What's Love Got To Do With It?
Mario Vargas Llosa dissects an obsession.
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"Could this farce more than thirty years old be called a love story?" This is the question the narrator of Mario Vargas Llosa's entertaining new novel puts to himself a few pages from the end. He is not really asking. He would be devastated with any answer other than an emphatic yes, and he would, as he repeatedly tells us, fall apart completely if his perverse and serially renewed passion evolved into happiness or turned out not to be love at all. "I'll always love her," he tells a sympathetic friend. "Life wouldn't have meaning for me if she died."
That's how he talks, and the woman in question, the object of his abject devotion who will always betray him, keeps mocking him for saying "cheap sentimental things," sometimes qualifying them as distinctively Peruvian. She likes the sound of them, because they are both true (for him) and totally antiquated, irrelevant to anything she recognizes in her own experience.
Her response effectively reverses the question and brings us very close to what Vargas Llosa is up to. Can this love story be called anything other than a farce? The answer, I think, is no, but there are farces and farces. Within the long arc of Vargas Llosa's work, The Bad Girl recalls neither the historical and political sweep of The War of the End of the World (1981) and The Feast of the Goat (2000) nor the more local Peruvian intensities of Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) but rather the proliferating ironies of Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1972).
It is significant that the last of those books started out as a serious, existentialist work, and it was only when the author discovered that such an approach to his subject—the setting up of an official brothel service for the Peruvian army—was "impossible" that he turned to "mockery and laughter." The new novel is both darker and less complex than Captain Pantoja, but has something of the same swift movement over difficult terrain and the same interest in the disorders of desire. As Flaubert says, there are comedies that don't make us laugh.
The hero and narrator of The Bad Girl, Ricardo, whom we first meet as a 15-year-old boy in Lima, becomes a translator and simultaneous interpreter, and lives for much of his life in Paris. He works for UNESCO, the Atomic Energy Commission, and other international organizations, and gradually moves into literary translations of Chekhov and Bunin, whom he loves, of Doris Lessing, Paul Auster, and Michel Tournier, whom he loves less. At the end of the book, as his scheming and faithless tormentor is about to die, it looks horribly as if he might write a novel, or even, Eros help us, this novel. "At least admit I've given you the subject for a novel," she says. "Haven't I?"
The reason this novel is not a good idea is that Ricardo is a plodder; he can suffer, but he can't think. And the final implication of the novel we are actually reading, the one by Vargas Llosa, is that obsessions are most interesting when they descend on stolid and cheaply romantic fellows—or perhaps even more radically, that these are the only fellows real obsessions can descend on. "What I loved in her," Ricardo says, "were the indomitable and unpredictable aspects of her personality." "The truth was there was something in her that [it] was impossible not to admire." This is not the language of a man who has wrecked his life for a woman; it is the wary, respectable language of a man who wants to find reasons for his madness, the voice of his old orderly self, the "good boy" of the novel's recurring refrain.
Michael Wood, who teaches at Princeton, is the author, most recently, of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.