Once upon a time, in a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, there was a good boy who fell in love with a bad girl. He treated her with tenderness; she repaid him with cruelty. The bad girl mocked the good boy’s devotion, criticized his lack of ambition, exploited his generosity when it was useful to her and abandoned him when it was not. No matter how often the bad girl betrayed the good boy, he welcomed her back, and thus she forsook him many times. So it went until one of them died.
Do you recognize the story? It’s been told before, by Gustave Flaubert , whose Emma Bovary has fascinated Vargas Llosa nearly all his writing life, from his first reading of “Madame Bovary” in 1959, when he had just moved to Paris at the age of 23. In 1986, “The Perpetual Orgy” was published, and it’s as much a declaration of Vargas Llosa’s love for Emma as a work of literary criticism. Now, in his most recent book, a splendid, suspenseful and irresistible novel, he takes possession of the plot of “Madame Bovary” just as thoroughly and mystically as its heroine continues to possess him. Translated by Edith Grossman with the fluid artistry readers have come to expect from her renditions of Latin American fiction, “The Bad Girl” is one of those rare literary events: a remaking rather than a recycling.
The genius of “Madame Bovary,” as Vargas Llosa describes it in “The Perpetual Orgy,” is the “descriptive frenzy … the narrator uses to destroy reality and recreate it as a different reality.” In other words, Flaubert was a master of realism not because he reproduced the world around him, but because he used language to create an alternate existence, a distillate whose emotional gravity transcends that of life itself. Emma, Vargas Llosa reminds us, has survived countless readers. Not merely immortal but undiminished by time, her passions remain as keen as the day her ink was wet.
Vargas Llosa, too, is a master. Long one of the pre-eminent voices of postmodernism, he has transformed a revolutionary work of Western literature into a vibrant, contemporary love story that explores the mores of the urban 1960s — and ’70s and ’80s — just as “Madame Bovary” did the provincial life of the 1830s. In each case, the author revisits the time and geography of his own youth in a work poised, minutely balanced, between the psychic and corporeal lives of its characters. The trajectory of Emma’s yearning leads inexorably to her poisoning herself with arsenic, the torturous death of a woman who seizes freedoms allowed only to men. And if contemporary society appears less inclined to penalize a sexually liberated woman than did the rigidly censorious era of Emma Bovary, Vargas Llosa evinces a more dangerous postfeminist world, one in which misogyny flourishes under a veneer of progressive attitudes and token equalities.
“The Bad Girl” begins, like “Madame Bovary,” with boyhood scenes narrated in the first person, an “I” who becomes for a time “we,” echoing Flaubert’s chorus of schoolmates. But while Flaubert shifts into an exalted omniscience, Vargas Llosa allows the “good boy,” Ricardo, to claim his novel’s voice, recounting an erotic fixation that begins in 1950, in the Mira flores district of Lima, Peru, when Ricardo is just 15 and a new girl arrives in town. She calls herself Lily and, in clothes that cling “perversely,” dances the mambo like a “demonic whirlwind,” pulling Ricardo into her orbit, awakening his lust and enslaving him to the idea that she alone can answer his desire. Permanently intoxicated, Ricardo will recognize Lily’s essence no matter how she disguises herself, no matter how many years pass between their assignations, reunions whose power to devastate Ricardo drives him to the point of suicide, and which she dismisses as bland interludes between more compelling love affairs.
Blessed with an ability to enjoy simple pleasures, Ricardo achieves his life’s dream by the age of 25: he lives in Paris, where he makes a modest living as an interpreter for Unesco. The bad girl, his one complicated pleasure, with the capacity to ruin all the rest, seems securely fixed in his past, a peculiarly intense first crush, until she reappears. No longer a memory but a riveting presence, Lily, now “Comrade Arlette,” poses as a would-be revolutionary, “bold, spontaneous, provocative,” passing through the City of Light en route to Cuba for guerrilla training — arguably wasted on a woman to whom sneak attacks seem second nature.
Six months later, having seduced “one of the historic commandantes” of the Cuban revolution, the bad girl has embarked on a career of increasingly daring affairs. Ricardo, she makes clear, is unworthy of what little attention she gives him. Treating him as a plaything, she ignores the depth of his feelings and teases him sexually even as she leaves him, for a month, a year, three years: he never knows how long his loneliness will last. At the end of one such tryst, she waves goodbye with a “flowered parasol,” summoning the one “of rosy iridescent silk” Emma carries while seducing Charles Bovary. There are enough such alignments to amuse ardent admirers of the older novel, but it’s possible they won’t catch them. So complete and convincing is the spell cast by “The Bad Girl” that it doesn’t allow a reader’s attention to stray.
Ricardo’s work as an interpreter affords him ample opportunity to travel and reconnect with his jet-setting, selfreinventing love, who attaches herself like a succubus to one rich paramour after another, in one locale after another. Less welcome is the anxiety his job inspires about his identity. Paris of the 1960s, the culture in which Vargas Llosa came of intellectual age, witnessed the popularization of existential philosophy, and Ricardo judges himself not only deracinated, a perpetual foreigner, but also lacking in substance. He’s trapped in the moment of translating one person’s language into another’s, “of being present without being present, of existing but not existing.”
But what is identity? The bad girl sheds one mask only to try on the next. Driven by a need for excitement and riches only the most powerful and dangerous men can offer, she assumes whatever appearance might secure what she craves. Is her true self hidden from view, or does it, like the good boy’s, not really exist? Does only desire have the power to define us , Ricardo shaped by his love for the bad girl, who is herself the reflection of what she pursues? The reader knows that Ricardo and the girl who began as Lily will cross paths indefinitely, that she will allow him to possess her only long enough to rekindle his obsession, and that despite his intention to give her up for the toxic addiction she is, he will take her back the next time. Still, the novel possesses an intensifying, at points almost exhausting suspense, like that of a car being driven recklessly around hairpin turns, each more perilous than the one preceding. The bad girl demands attention from lovers and readers alike. Is she wicked, or admirable, or both? Where will she be the next time the good boy encounters her? What will she call herself? How long can he endure? Will she ever return his affection in kind?
“It is because she feels that society is fettering her imagination, her body, her dreams, her appetites,” Vargas Llosa writes in “The Perpetual Orgy,” “that Emma suffers, commits adultery, lies, steals, and in the end kills herself.” Vargas Llosa’s bad girl suffers, too, even as she makes those around her suffer. Though she tries to temper her restlessness and limit her aspirations, she cannot reconcile herself to the suffocation of petit- bourgeois existence any more than Emma can. “A man is free, at least,” Emma observes, praying the child she carries is a son, “free to range, … to surmount obstacles, to taste the rarest pleasures. Whereas a woman is continually thwarted.”
The heroism of both women is that they refuse to be diminished by modest, reasonable hopes or by respectable society. Creatures of appetite — for sex, money, excitement, life — bad girls serve their hunger first, and last. They are terrible and they are enviable, because they won’t settle for less than everything they want. Because, in the end, they accept not only their essential nature, but also the consequences of their choice to fulfill rather than deny it.
Source: NY Times
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