The Bad Girl, a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa (Farrar Straus Giroux)

In The Bad Girl, Ricardo Somocurcio tells the story of his lifelong love for Lily the Chilean girl, Comrade Arlette, Madame Robert Arnoux, Mrs. David Richardson, Kuriko, Otilita, and his wife Mrs. Somocurcio – the serial identities of the bad girl. She first appears as teenaged Lily, moved to Lima with her family from Santiago. But Lily is no Chilean; she is a whiz at mimicking accents and dances the mambo with a Chilean’s scandalous abandon, but Ricardo learns she is a fraud, a girl from a poor local family. From the beginning, Ricardo knows what to expect from the bad girl, “the incarnation of coquettishness.” His cyclical 40-year narrative is notched by his several encounters with the bad girl.

llosa.jpg“To love is to see a person as God intended him and his parents failed to make him. To not love is to see a person as his parents made him,” wrote Marina Tsvetaeva in her diary. “To fall out of love is to see, instead of him, a table, a chair.” Vargas Llosa's novel hinges on withholding material that feeds our habit of speculating on the psyches and deeper motivations of his characters. In fact, as Ricardo would have us believe (not via internalized debate but through the basic, recurring facts of his life), there is only the God-given. From girlhood, the bad girl is not only driven to use guile as the means to obtain control and power over her situation, but favors the energizing danger of this approach over “mediocrity.” From boyhood, Ricardo’s ambition is limited to living in Paris; his vocation as a translator for UNESCO is simply his job, not a portal to engagement with political or social policy. He travels and translates, with a growing competency in Russian that leads to unprofitable literary translation for small Spanish publishers. In other words, we see Ricardo as God and Vargas Llosa intended him; we see him in the same way the bad girl sees him. And that makes us an equivalent of the bad girl. All she wants is the assurance that whenever she needs shelter and comfort, Ricardo will be there to take her in and tell her “something cheap and sentimental.” All we want is Ricardo’s predictable, perfectly told tale to continue, because it’s an entertaining, honest, and moving story. She is a bad girl and we are bad readers. We don’t see her or Ricardo as their parents made them; they appear to be raw products.

With The Bad Girl, Vargas Llosa has made full use of his own long obsession with Emma Bovary. As Michael Kerrigan pointed out in the TLS, Vargas Llosa declared this in The Perpetual Orgy (1975): “I knew from that moment on, till my dying day, she would be for me, as for Leon Dupuis in the first days of their affair, ‘the beloved of every novel, the heroine of every play, the vague she of every volume of verse.’” But in Madame Bovary, the narrator attempts to penetrate Emma’s mind, as in these lines from Geoffrey Wall’s translation: “One day, at the climax of her illness, when she thought she was dying, she had asked for communion, and, while … Félicité was scattering dahlia petals on the floor, Emma felt some powerful thing sweeping over her, delivering her from pain, from all perception, from all feeling. Her flesh lay down its burden of thought, another life was beginning.” As conventional as this treatment may now seem, it does penetrate the character. When the bad girl’s health deteriorates, we see only the physical decline and her outwardly passive acceptance of death. One could say that The Bad Girl is Madame Bovary purified by the best impulses of Vargas Llosa’s post-modernism: the story as impeccably observed surface, no word demanding undeserved significance, no pretension to clarity of the underlying psyche.

llosa2.jpgBut Vargas Llosa is too ingenious and canny a novelist to let us cruise along too smoothly. He exploits our agitation with episodes that entice with the possibility of tantalizing insight. In a late chapter called “Arquímedes, Builder of Breakwaters,” we find the bad girl’s father, now a toothless old man with threadbare clothes who knows intuitively where breakwaters may be successfully built. So perhaps we will discover how the bad girl’s parents “failed to make her.” Ricardo, now in his fifties, attempts to tease information out of him, but his main discovery is the bad girl’s given name, Otilita. The father merely tells us what we already know about her selfishness; he, too, wanted something from her (money, sent home from Paris), and so she cut him off. It may occur to the reader that Ricardo has told us virtually nothing about his own parents and upbringing.

Earlier, when the bad girl enters a clinic to recuperate from her harrowing, destructive life with a sadistic Japanese businessman, we are teased by the information offered by the psychologists: “She was an obliging victim and readily accepted all that gentleman’s whims. When she becomes aware of this now, it enrages her and throws her into despair … You’ll find this strange. But she, and all those who live a good part of their lives enclosed in fantasies they erect in order to abolish their real life, both know and don’t know what they’re doing.” When the bad girl emerges from this episode with manic attacks of dread, Ricardo says, “I never could get a clear idea of the nature of the fear that would suddenly invade her, undoubtedly because it had no rational explanation.” In The Bad Girl, psychology is as feckless a practice as the politics and revolution-making of the cold war period and in Peru which intermittently inform the story’s context in time. Vargas Llosa’s deflation of history and politics is one of the novel’s ancillary pleasures.

In the end, this novel is about the reader’s fruitless pursuit of “real life.” But we love its substitute in the form of Ricardo’s own abolished self, rages, despair, and ready acceptance of everything the bad girl throws at him. After all, Ricardo is a translator: he speaks for others, facilitating the intentionality of their governments and policies. But he can't translate his only mode of speaking into a deeper, explanatory narrative. The bad girl is also a kind of translator, converting her hungry, compelled self into different characters with various appearances and names. Presumably, one reason Ricardo tells this story is to grasp something of the nature of his desire. The bad girl's compulsive behavior comes across as a disorder. What of his behavior? The engaging swiftness of the telling is all we have to go on.

Vargas Llosa introduces many cleverly drawn supporting characters along the way, and covers a lot of ground as Ricardo’s itinerant life-story unfolds. The Bad Girl is a seductive delight, classic in shape, supremely artful in its control, amiably presumptuous in its repetitions, and shrewd in its grasp of our emotions and desire for meaning.

In “Love and Poetry,” Randall Jarrell said, “Love removes none of the contradictions of our lives but, by adding one more, induces us to accept them all.” There is a profound power in Vargas Llosa’s novel: the withheld comprehension, the simple impenetrability of Ricardo, is the added contradiction that leads us to accept the larger sense of contradiction in the world portrayed – and in life beyond the novel’s borders. Ricardo is a surface continually disrupted by the sudden arrivals of the bad girl. As we eagerly watch for her latest appearance, we also become lovers of an endearing, truthful disruption.

[Novel translated by Edith Grossman. 276 pages, $25.00 hardcover. Published 10/15/07.]