I was introduced to the writing of Mario Vargas Llosa in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 1980 in part because he had written his great novel, Conversations in the Cathedral, in Cochabamba (he was not welcome in his native Peru at the time.) My host said I therefore had to read it and gave me his personal copy. Soon a basic question presented itself that remains valid: What is there to compare with Conversations in the Cathedral for sensuous corruption, betrayal, a society in decay, a politics of criminality? Something by Balzac or Conrad? Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men?
Strange, because Cochabamba is a delightful town full of light, flowers, good beer, and magnificent filet mignon, but the young Vargas Llosa had a somber tale to tell, and he told it with riveting power. His account of Peru in the 1950s enveloped me. Here was one of the great Latin American writers of the latter half of the 20th century, young but already in full stride.
Vargas Llosa has written many novels since then, including The Bad Girl (2006), the subject of this review. All of them are marked by his fluid narrative style, his quick eye, his feel for the tragically comic in life, and that perplexing vividness manifested by characters who hide everything and nothing at the same time--always declaiming, always obscuring...making great speeches while hiding great secrets.
The Bad Girl tells the tale of a middle-class Peruvian boy whose life’s aspiration is to live and die in Paris and a lower class Peruvian girl--a con artist of the first order--whose life’s aspiration is to live far beyond the means of that unambitious boy, torment him for loving her, and wreck herself with greed, resentment, and daring.
Of course this sounds like a dreary, horrific book, and in substance, it is. Yet somehow Vargas Llosa pulls off the feat of portraying “the bad girl” tormenting every man she seduces and subjecting herself, at the same time, to increasing levels of physical and psychological abuse without losing touch with the story’s, and the bad girl’s, fundamental élan.
She is a poor kid in Lima who wants better...all the time better. She is an impostor. She is a liar. She is foolish enough to fall into the hands of a sadistic voyeur in Tokyo whose practices half ruin both her vagina and her rectum. She is foolish enough never to let Ricardo Samocurcio hold onto her and keep her well. But she, and he, somehow stagger forward, decade after decade, falling out and then getting back together against his better judgment (he can’t help himself) and hers (she can’t help herself either.)
So what we have here is the history of a passion and a perversion, a reinterpretation of a love story that not even Shakespeare would dare. Only the “Lesbia” of Catullus approaches, it seems to me, the levels of degradation and torment the bad girl forces on Ricardo. Odi et amo, Catullus wrote: I hate and I love. Something of the same goes on here. The bad girl is Ricardo’s Lesbia. He sees this clearly...he swears her off...but when finally she is about to die...what do you think, does he take her back?
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