The Bad Girl opens with an exhilarating surge of energy. It is 1950, and in Mira-flores, an attractive seaside suburb of the Peruvian capital, Lima, 15-year-old Ricardo Somocurcio is having the summer of his life. Amid the frangipani, jacaranda and jasmine of the neighbourhood’s lush gardens, he and his friends flirt and fall in love for the first time. As gorgeous days expire in flaming sunsets, dance parties are held, where the mambo, the craze of the moment, holds sway. Relishing every remembered detail of the place and period, Mario Vargas Llosa beguilingly resurrects a sensuous paradise, into which erupts Lily, an exotic-seeming girl with an enticingly foreign Chilean accent. Provocative and flamboyant (but evasive about her background), she soon has Ricardo slavishly devoted to her until, dramatically exposed as not what she seems, she abruptly disappears.
Fast forward 10 years and Ricardo is in Paris training to be a translator. Among South American expatriates there plotting to carry the success of Castro’s Cuban revolution into their own countries, he is surprised to reencounter Lily, now calling herself Comrade Arlette. Rapidly she reasserts her “bad girl” spell over him (this time letting him take her to bed, where she is acquiescent but unresponsive), then again abruptly departs. From Havana, reports arrive that she is having a passionate affair with a revolutionary commandante. Then, in yet another of her startling metamorphoses, she reappears in Paris as Madame Arnoux, the chic, impeccably correct wife of a high-level functionary at the Quai d’Orsay, only to vanish again in murky circumstances.
For the rest of the novel, this pattern recurs with ever greater implausibility. As the decades pass, Ricardo drifts from Paris to London and on to Tokyo and Madrid, only to keep meeting “the bad girl” in some fresh guise: from Mrs Richardson, the wife of a crooked English entrepreneur, to Kuriko, the masochistic mistress of a thuggishly perverted Japanese gangster. Predictably unpredictable, she repeatedly reenchants Ricardo, then departs with mysterious suddenness.
“There was something in her impossible not to admire,” Ricardo asserts of his femme fatale. If so, it stays well hidden in these pages. Compulsively drawn away from him to the moneyed and powerful, she strikes the reader as a monster of grabby materialism, lying, stealing and betraying lovers and friends. Her impoverished origins, it’s unconvincingly intimated, go some way to justifying all this. And her decline, almost farcically melodramatic, into a mutilated travesty of her former siren self looks designed to invest her with closing pathos. But since Vargas Llosa never manages to make her remotely plausible either as a person or a symbol, none of this has any purchase.
Allusions to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (which features a weak-willed romantic smitten with another Madame Arnoux) suggest that Vargas Llosa regards himself as offering a similar panorama of misplaced attachment and dashed hopes, personal and political. But his chroniclings of social change can be embarrassingly jejune. In Swinging London, Ricardo solemnly explains, “Music replaced books and ideas as a centre of attraction for the young, above all with the Beatles but also including Cliff Richard, the Shadows, the Rolling Stones with Mick Jagger, other English bands and singers, and hippies and the psychedelic revolution of the flower children.”
Political commentary has a matching banality that it’s hard to credit as coming from the author of such masterly Conradian novels as Death in the Andes (1996), his epic survey of the terrorised Peru of the 1980s, and The Feast of the Goat (2002), his riveting portrayal of the ghoulish tyranny of General Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.
Awkwardly pitched somewhere between realism and magic realism, The Bad Girl keeps stressing how enigmatic its heroine is. But the real puzzle it poses is why Vargas Llosa should have misapplied his talents to this feeble fabrication that, getting underway with colourful buoyancy, fizzles out so thoroughly that reading it is like watching a balloon deflate.
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