There are some moments when I immediately can decide if I like a novel or not, or how much of it I can enjoy, after its ten or so pages. With so much available to read, this seems like a reasonable policy. The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa upends this concept.
Sometimes, the best things in life are the ones that you originally disliked or didn’t appreciate, but in time, grow to love, much more than things you like easily. Did you stop drinking wine after your first glass? This book is like that; in the beginning I didn’t like it, nor the main character and narrator Ricardo, nor his love interest. She was terrible, and he was desperate. And I identified with her.
But I kept going, kept tasting. And slowly, slowly, it grew on me. This book is why you keep reading past the first ten or so pages. Almost by design, in a coup de maître, he sneaks up on the reader. He purposely creates characters that you initially dislike. But the transformation that occurs here is not in the characters, but instead in the reader, in you. When a novel, a collection of 100,000 or more carefully chosen words, can completely shake the way I look at reading novels – that is a good novel indeed.
In a way The Bad Girl is a success, as the last words of the novel have the bad girl expose the narrator as an aspiring writer who never had the courage to try his hand at it:
At least admit I’ve given you the subject for a novel. Haven’t I, good boy?
Mario Vargas Llosa’s narrator, Ricardo Somocurcio, spends most of his life as a translator and interpreter, and his account of his life – the book that is presented as The Bad Girl – reads much like the memoir of a well-read man who never wrote creatively at any length before but who thinks he has good material to work with and finally lets himself be convinced to set his story down on paper. The result is exactly what one would expect: it’s workmanlike and carefully put together, but, on the whole, largely unremarkable – satisfactory to a certain extent, but just not enough. Like most people who write about their lives, Ricardo is mistaken in thinking his is of much interest. There are interesting parts, as in every life, but that’s not enough, not as it’s presented here. Ricardo perhaps recognized that – and certainly the bad girl did – as the choice of title suggests. But, unfortunately, Ricardo doesn’t know how to work with that material, and though he may have been handed the “subject for a novel” on a platter, he can’t take it up completely – or get over himself – and writes a novel (or a fictional memoir) that should have been titled “The Good Boy’” instead.
In 1950, when Ricardo Somocurcio first meets Lily, a “Chilean” exotic in Lima, Peru, he is fifteen, sure of only one thing – that she is the most bewitching creature he has ever known. His young infatuation eventually develops into a lifelong obsession, and his story of how Lily dominates all aspects of his romantic life for more than forty years shows both the mysterious power of unconditional love and the peril of misplaced devotion. Lily is a will-o’-the-wisp, appearing and vanishing, changing names, following the lure of power to revolutionary Cuba, the lure of wealth to Paris, and eventually the lure of both power and wealth to Japan, where her lover is a high ranking Yakuza sadist. Somehow, however, she always makes her way back to Ricardo, whom she professes not to love, despite, or perhaps because of, his unquestioned acceptance of her humiliations of him.
From Lima to Paris, London, and Madrid, the story of the “bad girl” and the “good boy” unfolds, exploring all aspects of love and betrayal within the changing settings and political climates of the various countries in which the two have commitments. Whether it be revolutionary Cuba, to which Lily goes as Comrade Arlette; the Tupac Amaru guerilla movement in Peru, where some of Ricardo’s friends battle the government; the French revolutionary movement which brought about the downfall of Charles DeGaulle; or the various United Nations conferences in the 1970s and 1980s, which Ricardo attends as a UNESCO translator, love, politics, and violence exist side by side.
Lily is an individual – a femme fatale who forever drops in and then out of Ricardo’s life. Lily, or whatever name she uses when she bursts in on his life, is a product of her times, a woman whose sexual freedom allows her to pursue whatever pleases her, whether that means having an affair with a Cuban leader or engaging in sadomasochistic sex with a Japanese gangster. She has no qualms about using Ricardo to solve problems when she is desperate – and then moving on, disappearing unexpectedly and leaving him bereft, and broken – as usual.
The perspective of this novel is broadened beyond that of a love story by tying many of the characters’ experiences to revolutionary politics, paying particular attention to Peruvian strongmen from 1960 to 1990. Drawing loose parallels between the bad girl, who represents Ricardo’s constantly dashed (and always revitalized) hopes, and political candidates who promise the world and fail to deliver, he sets scenes and brings his characters to life in intense, vibrant prose. Though Llosa focuses on two people, the “bad girl” and the “good boy”, he creates a world around them that is so fully realized that their lives take on symbolic significance.
The Bad Girl moves along steadily enough, with interesting bits – smaller observations, some of the side-episodes (Ricardo’s various acquaintances and their stories are fairly well presented, for example) – but it’s an inconsistent whole. The bad girl’s story is just itching to burst out, but you are only given Ricardo’s very limited (in every sense) perspective, and Ricardo doesn’t know how to make his life-story, with and without her, compelling either, even as the potential is there (it’s not an exciting life, but there’s enough here to suggest he could have made something of it). Seen in this angle, it makes for an odd, muddled novel.
Nevertheless, Llosa paints this little melancholic masterpiece in quiet hues. Its effect is almost subliminal, and you naturally become ever concerned with the ever changing, mysteriously engrossing bad girl. I was left with confounded feelings as young Lily had played out her last cancerous enrapturements, but am still somewhat shaken by Llosa’s unique perspectives on love and responsibility to a loved one.
When the bad girl is in the book, the novel shines with excitement. The glow wanes too quickly, however, when she is gone and you must hear the non-substantively droll dialogues about Peruvian politics. So too are the men in the bad girl’s experience. They appear stick-figured and one dimensional.
All in all, The Bad Girl is a very good read – sometimes sentimental, melodramatic – but strangely unsatisfying. You only get to the surface of the protagonist (who himself seems somewhat androgynous and emotionally amorphous). Right when you are about to feel for the characters, one is gone; the other too easily disembarks on more tranquil pursuits. But a powerful ending and a sense of love and lust and quiet obsession being just this way makes this novel a particular standout.