Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction is bittersweet, and how delicious it is. In his latest novel, The Bad Girl, reading him can be like finding your way through a haunted house. All things - including the people - are never what they seem. One must constantly question whether what we are reading is the truth or if we are being misdirected again. That is what makes the experience so perversely thrilling.
The Bad Girl inhabits the restless, lustful consciousness of Ricardo Somocurcio, an orphan raised by his Aunt Alberta in Miraflores, Peru. Ricardo dreams of living in Paris, a desire he attributes to his father, who made him read the novels of Paul Feval, Jules Verne, and Alexander Dumas, and so many others. He longs for adventure, to learn French, and he wants to fall in love.
One extraordinary summer, at a beach party in the 1950s, he meets Lily, a Chilean girl – mysterious, flamboyant, unlike any girl he has known. She tells him tales of the wonderful life in Santiago, where boys and girls are allowed to smoke and attend the theatre. Lily and Ricardo become a couple, holding hands at the matinees, and sharing occasional kisses. His friends make fun of him for his obvious crush on this new girl. The romance ends when Lily’s lie of being from Chile is discovered and she disappears from Miraflores.
Life goes on, and Ricardo realizes his dream of moving to Paris. There in the 1960s he encounters Paul, a student at the Sorbonne who abandons his studies to become a revolutionary. Paul recruits young people for scholarships to go to Cuba for military training. Paul and Robert become close friends, with Robert occasionally picking up scholarship recipients to help out his friend. One recipient seems familiar: Comrade Arquette turns out to be Lily and their romance is briefly revived.
As a UNESCO translator, Robert distracts himself from Lily’s disappearances by studying Russian, immersing himself in his work, and occasional affairs with other women. He makes a resolution to fall in love with a normal girl, one less complicated who will want to settle down and have children. He sees his work as routine. He travels and stays in touch with friends and fellow translator Salomen Toledano, who tells him “falling in love is a mistake.”
With his journalistic yet richly textured style and penetrating eye, Llosa has captivated the critics for nearly two decades. In the past, he has often let psychological drama or political activism shape his creations. In one of his best-known stories, Conversation in the Cathedral, the son of a Peruvian politician resigns his social position, fleeing a world of corruption to live in benign obscurity. In the dark and ambitious War of the End of the World, prostitutes, robbers, beggars, and other outcasts of society inhabit the backlands of nineteenth-century Brazil where there is no taxation, no marriage, no money, and no census. And, in The Feast of the Goat, Llosa recreates the Dominican Republic under the rule of notorious dictator General Trujillo, depicting the horrors of his regime and the assassins who determined to eliminate him.
In this new novel, however, Llosa writes a twisted romance for the pure pleasure of storytelling. The Bad Girl still casts political overtures, but its detours from the political scene are romantic: men and women looking for love in all of the wrong places. With his intense skill for narrative, Llosa carries off Robert’s obsession for an unreliable lover with all of the confusion of betrayal and the magnetic power of romantic relationships.
As Robert struggles with the bad girl’s many betrayals, he tells himself that he will only find happiness with a normal girl: “I made the firm resolution, at the age of thirty-eight, to fall in love with someone less evasive and complicated.” But the heart wants what it wants, and Lily teaches him that life rarely turns out as we plan it. The bad girl’s great talent is that she is bold and unpredictable. In The Bad Girl, Llosa lets Robert do something even more bold: love someone unconditionally.