Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Bad Girl - Mario Vargas Llosa

Chloë Schama reviews Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Bad Girl".
Mario Vargas Llosa's latest novel, "The Bad Girl" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 276 pages, $25) is a joyful romp through a torturous relationship. The novel traces the obsession of its narrator, Ricardo Somocurcio, from the inception of the affair in Peru to its last spasm in Spain, alighting in a Paris roiling with student ferment, a London filled with peace-loving hippies, and a sterile Tokyo flashing with neon.

Various incarnations of the bad girl of the title surface in all these places. She first appears as Lily, a 14-year-old girl who sinks her talons into the youthful narrator's heart while they roam the streets and cafes of Miraflores in Peru, and her grip lasts the entirety of her life. "Lily" reappears 10 years after their first meeting as "Comrade Arlette," the recipient of a scholarship to train for Castro's forces. Her ambition, however, is anything but revolutionary, and the scholarship is merely a means to escape the poverty of her upbringing. Just before she is scheduled to depart the training ground of Paris for Cuba she offers Ricardo an alternative: If he can get her out of her obligations, she will stay with him in Paris. Ricardo punts, unwilling to endanger his friend (a more active revolutionary) who has arranged the scholarship, and assures her that he will wait in Paris while she fulfills the conditions of her contract. The bad girl slips away and begins the elusive life that will bring her in and out of contact with the narrator for the rest of the novel.

She returns to Paris as "Madame Arnoux," the wife of a high-ranking Unesco official, absconds with Monsieur Arnoux's paltry fortune, and finally resurfaces in the country town of Newmarket outside London; now she is "Mrs. Richardson," the wife of a stuffy horse breeder. In a later life, she becomes "Kuriko," the mistress and employee of a shady Japanese businessman or gangster. Time after time, the narrator runs to the bad girl's side when she needs his attention and assistance, ready with declarations of his love, to which she responds with snide deprecations. His sentimental education is brutal and the lesson should be obvious, and yet he's incapable of changing his adulatory, punch-drunk response to her whims and fancies. How could he? The thing that pains him the most also brings him the greatest pleasure.

Allusions to Flaubert's "Sentimental Education" run throughout Mr. Vargas Llosa's novel. Madame Arnoux, of course, is the object of Frédéric Moreau's devotion and the narrator reads Flaubert's novels from time to time. But "The Bad Girl" is influenced by Flaubert beyond its offhand references. In an encomium to Flaubert, "Flaubert, our Contemporary," Mr. Vargas Llosa commends Flaubert for making his narrators "ghostly figures" — beings who "enjoy no special privileges of omniscience or ubiquity." Ricardo Somocurcio is a dramatic extension of this quality which, Mr. Vargas Llosa believes, has been one of the defining elements of modern literature. Ricardo makes his living as a translator and interpreter — "the professions of phantoms," as his colleague phrases it — voicing other people's opinions and thoughts before his own. His sole aspiration is to "die of old age in Paris" and, as he spends more and more time away from Peru, he gradually loses any sense of a national identity. No longer a true citizen of Peru, he is aware that he will also "never be integrated into the country where we had chosen to live."

In Flaubert's novels, Mr. Vargas Llosa writes, the spectral narrator allowed Flaubert to create a fictional reality that was undisturbed by an omniscient, judgmental, and external observer. It didn't have to be an entirely believable reality, just cohesive. Flaubert's great gift to modern novelists, according to Mr. Vargas Llosa, was to inform them that "between real reality and fictional reality there is no possible identification, but rather an unbridgeable distance." The fictional world of "The Bad Girl" is a world distant from the wars and poverty of "real" reality. Mr. Vargas Llosa doesn't ignore these things, but they take place on the periphery. What remains at the center, and what unifies the novel, is melodrama.

His characters — from Fukuda, the evil Japanese gangster, to Mrs. Stubard, the English guardian angel — are almost Dickensian in their dimensions, unabashed stereotypes of their native lands. The love affair is painful, perverse, and perpetual, relying entirely on unlikely coincidences. The sun always sets at the right moment; the waves always break dramatically. Small apartments in back alleys are horrifically squalid; large apartments on grand boulevards are lavishly sumptuous. These a aesthetic elements are not out of place; they fit within Mr. Vargas Llosa's world where polar emotions — extreme pain and extreme pleasure — are inextricably entwined. In a certain reality, this entangled dynamic would lead to sorrow, but in this novel the excess is entertaining. "The Bad Girl" is not without its quiet, more subdued moments but, for the most part, raucous sadomasochism has never been so much fun.

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