Monday, October 11, 2010

Following a bad girl : Lima , Paris, London, Tokyo

The Bad Girl: A NovelAs soon as I heard about Mario Vargas Llosa's Nobel Prize, my decision was taken- I will read the first book by this author I can lay my hands on. To have read only The Young Lady from Tacna and The Storyteller won’t do any longer. The book I found at the little library subsidiary near my workplace was The Bad Girl (Travesuras de la niña mala).

As soon as I finished the book and started to read the reviews I realized that the story eloped most reviewers as the bad girl elopes the good boy and us, the readers. So if you think my review does not really gets it  either - better read it yuourself and make your own mind about it.

A love-obsession story stretching over forty years between Ricardo and ever-changing Lucy, Comrade Arlette, Madame Arnoux, Mrs. Richardson, Kuriko , Otillia … A history of lust, obsession, unexpected reconciliations and bitter separations, of sentimentalism and lies…

Ricardo is a good boy indeed as  he does exhibit  his solid ethics in most situations – but more than a “home bon “ he is a “bonhomme” – i.e. honest, simple, proper. A gentleman with the proper background , from a proper family and aside his love for the bad girl, with proper aspirations. Which, in this context, is also the equal of mediocre - his dream is to get a job and live in Paris, a dream he accomplishes in his youth when he gets his first translation gig for UNESCO, a job he will keep for over a quarter of century and for most of the novel.

But there is a part of Ricardo’s personality that does fit this good boy stereotype. Consider his friends – an overweight idealist who lives Paris to lead a communist revolution in the Peruvian jungle, a bisexual hippie painter, a multilingual interpreter with only little self-control…He also goes beyond the boundaries of professional translations as he takes on translating literature and enjoys it. “I had to make decisions, explore Spanish searching for nuances and cadences that corresponded to the semantic subtleties and tonalities – the marvelous art of allusion and elusion in Chekov’s prose – and to rhetorical sumptuousness of Russian language.”

Interestingly, one can use the same adjectives –allusive and elusive – when referring to the bad girl. Ricardo meets her first as a teenager at the summer parties of the youth from the well to do neighborhood of Miraflores, where she and her ‘sister’ Lily are known as the “newcomers from Chile”. And as he falls for her he holds no doubt that it is her way of mixing mischievous flirting, callousness and elusive behavior that he finds most attractive.

In some of the reviews I read, the bad girl  is the re-birth of a Falubertian character. Madame Bovary, because her inability to adjust to the demands (read: boredom) of a bourgeois marriage, not even when it brings with it the advantages of material fortune and social class. Or a counterpart of  Mme. Arnoux, the name she borrows during her first marriage, because the lifelong passion she inspires to Ricardo. And, to be honest, during the first half of the novel I was also tempted to compare Llosa’s bad girl with another heroine. But it was neither neurotic-idealist Emma, nor virtuous-sensible Marie . Because the bad girl is a cold gold-digger from a humble background who seems to take advantage of Ricardo only during the moments when she is down, I was tempted to find in her the like of Mildred from human bondage. After all, when she is first described by Paul –in an almost objective manner – she is “that skinny, ordinary girl”. But unlike Mildred, the bad girl is smarter, more complex and her cunning abilities are not limited to good, sensitive boys who know no better. And she is also dotted with a stronger personality – she frees herself from her quasi -geisha /yakuza boss's lover condition –and an uncanny ability for gestures of sensitivity and kindness.

Just because the bad girl fails in her role of Madame Bovary or Madame Arnoux, it does not mean that the novel itself cannot be considered as homage to Flaubert. Like Flaubert did it before, Llosa succeeds in superposing a realist account to the melodramatic approach to bad girl-good boy romance (or was it good girl- bad boy?) and does it with irony and style. After all if it were not for the bad girl, the good boy would have lived a boring live. And boring lives don't make the subject for good fact they are never the subject of novel. And this, the good boy's chance to overcome the  mediocrity of his own dreams,  this is the gift of the bad girl...

"At least admit I've given you the subject for a novel. Haven't I good boy?"

Other  reviews:

Michael Wood in Slate -
Kathryn Harisson in NYTimes -
James Lasdun in the Guardian :

1 comment:

Julie said...

Hi, Ana. I love your review. I have been wanting to read this one, and you give me more details than I have read previously. I always wonder why people are attracted to people who treat them badly, and it is an interesting theme. Thank you!