilis, he goes to Atuona, Hiva ‘Oa in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia which he thinks has maybe been slightly less spoilt by French colonialism, but to no avail. He spends the last two years of his life there and is buried in 1903 in the cimetière Calvaire, the main cemetery on the island, leaving behind a great collection of paintings, ceramics and wood carvings. Although not given the recognition deserved during his lifetime, after his death Gauguin’s paintings have made him immortal.

Gauguin believed that art had to be subjective to represent the artist’s vision and what goes through an artist’s mind and soul, he said when he was in Le Pouldu near Pont-Aven in Brittany: “Art is abstraction; draw art as you dream in nature’s presence, and think more about the act of creation than about the final result”.

The two lives had their differences: Flora was more concentrated on awakening the working classes to their rights in order to forge a better, brighter future for them, while her grandson, Gauguin, was searching everywhere for the unspoilt, “uncivilised” past. Nevertheless, Gauguin’s life was more colourful and interesting than his grandmother Flora’s, who spent a great deal of her time indefatigably touring in France, organising endless workers’ meetings to recruit support for her workers’ union.

They also had their similarities: Flora and her grandson Gauguin, both rebelled against the establishment and had one objective in mind, their endeavour to liberate themselves from the traditionalist society of their time. They were both obstinately tenacious in their quest, stoically enduring the hardship they encountered as well as both suffering lingering illnesses leading to their deaths. In order to reach their ideals, they both courageously reject the comfortable, bourgeois existence they could have both lived and opt instead for the hard struggle in the hope of attaining their idealistic life.

The Way To Paradise, although slow-moving and repetitive at times, is a well-researched novel. It is a fascinating double biography of a grandmother and her grandson who, through their eagerness, strong ambition and obstinacy, were unstoppable in their endeavours thus leaving their mark on the history of humanity.

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Author:
• Friday, February 28th, 2014

Daniel Keyes was born in 1927 and raised in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of seventeen, he briefly joined the US Maritime Service as a ship’s purser before studying psychology and obtaining his BA degree at Brooklyn College in 1950.

He worked as an associate fiction editor, then as a fashion photographer, before earning a license to teach English in New York City schools. At the same time he studied and received an M.A. degree in English and American Literature from Brooklyn College. He left New York to teach Creative Writing at Wayne State University in Detroit, before moving to Ohio University in 1966 to teach English and Creative Writing.

In 1988 Keyes received the Distinguished Alumnus Medal Of Honour from Brooklyn College and in 2000 he was honoured with professor emeritus status at Ohio University. He lives in Boca Raton in Southern Florida.

Daniel Keyes has written eleven books to date and received several awards. He became well known after the publication of his very successful first novel: Flowers For Algernon, published as a short story in 1959 and as a novel in 1966. It won the Hugo Award in 1960 for the short story and in 1967 for the novel. It also won the Nebula Award in 1966 and the Locus Award of 1998 for the fortieth best novel before 1990.

Flowers For Algernon has been translated into many languages, has sold millions of copies all over the world and was made into a film called, Charly in 1968. It was also adapted for the stage and developed as a Broadway musical drama in 1980.

Algernon is a white laboratory mouse who becomes very intelligent after an unprecedented, experimentally successful brain surgery.

Charlie Gordon, whose fate is about to mirror Algernon’s, works for eleven dollars a week – plus bread or cakes, if he wants – as a cleaner at Donners bakery in New York. He is thirty-two years old and was born mentally disabled. Charlie is extremely eager to become intelligent and learn fast in order to fit in and for people to like him. Therefore, he volunteers to undergo the same brain operation as Algernon. Permission is given by his sister, Norma, and supported by Miss Alice Kinnian, his teacher at Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults who recommends him as her best student, to Dr Strauss and Professor Nemur for the experimental surgery.

Dr Strauss asks Charlie to write down all his thoughts and what he remembers, which Charlie does in a semi-literate way, on a regular basis under the title: “progris riports”. In progress report 7 March 11, he writes: “If your smart you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonely by yourself all the time.”

The spelling, vocabulary, punctuation and acumen of Charlie’s written progress reports improve gradually at the same pace as his mental condition advances steadily after his brain operation. The experiment is a great scientific achievement. Charlie’s IQ increases to exceed even that of his neurosurgeon, Dr Strauss and his psychologist, Professor Nemur.

Sadly, after becoming a genius, Charlie discovers the hard, cruel and real ugly truth about things around him. When he was mentally handicapped he thought people working at the bakery were his friends and never realised that they were making fun of him and laughing at him and not with him as he imagined. Presently what pains him most is that unknowingly he used to join them in laughing at himself.

When he becomes lucid, Charlie turns bitter and rancorous when he says to Alice Kinnian referring to the workers at Donners bakery: “they played tricks on me, and laughed at me” and although being aware of their cruelty, in his confused mind he still thinks of them as his real friends. He says to Professor Nemur: “ when I was retarded I had lots of friends. Now I have no one”, albeit knowing “lots and lots of people”. Professor Nemur replies: “You’ve become cynical […] your genius has destroyed your faith in the world and in your fellow men”. Charlie replies, perspicaciously, that intelligence and education alone without “human affection” are worthless.

Charlie becomes shrewd and angrily rebellious against life and people around him. Even Alice Kinnian – his former teacher – admits that after becoming highly intelligent, he has lost “his warm, real smile”, an engaging smile that was meant to attract people and gain their love and affection. Throughout the novel the author accentuates the regrettable fact that a mentally disabled person is just as alienated as an abnormally genius human being, because neither happen to fit with the predominant standard.

Charlie has always been seeking love and affection from his mother, Rosa, his father Matt and his younger sister, Norma. Instead he is rejected as an abnormal child and put in the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults without any of his family ever visiting him. Charlie never recovers from being estranged from his family.

Despite becoming highly intelligent, Charlie remains emotionally handicapped and finds it difficult to become emotionally mature. He is in love with Alice Kinnian who returns his love but with all his knowledge he does not know how to handle the situation. Each time he attempts to physically express his love, the phantoms from his past haunt him. In the end, after making peace with his past as well as using strong will power, he manages to overcome his demons. He then succeeds in making love to his bohemian neighbour, Fay, which encourages him to physically express without inhibition his strong love for Alice, the only woman he ever loved.

Regrettably, the wonderful positive, scientific breakthrough effect of the brain surgery experiment only lasts a few months before Algernon’s cleverness unexpectedly deteriorates followed by his death. After following Algernon’s decline, Charlie witnesses in a panic that his intelligence is also reducing gradually and deduces with horror, that he is going back to his former mental disability.

The heart-wrenching part takes place at the end of the story when the now mentally disabled Charlie reveals he has not forgotten that, not long before, he was a genius. He writes: “I know evrybody feels sorry for me […] I dont want that […] so Im going someplace where they are a lot of other pepul like me and nobody cares that Charlie Gordon was once a genus and now he cant even reed a book or rite good”. The novel ends on a moving note, with Charlie asking Miss Kinnian, in his farewell message if she could put some flowers on Algernon’s grave in the back yard, when she gets a chance.

Flowers For Algernon is narrated by the main character, Charlie Gordon. It is a non typical science fiction novel, written in a diary cum epistolary form. The author brings into focus several subjects: the main one is compassion for mentally handicapped people who are less fortunate than ourselves. Then there are the ethical questions about experimenting on human beings as well as on animals and how the upbringing of a child can severely hinder him psychologically, haunt him and ruin his future. And finally, how great conflicts can arise between mind versus feeling.

Flowers For Algernon is an original, enthralling, thought provoking novel, deeply poignant and beautifully written with a great deal of empathy.