Charming Mario Fails to Capture The Bad Girl
A Contrary review by Frances Badgett

I have a confession to make: I have loved Mario Vargas-Llosa. The silver hair, the wide smile, the bright, wicked eyes, the political passion, the novels infused with strong convictions and obsessed narrators. I haven’t met him, no. But as with any distant admirer, I feel — at times, lost in his prose — that I had.
But not this month.
In short, the Bad Girl is an allegory of the global political changes and modes of corruption underlying those changes. The Bad Girl, the archetypal Recurring Mystery Woman who haunts, possesses, and teases our obsessed narrator, Ricardo Somocurcio, changes from chapter to chapter, from nation to nation, from identity to identity, with her only constant center being her own selfishness and our poor Ricardo’s excuses, self-admonishments, and shame over his obsession for a woman who is unknown and unknowable, who lies, cheats, cheats, repels, and deceives. 
Which is why The Bad Girl disappoints all over. The sameness of all of her personages and his repetitive reactions to her become deeply tedious, so that by the final stages of Bad Girl-ness, the reader can predict—with clockwork accuracy—not only their quips and exchanges, but Ricardo’s rather banal expressions of love for her. Vargas-Llosa tries to undermine Ricardo’s sentimentality toward The Bad Girl by having her draw attention to it — “Tell me those sentimental things, Ricardito…” — but the device falls flat in the face of the readers’ boredom with his “sentimental things.” 
But, as any good former admirer should, I will describe the attributes and charms of Mr. Vargas-Llosa’s novel. As with Feast of the Goat or The War at the End of the World, Vargas-Llosa brilliantly distills complex political contexts into compelling narrative. The strength of his technique is not only in presenting the realities of Peru, Cuba, France, and London from the 50s to the 80s, but also in infusing his characters with psychological complexity to evoke abstract political uprisings and contexts—Communism in Cuba and Peru, the AIDS epidemic, the 80s obsession with conspicuous consumption—and to tether them to the story. When the liberation of London infects our Ricardo, we know that Peru is far behind him, and, when he returns to visit his ancient uncle, the graceful world he remembered as a boy is erased in favor of the concrete blocks of stark dictators. What lies at the center of all the political contexts, from swinging London to the upper crust world of Newmarket horse-racing, from the whorehouses of Tokyo to the world of its businessmen, from the working-man world of the halls of UNESCO to the excitement of travel, is the staid, solid core of Paris, home to the guerillas who train in Cuba for the uprising in Peru, home to the bureaucrats and revolutionaries, and home to Ricardo’s obsession with The Bad Girl.  
Novels are about obsession. A novel without an obsessed protagonist is a dull caper. But Ricardo’s obsession is so one-sided, the story loses energy and stalls. To be fair, this is intentional: Vargas-Llosa is telling us that no matter how much torture the Recurring Mystery Woman puts a man through, he never learns, never gives up hope that she’ll turn to him and want more than just sex and indifference. This is the story of ex-patriots from Cuba and Peru, from China and Russia: to wait for change is to expect your homeland to open up, to become more acceptable, to love you back. The power of this novel is in that message, and not wholly lost. 
Unfortunately, both characters are so stuck in their roles as Eternal Love Object and Eternal Lover, there is so little else between them, the reader becomes as entrenched and weary as poor Ricardo, the cyclical nature of the relationship feeling more like a dull whirlpool than an romantic whirlwind. But what I—and many readers—crave from a Vargas-Llosa novel called The Bad Girl is more. Much more. Maybe next time, Mario.

Frances Badgett is the fiction editor of Contrary.

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The Bad Girl
by Mario Vargas-Llosa
2007, FS&G
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008

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