Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The bad girl: a novel

Mario Vargas Llosa's latest novel, The Bad Girl, is a tale of obsessive love, an exploration of identity and the definition of self, and a sweeping look at the politics and culture of the last half of the 20th century.

The Peruvian narrator of this saga first falls in love with "Lily" (the bad girl) as a teenager. Lily is the new girl at school, supposedly from Chile, and, while she does not fall in love with him, she enjoys and encourages his devotion. Eventually, though, Lily is exposed as a fraud and vanishes.

Our broken-hearted narrator ends up in Paris, where he begins to build an adult life and a career as a freelance translator and simultaneous interpreter. And then, of course, the bad girl reappears. She has a new name and a new identity, but she is still more than willing to make use of a still-smitten good boy. Brutally honest, she makes it clear that the life of wealth, pleasure and adventure that she wants is not to be found with him. He doesn't care; it is his destiny to love her. And soon, of course, she vanishes again.

This pattern repeats itself, over and over. As the years go by, the stakes get higher and higher; the narrator struggles, but always succumbs. It is as if he has no other home. As a Peruvian in Paris, he is a foreigner; and he comes to see his life as a translator as "another way of always being a foreigner, of being present without being present, of existing but not existing". With the bad girl, he at least speaks in his own voice, with his own words. Besides, maybe someday, she really will come to stay.

Mario Vargas Llosa is a marvelous writer and in this rich novel he is, in the words of reviewers, "at the top of his game." Born in Peru, the author lived at one time in Paris, and now splits his time between Lima, London, and Madrid. He is most famous for his political fiction, but my personal favorite is The war at the end of the world, a monumental epic telling of the rise of a Messianic figure among the poor in a remote area of Brazil as the 19th century draws to an end. It is long, though; read The bad girl now and save this one for summer vacation.

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