Reading a so-so novel by a first-rate author can be a disconcerting experience. Along with the letdown of the book itself, there's the constant muffled sense of a large talent trying to find a way into its own material. Mario Vargas Llosa's immense resources as a novelist are energetically applied to the surface of this tale of obsessive love - quick scene changes from one cosmopolitan location to another, lightning sketches of Peruvian political history, a bustling cast of eccentrics and revolutionaries, literary allusions galore - but the love story itself never develops a convincing heartbeat.
In the summer of 1950 a 15-year-old Peruvian boy, Ricardo Somocurcio, meets Lily, a dazzling newcomer in the Miraflores district of Lima, claiming to be a Chilean. She turns out to be lying about both her name and her nationality, but by the time Ricardo discovers this he has already fallen under the spell of her "mischievous laugh" and the "mocking glance of her eyes the colour of dark honey." In Paris, a decade later, where Ricardo has gone to work as an interpreter, the girl resurfaces, this time under the equally bogus sobriquet of "Comrade Arlette", on her way to Cuba as a trainee revolutionary. Ricardo's feelings for her return unabated: "the mischievousness I remembered so well still poured out of her, something bold, spontaneous, provocative . . . And she had that dark honey in her eyes." This time the two have an affair, in which Ricardo puts his tender heart on his sleeve, while the "bad girl" keeps hers firmly in the freezer, thereby maintaining control of the relationship.
So begins the infatuation that will become the source of all pain and pleasure in Ricardo's otherwise unremarkable life, for the next 40-odd years. Back in Paris after her Cuban interlude, Comrade Arlette reappears as Mme Robert Arnoux, the expensively dressed wife of a diplomat. Her face, "where mischief was always mixed with curiosity and coquetry", works its familiar magic on Ricardo (her little "pissant" as she now teasingly calls him), and the two resume their affair until she disappears again, breaking his heart and emptying her husband's Swiss bank account.
Her career as a gold-digging femme fatale thus launched, and her pattern of devastating recurrence in Ricardo's life established, it becomes a foregone conclusion that when Ricardo starts visiting England during the mid-60s, she will cross his path again. She does: this time as Mrs Richardson, wife of a wealthy, horse-breeding toff in Newmarket. The "gestures, looks and expressions that were a consummate display of coquetry" have their predictable effect, as they do again a few years later in Tokyo after she trades up once more, this time becoming "Kuriko", mistress to a sadistic Japanese gangster. So it continues: another round in Paris after she returns from Japan, brutalised by her gangster's nasty sex-games but soon recovering "the old vivacity and mischief" under Ricardo's dependable ministrations; then further rounds in Madrid, the south of France . . .
As the above quotations suggest, there's something static about the presentation of the central relation ship. Where you might hope for a deepening sense of its inner reality to emerge with each re-encounter - a tightening scrutiny of what it is that binds these lovers together - you get incantatory repetition instead: "mischief", "coquetry", "dark honey". In place of psychology or even pathology you get biological depictions of the changing state of Otilia's (as her real name turns out to be) vagina and breasts that come across merely as salacious. The faux-clinical tone is something like that of the doctor who discusses with Ricardo the sexual injuries from Otilia's Sadean interlude: "I have no choice but to give you the unpleasant details . . ."
At one point, as if aware of something missing in the substantiation of his heroine's allegedly irresistible charm, Vargas Llosa comes up with a Vietnamese orphan, unable to talk since his traumatic childhood. The mute boy meets the bad girl and lo, he speaks. It is a moment of unforgivable schmaltz that merely makes Otilia seem more improbable than ever.
The name "Mme Arnoux", Otilia's third alias, is also that of the object of Frederic Moreau's infatuation in Flaubert's Sentimental Education. Vargas Llosa has written extensively of his love of Flaubert, and The Bad Girl is in part an homage to Sentimental Education. Some elements, such as the tenuously incorporated running commentary on Peruvian politics, really only make sense if understood as allusions to the original - in this case the backdrop of French political turmoil. Stylistically, however, the book couldn't be less like Flaubert, whose injunctions against cliche, generic description, idees recues, it flouts with apparent glee, tossing out such lines as "He was the incarnation of the careless, absent-minded intellectual" by way of characterisation, and off-the-peg accessories (high-end, of course) - Guerlain toothbrush, Vuitton dressing case - by way of furnishings.
In its better moments (and there are some incidentally lively passages) it seems to aspire to something more like the skimming swiftness of Flaubert's pupil Maupassant, whose raffishly cynical study of corrupted desire, Bel Ami, it occasionally resembles. But whereas Maupassant situates his predatory charmers in a Paris brought to life by incandescently imagined detail, Vargas Llosa (who has achieved equally brilliant results in other novels, such as The Feast of the Goat) too often settles for the kind of obvious local colour you could find in a tourist brochure. The depiction of Swinging London is particularly lame, beginning with this painfully clunky overview: "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."
The line about the Stones - "with Mick Jagger" - is so richly ludicrous, I wondered if there was some weird pastiche afoot; an attempt to deliver modern times in a deliberately stilted, anachronistic manner so as to simulate the weatherbeaten patina of a "classic". I don't think so, but perhaps in 100 years or so, when the 20th century seems as quaintly old-world as the 19th, The Bad Girl 's kitschy aura will have become imperceptible and readers will share the sentiments of one of the characters in its pages who, on hearing Ricardo tell his tale, is made to exclaim obligingly: "Do you know, it's a marvellous love story?" For now, though, that reads more like wishful thinking.
Please visit SPLALit aStore