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The Bad Girl, by Mario Vargas Llosa and translated by Edith Grossman, is a tale of apparently unrequited love that spans four decades and three continents. Ricardo is a Peruvian translator who spends most of the book living in Paris. As the years roll by, the girl he fell in love with at the age of thirteen flits in and out of his life. Ricardo spends his life devoted to 'Lily', and seems doomed to a lifetime of having his spirits crushed every time she vanishes to find another wealthy powerful man.
This bleak tale unfolds against the backdrop of Peruvian revolution, the Swinging Sixties, the emergence of AIDS and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ricardo is our first person narrator, and he comments on all of these things and more.
Is the Bad Girl Good?
Some critics have seized on the author's regard for Flaubert, and likened the novel to L'Éducation Sentimentale and Madame Bovary. My reaction, however, was that it seemed to owe more to Forrest Gump. And as many people only compare things to Flaubert so that they can show off (or in many cases just pretend) that they've read him, it's probably a more useful analogy. While the intellectual polyglot Ricardo is far more articulate than Tom Hanks as he moves through the turbulent twentieth century, he remains a simple and unflinchingly moral character, and it's a wonder that it's only Lily who seems to exploit him.
This book managed the curious feat of engaging me intellectually without ever truly exciting me as a reader. As the story develops and Ricardo meets Lily as a guerilla fighter, as the wife of a diplomat, a smuggler, an invalid, it's impossible to ever fully empathise with the man, as he's so incredibly wet behind the ears. On the other hand, as Ricardo feels himself drifting ever further from his Latin American roots, the theme of globalisation in the late twentieth century is compelling. How do you maintain a national identity when you speak several languages and have no ambition but to live out your days in Paris?
It's not all good news on the social history front, though. Despite the author setting the majority of the novel in Paris, and despite the narrator being explicitly Leftist, Ricardo is inexplicably absent during the civil unrest of May 1968. Several of my old lecturers shared a flat during those crazy weeks, and the little they related to me was virtually enough for a novel in itself. With Uncle Ataulfo constantly writing to the narrator with news of Peru's political strife, it's a startling omission.
Worse, there's a historical error so grave that one can only assume it to be some kind of extended typographical error. In a section of the novel clearly marked as taking place in the early 1980s, Ricardo begins to tell the reader about the bureaucracy of post-Soviet Russia, harking back to the days of Gorbachev - several years before Gorbachev had even taken the reins of power!
For all the novel's big themes, however, the eponymous Bad Girl is the ultimate focus. Lily is a mercurial character, drifting languidly through the novel only to erupt with unpredictable anger every now and then. She can't love any man, she tells Ricardo repeatedly, yet she allows him to make love to her in a very passive fashion, more frequently as the years roll by.
A highlight of the book for me was the surprising relevance of the sex scenes. I've recently been reading a blog which put forward the theory that any sex scene in any book could be edited down to 'and then they did it' without compromising the narrative in any way. The sex scenes in The Bad Girl are definitely an exception to the rule, as the moderately graphic details give the reader a lot of information on the status of the characters during every such scene. After countless chapters of the unresponsive Lily proving to be a 'difficult' sexual partner, there is a shocking payoff during the Japanese segment of the book - to the extent that you could make an argument that the sex scenes are almost a subplot in themselves!
It's difficult to comment on a translated novel's style - which aspects can be ascribed to the novelist, and which to the translator? In any case, it has to be said that for a novel which deals so entirely with the thoughts and fantasies of its hero, The Bad Girl is quite a flat read. The prose is largely unremarkable and bland, presumably to contrast with the lively speech of 'Lily'. But as Lily is absent for huge chunks of the novel, this does lead to some lengthy sections of dullness.
The single exception is the book's opening, in Miraflores, Peru. The style kicks off brilliantly as we hear about Ricardo's childhood, shot through with nostalgia for a world long passed. It sets up great expectations for the rest of the book, which then singularly failed to impress me. I did find myself hoping it wasn't the fault of the translator - Ricardo spends most of the novel working as an interpreter, so the theme of translation is always sitting at the back of your mind.
A final highlight of the book for me was the unreliable narrator. Ricardo believes himself to be the Bad Girl's slave, and she mockingly refers to him as the Good Boy throughout. But as the years roll by, the balance of power gently shifts between the two. After their chance meetings in the early years, Ricardo actively seeks out his object of desire. Once beyond the halfway point, however, Lily begins to contact him. Neither character comments on the gentle reversal of roles.
I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way
The Bad Girl is a clever novel, an entertaining read with an engaging character and a relentless narrative. It's far from being a classic in this translation, but it's well worth reading.
Although I was lucky enough to get a free review copy, The Bad Girl is now available new from Amazon at £5.49, or from a penny in their Marketplace section.
An amended version of this review originally appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk