Monday, June 30, 2008

The Way To Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa

I rarely read novels more than once. There are some I have read several times, but the list might just run to double figures. I have read The Way To Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa twice, but not for the usual reasons. First time though I was so disappointed with the book that I thought I had to be mistaken. So I waited a few months and read it again. Second time through I enjoyed it much more but, on finishing it, I had many of the same reservations as I did first time round.

The Way To Paradise juxtaposes two stories which, in essence, deal with how people pursue ideals. It identifies the inevitable selfishness associated with a person’s obsession to achieve, how pragmatism and compromise inevitably dictate daily routine, and how fate, unpredictable and unyielding, has the ultimate say on all of our endeavours.

The two stories of The Way To Paradise are related by family. One describes how the French painter, Paul Gaugin, left his job as a mildly successful stockbroker to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. A closet painter while he acted out the humdrum of nine to five to provide for his thoroughly and properly domesticated Danish wife and five children, Paul Gaugin drooled over canvases by impressionist painters such as Manet. The latter’s nude depiction of Olympia played a significant role in crystallising Gaugin’s ambitions. A provocative and highly erotic painting it is, for sure.

What Gaugin did not know, it seems, was that the sitter shared the name of his grandmother’s lesbian lover. It would add poignancy to the story if the painting’s subject was actually the grandmother’s lover, but the decades don’t add up. Flora Tristan, Paul Gaugin’s grandma, was born into potential wealth. But she was illegitimate, her wealthy Peruvian father having sired her via a poor French mother. So she grew up in poverty. She marries. She hates sex, abhorring everything to do with the act, so the marriage to an impatient husband does not last. There is a child, but there is also violence, threats, public scenes and estrangement. Flora takes up the struggle for women’s rights, workers’ rights and socialism. She dresses as a man to research the experience of prostitutes. She travels from town to town giving presentations and speeches to guilds, assemblies of the poor and groups of women. Both Paul Gaugin and Flora Tristan travel.

The artist, of course, as we all know, went to live on various Pacific islands, where he painted most of the works that now make him famous. But at the time, the experience was far from idyllic. Having wanted to escape the constricting conventions and conservatism of France, he found it reincarnated in the officialdom that dealt with him, his poverty, and his illness, syphilis, which rendered him smelly, pussy and unsightly. On can only imagine what his grandmother would have thought of his processing of local women, whom he painted, infected, made pregnant and then deserted, sometimes in that order. The grandson was doing what the grandmother would have despised, derided. But then the women on the receiving end weren’t Europeans, were they? 

 Flora travelled to Peru in an attempt to claim the inheritance of her birthright. In South America, with colonial heritage all around, she brushed shoulders with the rich, with a way of life she could only dream about in Europe. The experience galvanised her, created the resolution to seek change, a resolve that drove her through her remaining years, prompted her to write, to seek self-expression that might widen and convince her audience. And so both grandmother and grandson pursue their own ideals, never consciously attaining them, of course, but the pursuit, like the life that bears it, is the point. The process is the end, the product merely existence. 

 In reviewing The Way To Paradise I find I have taken much more from the book than I thought. I had problems with the style in that its unidentified narrator constantly seemed to address Flora and Paul directly, referred to them as ‘you’, almost implying that they were acquaintances. On reflection, that might be part of the book’s point, in that celebrity renders those who possess it the friends of anyone. Both characters are thus part of our own common history. We already know them as Paul and Flora. In the case of Paul Gaugin, however, we meet a much lauded, selfish, self-obsessed, perhaps, painter whom everyone recognises. In Flora Tristan, Mario Vargas Llosa tells us, we have a member of the same family who ought to be known better than she is. In contrast with her grandson, however, her selflessness, her energy, her purity, paradoxically, identify her as a figure worthy of respect, worthy of history. The Way To Paradise was clearly worth its second read.

View this book on amazon The Way to Paradise

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Spanish Inquisition – An Historical Revision by Henry Kamen

Henry Kamen´s The Spanish Inquisition is an amazing experience. It is a highly detailed, supremely scholarly and ultimately enlightening account of an historical phenomenon whose identity and reputation have become iconic. So much has been written about it, so many words have been spoken that one might think that there is not too much new to be learned.

