Click here to read more from Slate's 2007 Fall Fiction Week.
"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.
And this really is what the farce is about, and what keeps us reading this novel in spite of its increasingly predictable developments. Ricardo's language will never catch up with the mess he is making of his life, and he will never become a romantic hero. He will stay stolid to the end, his passion will never alter or infect his irremediable ordinariness, and there is a genuine poignancy here, not just mockery. The Bad Girl is not a bad novel, but it is about being trapped in a bad novel.
The "good boy" is the asymmetrical opposite of the "bad girl" of the book's title. She doesn't have a name, or rather she has a sequence of names, none of them free of the suspicion of disguise. She is woven into history, so that she begins to look like an emblem of the later part of the 20th century, as seen from the point of view of a bewildered Peruvian, anxious to understand both conflicting ideologies and the supposed end of ideology but keen to stay on the sidelines. Ricardo's meetings with her take us from Peru in the 1950s to Paris in the early 1960s and to London in the late 1960s. The story ends in the 1980s in Madrid. AIDS arrives, Peruvian governments change, the Shining Path claims many victims. International business begins to rule the world.
The bad girl has no interest in revolution or reaction except as opportunities for her advancement; if not smarter than everyone else, she is always more cynical and more ruthless. She first appears in Ricardo's neighborhood in Lima as a bright and enticing Chilean girl called Lily—but she doesn't come from Chile, only from a poorer Lima neighborhood. She is a recruit for the planned Peruvian revolution receiving training in Cuba—at this point, her code name is Arlette. She becomes the mistress of one of Castro's comandantes, then shows up in Paris as the wife of a UNESCO diplomat, Madame Arnoux, a name Vargas Llosa has so blatantly borrowed from Flaubert's Sentimental Education that even Ricardo gets the allusion to the young man hopelessly in love for the length of a book. She makes off with Monsieur Arnoux's money, and we next see her in England, married to an extremely rich man and pretending to be a Mexican. An adventure with a Japanese gangster fails her too, and she turns up in Paris again, deathly ill and needing to be nursed back to health by the faithful Ricardo.
Do I need to say that he has managed to meet up with her in each of these avatars, and that these meetings form the center of each of the book's seven sections? Ricardo half-heartedly thinks these encounters are either "woven by fate" or a set of "unbelievable coincidences," but of course he can't know they are sardonically set up by his author, a hyperbolic portrait of obsession as recurring farce. When she is well again, the woman, now 48, takes off for one last disgraceful escapade. When she returns to Ricardo, it is because she is dying.
Bad novel, good boy, bad girl. The last two of these phrases, appearing on almost every page of the book, pose very serious problems for the translator, which Edith Grossman bravely solves by going literal and staying literal. A niño bueno is not just a good boy, but a nice boy, of good family, decent, well-behaved, he has good manners and he doesn't get into trouble. He is the sociological form of Ricardo's respectability. He wouldn't have to be good in any moral sense, and perhaps Ricardo isn't, if we take his abjection as a form of pathology rather than a choice. Not quite conversely, a niña mala is morally reprehensible, and perhaps mean and cruel into the bargain—of ill-repute and deserving this repute. When good boy meets bad girl, Vargas Llosa is saying, we see something both very strange and very familiar, a sort of moral and social miscegenation that doesn't happen to many of us but still happens all the time, and may sweep the quietest people into a history it seems they can do little about. An ironic novel, not seeking depths but also not taken in by the clichés it keeps unfolding, is one way of getting at this subject.
The Spanish title of the novel makes a joke out of these intimations since it is literally Mischief (or Naughtinesses) of the Bad Girl, Travesuras de la niña mala. The girl in this book—Lily, Arlette, Kuriko, Madame Arnoux, Mrs. Richardson, and for a while Ricardo's legitimate wife—is way beyond mischief and naughtiness from the very start, and the inappropriate word signals how unreachable she is. Neither our language nor Ricardo's can name her or define her. She can't be admired, she can't be pitied, and she can't, except in Ricardo's desperate parody of an old movie, The Blue Angel perhaps, be the heroine of a grand fatal romance. But then, even her escape from language is a little old hat: The elusive female gets away from us once again.