Saturday, June 30, 2012

When in Mexico...
(or another Spanish-speaking/reading country)

now finished: El Paraíso en la otra esquina by Mario Vargas Llosa

So obviously I have had Mario Vargas Llosa on my to-read radar (to-readar?) for a while. He's all famous and literary and won the Nobel Prize and stuff, so eventually I would get around to him. But then we showed up in Querétaro and right away I found a book group and they were meeting, like, ten days after I arrived, but hey--why not? I headed to a little bookstore here in the Centro Histórico and picked up a copy of El Paraíso en la otra esquina (translated as The Way to Paradise, more on that in a sec) and plunged into my first Vargas Llosa -- en español! 

Now, I have read quite a few books in Spanish, but mostly young adult books.  I also occasionally read Spanish newspapers. This was kind of a jump in difficulty level, but actually, I could do it! I love reading in a foreign language and I have long since (we're talking decades) known that the way to go about it is not to keep a dictionary there and look up every single word you come across that isn't "Hola" or "agua" or "isla." Just like when you acquire language naturally as a child, you learn things from context and there are many times when at first I am not quite sure what a sentence says, but I read the entire paragraph and then go back and read the paragraph again and the second (or sometimes third) time through it dawns on me. It's as if you can actually feel your brain acquiring language. I love language. This is part of why I enjoy ESL teaching -- and writing, and reading -- language is magical. If humans contributed nothing else to this planet (and at times, this is a premise worth considering), then what we've done with languages is enough to fascinate the eternal universe, I say. 

OK, so back to Vargas Llosa. Famous, always meant to get around to reading him, now I have. They say (I know, who are "they"?) that he's "right-wing" now. I didn't see it in this novel; instead, what I saw was a really fun cynicism about lots of different people in society, with a bit about the seemingly futile struggle to free and liberate the oppressed and also a few sharp jabs at the very wealthy who feel oh-so-entitled to all that they have. 

And then there's Gauguin.
El Paraíso en la otra esquina tells the stories of two people, in alternating chapters: painter Paul Gauguin and his quest to find paradise and a return to the "natural" Eden-like state of humanity, notably in Tahiti, where he paints masterpieces but also "marries" several 14-year-old girls, and Flora Tristán, the grandmother of Gauguin, who travels in France, England, and Peru during the 1830s and 1840s trying to raise the consciousness of workers and to unite women and other oppressed classes in a struggle to be free. Also: she realizes that sex doesn't have to suck (as it did with her husband) when she has a wonderful affair with a woman. This book is very sexy, at times. Politics and art and sex. What more do you need? And as a bonus, there are religious hypocrites. Sometimes Flora gets into it with them: priests, rich bosses who exploit their workers, grande dames of society, and the like. "Dedicar nuestras vidas a ejercer la caridad," some rich women tell her, to which she replies, "No, ustedes no practican la caridad. Distribuyen limosnas, que es muy distinto." (-p.64 of ISBN 978-607-11-0763-3)

I think it's great. Gauguin is a jerk when it comes to the way he treats some people (for example: females) but he is a fascinating character, and that's what we ask for in a novel, no? Also, you can relate to him if you're an artist and traveler, so I was definitely hooked even though I knew his struggle to find paradise was doomed to be doomed. The title refers to a children's game that the real life Gauguin likely played in Peru where the kids ask for paradise and are directed to the other corner (does anyone know this game in real life? and I'm trying to figure out if there is a comparable game anyone I know in the U.S. played?) and for this reason it bothers me that the English title is translated as "The Way to Paradise." Although that captures, for the most part, the quests of Paul Gauguin and Flora
Tristán, it doesn't really capture the way the game is invoked, described, and revisited at the end of the book to come thematically full circle. Why can't titles just be translated literally?! I don't mean translated literally when the word-for-word translation does not evoke the idea, but I mean translated without creating a new meaning. (See also: my rant about Men Who Hate Women with Dragon Tattoos.)

This book also really made me want to go to Peru. I wanted to go there anyway, but this ratcheted it up a few notches.I think it was helpful for my Spanish for me to plunge into a book in Spanish during my first month in Mexico. I still need to read, speak, and write more in Spanish -- a lot  more -- but this was a good kick-start. And I will definitely be reading more Vargas Llosa in the future. The to-readar grows ever more crowded!
Final grade: A-  (Because I'm such a hard grader. It could be an A, maybe. I'll see how it compares to other Vargas Llosa books and then decide for sure.)

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