But this is precisely where Kamen´s book really comes into its own, for it reveals the popular understanding of the Inquisition as little more than myth. He explodes the notion that the busy-bodies of inquisitors had their nose in everyone’s business. It was actually quite a rare event for someone to be called before it. And in addition, if you lived away from a small number of population centres, the chances were that that you would hardly even have known of its existence. Also exploded is the myth of large numbers of heretics being burned at the stake. Yes, it happened, but in nowhere near the numbers that popular misconceptions might claim. Indeed, the more common practice was to burn the convicted in effigy, since the accused had fled sometimes years before the judgment, or they might have died in prison while waiting for the case to reach its conclusion.

The intention is not to suggest that the inquisition’s methods were anything but brutal, but merely to point out that perceptions of how commonly they were applied are often false. Henry Kamen skilfully describes how the focus of interest changed over the years.

Initially the main targets were conversos, converts to Christianity, families that were once Jewish or Muslim who converted to Christianity during the decades that preceded the completion in 1492 of Ferdinand and Isabella´s reconquest. Protestants were targeted occasionally in the following centuries, but it was the families of former Jews that remained the prime target, sometimes being subjected to enquiry several generations after their adoption of their new faith.

A focus on converts to Christianity gave rise to a distinction between Old and New Christianity, an adherent of the former being able to demonstrate no evidence of there having been other faiths in the family history. What consistently runs through arguments surrounding Old and New Christianity, a distinction that was also described as pure blood versus impure blood, is that at its heart this apparent assertion of religious conformity was no more than raw xenophobia and racism. Henry Kamen makes a lot of the contradiction here, since Spain at the time was the most “international” of nations, having already secured an extensive empire and sent educated and wealthy Spaniards overseas to administer it.

In addition, of course, Spain was emerging from a long period when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived competitively, perhaps, but also peacefully under Moorish rule. It is worth reminding oneself regularly that the desire and requirement for religious conformity during the reconquest was imposed from above. Completing Henry Kamen´s The Spanish Inquisition prompts the reader to reflect on which other major historical reputations might be based on reconstructed myth. One is also prompted to speculate on the future of an increasingly integrated Europe, a continent forcibly divided for half a century where xenophobia and religious intolerance might be closer to the surface than most of us would want to admit.

Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel

Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel is a novel set in Samoa, a novel that won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. At one level it is a simple story of one girl’s journey through childhood and adolescence.

Alofa tells us about her school life, her church, her favourite television programmes, and her family. She tells us of local practices, customs and mores. She describes what she eats and how it is cooked. She details her relationships with her friends, parents and teachers. And in this way she builds for us a picture and sensation of growing up in Samoa.

Alofa is quite a late developer. Long after her friends have succumbed to the moon sickness, she has not begun to menstruate. It troubles her. She worries that she is not like other people, that she might be destined for a life that is different from theirs. But she discovers what all adolescents discover, and delights in telling the minute detail of every encounter.

There are older men, younger men, and girls, mothers and boys. She has her share of experiences and learns that sometimes people are not what they seem. Through Where We Once Belonged the reader thus experiences Samoan life, how it once was, and how it is changing. It is not a rich life, for sure, but the poverty, both material and personal, never grinds down either the community or the individual. Like everywhere else in human existence, some can cope with apparent ease, whilst others find the process of life more taxing.

The true beauty of Sia Figiel's novel, however, is that it provides a foil to external, Western interpretations of Samoan life. Mention of this contrast with ´official´ views of the culture come late in the book, because the perspective is consistently that of the young girl narrator. In some ways this is unfortunate, since the book has real direction once this is understood. Until then, a casual reader may not develop this informative and rewarding overview. An uncommitted reader might also find the book a difficult read. 

There is extensive use of Samoan words, whole sentences in places. Though there is a glossary, it is far from complete. There is a temptation not to refer to it and thus to gloss over some of the detail, and it is in this detail that the book’s real richness lies. Eventually, it is a rewarding read, in its particularistic, individual way.

View this book on amazon Where We Once Belonged