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• 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, October 24th, 2008

Susie Vereker, daughter of an army officer, was born in the Lake District in northern England. She spent a great deal of her life travelling, first with her parents and later with her diplomat husband. She was in Germany, Thailand, Australia, Greece, Switzerland and France, and spent much of her life trying to adapt to the countries and their traditions.

She became a widow in 2001 after a long and happy marriage, has three sons, and now lives in a small Hampshire village in the south of England. Susie Vereker was nominated for the RNA Foster Grant Award 2006, for her novel Pond Lane and Paris.

Susie Vereker has written three books to date:
Pond Lane and Paris published in 2005.
An Old-Fashioned Arrangement published in 2006.
Paris Imperfect will be published in December 2008.

An Old-Fashioned Arrangement, like the Pilot’s wife by Anita Shreve, commences with a wife who receives the visit of her husband’s office colleagues, at home early one morning. They announce his death in a plane crash in the Indonesian jungle, while on a business trip. Bewildered and under the shock, Kim, the charismatic and life-like main character, tries to gather all her strength in order to sort things out for the sake of her 11-year old son, James. Like Kathryn did the best she could to protect her 16-year old daughter Mattie in The Pilot’s Wife.

But unlike The Pilot’s Wife, the atmosphere in the Old-Fashioned Arrangement is less gloomy, less cold and oppressive. The story takes place in beautiful, peaceful and wealthy Geneva, which contrasts with the state of destitution that English expatriate Kim finds herself thrown into after her husband’s sudden, unexpected death. She is penniless, she has been following her unreliable, egoistic husband, Richard, round the world without any pension or cover scheme, even the money in their bank account has been withdrawn by him.

She will now have to leave the comfortable house in the privileged Genevan suburb, Cologny, within a month, without knowing where to go. Her Swiss neighbour and landlord, Henri, who always silently fancied her, besides liking her son James, proposed “An Old- Fashioned Arrangement” to her. “The arrangement” was meant to help Kim solve her financial problems and lead a care free life without uprooting her young son.

Kim is in her forties and Henri is a refined old gentleman who loves women. For her to become his mistress is against her ethics. She goes through a dilemma before accepting the proposal, but finally, having no family, hardly any friends and no home base due to her nomadic life, Kim sees no other choice but to follow her female instinct and succumbs to the offer. She accepts the deal for the security of herself and her son and not out of love.

But she will end up loving and caring for her guardian angel, Henri, to the extent of refusing the advances of Mark, the handsome English diplomat she happened to meet after her relationship with Henri. But after Henri dies, Kim who now knows the taste of freedom, will take more care before accepting to marry Mark. She will want to know him better before tying her life to his. Age and experience have taught Kim to be wiser, rational and less emotional.

Kim didn’t love her husband, Richard. She was even thinking of a divorce and his death would have been a relief if it wasn’t for the lack of money to survive. All these years she depended on her husband and now she will learn,at last,what it feels like to be emancipated.

The characters in the novel are very realistic, humane and well portrayed, any woman in the world can identify with Kim’s big problem, which makes it difficult for readers not to feel involved, especially with the author’s endearing and humoristic style of writing.

Although lighthearted, this novel treats a serious issue and has several unexpected suspense elements, in combination with a few twists, which makes it difficult to put down.

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