Mario’s Muse

In his latest novel, The Bad Girl, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa offers two books for the price of one: a sly comedy and a haunting love story.

The first begins in the nostalgic Lima of the narrator’s youth. It is the summer of 1950, the height of the mambo craze, and 15-year-old Ricardo Somosurcio falls in love “like a calf” with a mysterious girl named Lily. He can find out nothing about her but is charmed by her Chilean accent. The enigma is resolved when a neighbor who has actually been to Chile declares that Lily is a fraud. She ignomiously decamps, leaving Ricardo with a broken heart.

But he sees her again in Paris. It is a decade later, during the heady triumph of the Cuban Revolution, and this time she appears as “Comrade Arlette.” Ricardo is smitten once more, though she soon leaves him for a guerrillero named Comandante Chacon, whom he imagines as “sporting a huge mustache and strutting around with a pair of pistols on his hips.”

Over the next few years, Ricardo will encounter the Bad Girl (as he calls her, for he never learns her real name) in various guises: married to a French diplomat at UNESCO, on the arm of a British toff at Newmarket, and under the spell of a sinister gangster in Tokyo. Each of these hilarious transformations end in betrayal, as the Bad Girl abandons both Ricardo and her latest conquest.

It is only when they meet for the last time, in Madrid, that the love story reveals itself. “You’ve done the worst things to me that a woman can do to a man,” Ricardo accuses her. “You made me believe you loved me while you calmly seduced other men because they had more money, and you left me with no pangs of conscience.” But she has only to kiss him and he declares: “Of course I love you more … than anybody, Bad Girl. You’re the only woman in the world I ever loved.” She is dying of cancer but they spend together the few weeks they have left.

Students of Vargas Llosa will find much that is familiar: the same diffident narrator of The Real Life of Alexander Mayta, the familiar stage sets of Lima from Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Even in translation, his knack for dialogue shines through, at once ironic and poignant. The reader can laugh at the Bad Girl’s follies, particularly her subjugation to the bizarre Fukuda, while feeling Ricardo’s lovelorn anguish. The novel’s structure is refreshingly linear, without Vargas Llosa’s often annoying technique of alternating dialog, as in the lackluster The Way to Paradise. If it lacks the historical scope of heftier books like Feast of the Goat, it reveals a writer in his prime doing more with less, producing a charming miniature rather than a monumental epic.

But there is more to this Bad Girl than meets the eye. Like many a Vargas Llosa alter ego, Ricardo tells us only what he wants us to know. We know little about him other than his mediocre career as a translator and his unrequited love. Only at the end do we realize that his lifelong ambition was to be a writer but he “didn’t have the courage.” The Bad Girl’s last role is that of literary muse, and she tells him: “At least admit I’ve given you the subject for a novel.” It is the novel we have just read, which makes one suspect she’s a figment of his imagination. Impossible to tell, without hearing her side of the story.

It is hardly an exaggeration to call Vargas Llosa one of our greatest living writers, in any language, but what distinguishes him from his peers is political engagement. A staunch neoliberal, he ran for president of Peru in 1990, only to be defeated by Alberto Fujimori. This is recounted in his perceptive memoir, A Fish in Water, where Vargas Llosa offers a shrewd critique of Latin American leftists. It is this, together with his rejection of Fidel Castro (in contrast to his erstwhile, more politically correct friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez) that has probably queered his chance of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet few deserve it more.