History of love repeats itself as farce
Faber and Faber, £17.99
PERU’S leading contemporary writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, needs little introduction after rising to fame in the boom years of Latin American literature. This latest work combines his political and literary passions, expressed as always with wit and irony, but without the grand scope of his “total novels”. The Bad Girl is primarily an analysis of love in which Vargas Llosa questions the nature of unrequited love and abject devotion expressed in “cheap, sentimental” language.
Vargas Llosa narrates the story through Ricardo, a teenager from the rich suburb of Miraflores in Lima, whose romance with Lily throbbed to the explosion of mambo in the summer of 1950. The evocation of Lima at the time is hauntingly nostalgic. Lily’s unmasking and disappearance follow in rapid succession, yet the “bad girl” has left her mark. After moving to Paris, the haunt of other exiled “writers who didn’t write, artists who didn’t paint”, and qualifying as a Unesco translator, Ricardo again meets Lily, now a trainee guerrilla fighter, Comrade Arlette.
But after using him for her own ends, she again disappears. As the pattern repeats itself, the predictability of each parting and “surprise” reunion becomes rather tedious. Indeed, Ricardo wonders if, after 30 years of suffering, this farce could still be called a love story?
Ricardo’s work as a translator also provides Vargas Llosa with a wonderful pretext to explore that “profession of phantoms”, scathingly described by a colleague as a “disguised form of procuring, pimping, or being a go-between”.
Taken solely at face value, the main characters remain unconvincingly monochromatic – Ricardo the unambitious drudge who drowns his misery in work, and the “bad girl” a scheming liar whose pursuit of material wealth overrides any compunction for having deserted her family and ruined countless other lives.
But the novel remains intriguing and poignant, sustained by historical evocations of the Fifties and Sixties, the violent years of the Shining Path, and the author’s own unsuccessful political foray into Peruvian politics.
Above all, it pays homage to the Vargas Llosa’s literary heroes, their sentiments and the redeeming power of love.
© Lucinda Byatt