A New York Times Notable Book
Flora Tristán, the illegitimate child of a wealthy Peruvian father and French mother, grows up in poverty and journeys to Peru to demand her inheritance. On her return in 1844, she makes her name as a champion of the downtrodden, touring the French countryside to recruit members for her Workers' Union.
In 1891, Flora's grandson, struggling painter and stubborn visionary Paul Gauguin, abandons his wife and five children for life in the South Seas, where his dreams of paradise are poisoned by syphilis, the stifling forces of French colonialism, and a chronic lack of funds, though he has his pick of teenage Tahitian lovers and paints some of his greatest works.
Flora died before her grandson was born, but their travels and obsessions unfold side by side in this double portrait, a rare study in passion and ambition, as well as the obstinate pursuit of greatness in the face of illness and death.
Postimpressionist painter Paul Gauguin's dramatic life inspired Somerset Maugham's classic The Moon and Sixpence; now Vargas Llosa takes his turn re-imagining the artist's story in an intricately detailed novel that also chronicles the life of Gauguin's feminist-socialist grandmother, Flora Trist n. Splitting the narrative between Trist n's tour of France in 1844, which she made to recruit support for her Workers Union, and Gauguin's life after landing in Tahiti in 1891, Vargas Llosa shows how each sought something be it social reform or artistic truth greater than themselves. The illegitimate child of a Peruvian man and a French woman, Trist n flees her villainous husband and makes her way to Peru, where she hopes to claim her inheritance from her late father's Peruvian relatives. When she fails, she returns to Europe and throws herself into radical politics. Gauguin's story is better known the abdication of bourgeois existence for art; the brief, conflicted cohabitation with Van Gogh; the voyage to Tahiti; the sexual escapades there, and the ravages of syphilis; the final voyage to the Marquesas Islands and Vargas Llosa tells it carefully. His twin tales achieve force and momentum through the sheer accumulation of detail and the relentlessly chronicled physical decline of both protagonists. But though usually a master of rhetoric and tone, Vargas Llosa loses his footing here, syncopating his account with second-person remarks that condescend to his characters ("Alas, Florita! It was all for the best that it hadn't happened, wasn't it?"; "ou weren't dreaming of anything so foolish, were you, Paul?"). Flora Trist n deserves to be better known, and this novel should accomplish that goal. But despite Wimmer's excellent translation, Vargas Llosa's latest too often feels like a weighty, unwieldy account of two exciting lives, which does neither its subjects nor its author's past artistry a service.