Never judge a book by its author

If you are new to Vargas Llosa – you won’t be short of choices. But keep The Bad Girl for later


The Bad Girl
Mario Vargas Llosa,
translated by Edith Grossman
2008, Picador
288 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA is credited with being one of the great masters of modern Latin American literature, having written across all genres – from hilarious comedies to thrillers and historical works.

His admiring readers can forgive him for trying to experiment with the romantic novel, but will certainly will be perplexed at the change, because The Bad Girl has transformed Vargas Llosa into Barbara Cartland.

This attempt to play with the principles of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, while gazing introspectively into his own Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, reminds the reader that, quite a few years, before Gabriel García Márquez had written a novel about obsessive love (Love in the Times of Cholera) which somehow was better contextualised (although Vargas Llosa may have given extra oomph because he manages to get the characters shagging in their twenties).

Vargas Llosa attempts to convey the reader in time through the eyes of orphan Ricardo Somocurcio, an upper-class teen in the 1950s who meets a flirtatious, mambo-dancing girl in his native Lima. His dream of making love to her is thwarted by the public realisation that the girl is not who she claims to be at a neighbourhood party and her ensuing disappearance. Other than spending the rest of his days with her, Ricardo’s ambition is to live in Paris, where he ends up studying and later finding work as a translator for UNESCO.

Predictably, the bad girl turns up, now dressed as a comrade and aspiring guerrilla fighter, although she couldn’t care less about exporting the Cuban Revolution.

Free from Peru and its prejudices, the bad girl allows the good boy to make love to her, but she is destined to go to Cuba for military training. He promises to wait for her loyally, but next time she comes to town she has married an old fellow twice her age earning thrice Ricardo’s salary.

The good boy and the bad girl become lovers again, but again she disappears until they next bump into each other in London, years and attires later. She hates the place, and the English, and leaves. Ricardo finds out she is living in Tokyo and goes in search of her, before returning to Paris, where tragedy strikes, then going off to Spain … phew! In this way transpire 40 years of love, loss of friendships, and disillusionment.

And what is it that makes the bad girl so bad? Ricardo reaches the conclusion that it must be the moral and racial prejudices of upper-class Peru and her deprived background. As far as he is concerned, her eyes sparkle and she is flirtatious, bold, spontaneous and in total control. He tends to ignore the bad girl’s tendency to lie and sleep around in order to upgrade her man for a richer and better model, as she craves the security that money can buy and that a measly translator will never offer.

From their split in Peru to their first re-encounter in Paris, the reader will realise that the novel is doomed, like the central characters. How many times can you bump into someone whose name you don’t even know by chance on the other side of the world?

Fails to satisfy

Despite its carefully written, whopping 272 pages, The Bad Girl fails to satisfy. The novel is loaded with descriptions of trees, music, streets, fashions, political events, ideological changes, new diseases and even the odd mention of commercial brands. The events of Paris in the 1960s, attempts to conjur up the swinging 60s and 70s in London, and the transition in Peru from democracy to dictatorship then democracy again are treated in a slap-dash way.

All in all, the novel is turgid – and by page 154, even with the detailed descriptions of the sexual encounters between the good boy and the bad girl, the reader is sure to have considered several times either to get creative and rewrite the plot (killing off the two love birds) or to opt for the peaceful solution and look for another read.

For its hidden conclusion, it is evident by the end of the story that the bad girl’s transgressive potential is no match for Madame Bovary’s, as she is not really in control. She can only get away with her dissolute lifestyle because she is not in Peru and has the support of a saintly, sensitive, sensual and caring Latin American male who is only thus because he was upper-class and lived abroad for most of his life.

Love dramas set in South America in the 1950s or 60s may work for the Hispanic market (The Bad Girl has potential as a soap opera), but seem too unreal for the 21st century and too sickly for the Anglo-Saxon market, where not even Mills and Boon fanatics will find this book amusing.

The Bad Girl should, indeed, come with a warning: If you are new to Vargas Llosa, pick Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, The Time of the Hero, Conversation in the Cathedral or even The Feast of the Goat – you won’t be short of choices. But keep The Bad Girl for later.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer

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