Mario Vargas Llosa's wonderful new novel, "The Bad Girl," is about one man's persistent desire for a difficult woman. It is also, cunningly, about a broader persistence of hope for a better world. On one level a deliciously absorbing love story that details the eponymous bad girl's damaging lifelong hold on his narrator, Vargas Llosa's novel spans decades and continents - and, in the process, with a deftness that borders on literary sleight of hand, bridges the personal and the universal.
Although less overtly political than such earlier novels as "Death in the Andes" and "The Feast of the Goat," Vargas Llosa sets his thwarted love story against a backdrop of social turmoil, revolutions and the recurrent heartbreak of failed democracy in his native Peru. "The Bad Girl" spans 1950s Lima, 1960s revolutionary Paris, 1970s hippie London, 1980s swinging Tokyo and 1990s theatrical Spain. Vargas Llosa's novel is more similar in tone to his 1977 dazzler, "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," than to his last, quasi-historical novel, "The Way to Paradise" (2003), about Paul Gauguin and his socialist grandmother. Each of its seven long chapters, separated by years, relates a new episode in the lurching, on-again-off-again saga of Ricardo Somocurcio and the bad girl, who sports a new identity each time he encounters her.
Ricardo is an unusually sympathetic narrator - modest, bookish, utterly trustworthy. Orphaned at 10 and raised by a loving aunt in Miraflores, he has fixed on a simple ambition by the time he first meets the love of his life the summer he turns 15: to live in Paris. Posing as Lily, a Chilean newcomer to the neighborhood, the bad girl is flamboyant and gorgeous, "the incarnation of coquettishness." Ricardo writes, "I fell in love with Lily like a calf, which is the most romantic way to fall in love - it was also called heating up to a hundred degrees - and during that unforgettable summer, I fell three times." In what is to become a lifelong pattern, Lily leads him on before rebuffing him - and then vanishes.
When she turns up again in Paris more than a decade later, it's as Comrade Arlette, an activist en route to Cuba for guerrilla training. Ricardo, meanwhile, is training as a simultaneous interpreter. She pretends they never met, then, with an insult, concedes that they have - "Even back then you had a sanctimonious look" - yet denies being Lily the Chilean girl. She accepts his advances passively, unresponsively, and keeps him dangling: "Never lose hope, good boy."
Comrade Arlette's political apathy is as obvious as her sexual indifference. Her outspoken credo is "to get what you want, anything goes." When she allows Ricardo to make love to her, it's clear that she's using him as a possible ticket to stay in Paris.
Three years later, she turns up as the elegant Mme. Robert Arnoux at UNESCO, where her husband is a diplomat and Ricardo works as a translator.
And so it goes. They resume their affair, abuse included. She's both a liar and brutally honest. "How naive you are, what a dreamer," she scolds when Ricardo asks her to marry him. "You don't know me. I'd only stay forever with a man who was very, very rich and powerful, which you'll never be, unfortunately."
Ricardo is repeatedly taken in and left "a human wreck." He swears it's the last time when he falls into a trap arranged to excite the bad girl's creepy, voyeuristic Japanese lover, yet a few years later he goes into debt to finance her medical care. He retreats between episodes to a "fairly normal, though empty ... dull, flat life," throwing himself into the self-effacing interpreting business at international conferences and berating himself as a "failure ... imbecile."
This works, without trying our patience, because Vargas Llosa succeeds not only in conveying the bad girl's attraction but also in pulling us into Ricardo's cycle of hopefulness, eager to learn what will happen next between them. Is it love, masochism, fate or compulsion that keeps him coming back for more? Whatever it is, most of us have been there at one time or another.
Ricardo's friendships with doomed individuals - a revolutionary in Paris, a hippie artist in London, a fellow translator in Japan - and his unexpected but satisfying discovery of la niña mala's true identity further heighten the novel's considerable allure. (One wishes translator Edith Grossman had left a "niña mala" or two in Spanish for flavor.)
Most impressively, by mirroring Ricardo and the bad girl's tug-of-war with the tug-of-war between democracy and totalitarianism that concurrently roils the world, and especially their native Peru, Vargas Llosa's novel becomes an allegory for the undauntable desire not just for love but also for freedom. Over and over again, the world dashes our hopes just as the bad girl disappoints Vargas Llosa's narrator - and yet we love it and keep hoping for the best anyway.
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