But I couldn’t do away with a certain inner sadness, a certain profound disillusionment that accompanied me for a long time, like a double, and corroded away like acid any enthusiasm or interest I might begin to feel for anything or anyone. – Mario Vargas Llosa, The Bad Girl (146)
My uncle sent me a speech, written on the occasion of accepting the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, by the Peruvian, Mario Vargas Llosa. He thought I might enjoy it. Before I was even done reading it I was besotted and off to the library for one of Llosa’s novels. There were more than a few at my library and I wasn’t sure how to go about choosing. I pulled one out and saw that it was translated by Edith Grossman, I’m familiar with, and like, her work (Don Quixote) so I thought I’d read it.
I fell in love with Lily like a calf, which is the most romantic way to fall in love. (5)
Unless, that is, you are being led to the slaughter, but more on that later. Where to begin? With the title? That came very close to putting an end to my love affair with Llosa before it even began. I spent some time, in fact, ruminating over the the original Spanish, Travesuras de la niña mala, wondering what happened to the Travesuras, which I think translates into “antics.” Okay, The Antics of the Bad Girl doesn’t quite work, maybe “escapades” is too long…but, to me, there is a difference in meaning, in that, the book is about her sad/evil misadventures rather than her. It pretty much goes right to the heart of what love possibly means. Separating the “what” from the “who” as philosopher Jacques Derrida would say. It’s only possible, in this book, to understand the protagonist Ricardo’s rare love if it is for “the who,” because the bad girl’s antics are unforgivable and utterly forbid being associated with a word like love. Her “whats” really suck. So. It took me some time to get over my prejudice for what, in English, seems a silly name.
“This is the moment to bring out the cognac,” said Simon, winking at me. “You see, mon vieux, I took precautions. Now we’re prepared for the surprises you give us periodically. An excellent Napolean, you’ll see!” (164)
Yes, bring out the cognac, you’ll need it after you get involved in this love story of sweeping proportions. Ricardo is a boy from Peru, whose dream is to live in Paris. And that’s all: live in Paris. He’s simple, and lovely. Llosa makes it very easy to fall for him. Ricardo’s work as a translator takes him all over the world and each chapter is organized around one of the bad girl’s antics of course, but also, around a friend, different in each section. The depth and complexity that these various friends add to the time periods (the 1950’s to the naughts) and countries (France, Russia, Japan, Peru, Spain, England) from which their connection stems is quite beautiful and engaging.
We’d talk, I’d submit again to the power she always had over me, we’d have a brief false idyll, I’d have all kinds of illusions, and when least expected she would disappear and I’d be left battered and bewildered, licking my wounds as I had in Tokyo. Until the next chapter! (156)
That self-referential last sentence is part of the book’s enormous charm. By the middle mark, the reader is really on Ricardo’s side, trying to help him understand his tragic love story. The truth is, the bad girl is 99.99% incapable of love. But to someone in love, .01% is not bad, I suppose.
I made the firm resolution, at the age of thirty-eight, to fall in love with someone less evasive and complicated, a normal girl […]But that didn’t happen, because in this life things rarely happen the way we little pissants plan them. (109)
Written in 2006, The Bad Girl is a page turner. I really missed it when I was forced to put it aside. In a one sentence synopses, it is the same story as Esther’s Inheritance, but as concise, focused, and dignified as Sándor Márai’s beautiful twisted, hopeless love story was, Llosas is the opposite: expansive, circuitous, and passionate.
I was filled with despair, afraid I would begin to cry. You’re not only capable of saying cheap, sentimental things but of living them too, Ricardito. (205)
Cheap, sentimental, and silly as the title is, it expresses one of the central paranoias of the novel: is love cheap and sentimental? Llosa keeps the reader on the hook to the very end. It almost killed me that the last six pages of the book were interrupted by my life several times over, I just need to find out- I pleaded. After all, what else besides cheap sentiment can make all your mundane obligations (work, meals, errands) seem inflated, empty and silly by comparison?