Thursday, June 11, 2015
The Bad Girl
Journalist Kathryn Harrison approvingly argues that the book is a rewrite (rather than simply a recycling) of the French realist Gustave Flaubert's classic novel Madame Bovary (1856). In Vargas Llosa's version, the plot relates the decades-long obsession of its narrator, a Peruvian expatriate, with a woman with whom he first fell in love when both were teenagers.
Reading a so-so novel by a first-rate author can be a disconcerting experience. Along with the letdown of the book itself, there's the constant muffled sense of a large talent trying to find a way into its own material. Mario Vargas Llosa's immense resources as a novelist are energetically applied to the surface of this tale of obsessive love - quick scene changes from one cosmopolitan location to another, lightning sketches of Peruvian political history, a bustling cast of eccentrics and revolutionaries, literary allusions galore - but the love story itself never develops a convincing heartbeat.
In the summer of 1950 a 15-year-old Peruvian boy, Ricardo Somocurcio, meets Lily, a dazzling newcomer in the Miraflores district of Lima, claiming to be a Chilean. She turns out to be lying about both her name and her nationality, but by the time Ricardo discovers this he has already fallen under the spell of her "mischievous laugh" and the "mocking glance of her eyes the colour of dark honey." In Paris, a decade later, where Ricardo has gone to work as an interpreter, the girl resurfaces, this time under the equally bogus sobriquet of "Comrade Arlette", on her way to Cuba as a trainee revolutionary. Ricardo's feelings for her return unabated: "the mischievousness I remembered so well still poured out of her, something bold, spontaneous, provocative . . . And she had that dark honey in her eyes." This time the two have an affair, in which Ricardo puts his tender heart on his sleeve, while the "bad girl" keeps hers firmly in the freezer, thereby maintaining control of the relationship.
So begins the infatuation that will become the source of all pain and pleasure in Ricardo's otherwise unremarkable life, for the next 40-odd years. Back in Paris after her Cuban interlude, Comrade Arlette reappears as Mme Robert Arnoux, the expensively dressed wife of a diplomat. Her face, "where mischief was always mixed with curiosity and coquetry", works its familiar magic on Ricardo (her little "pissant" as she now teasingly calls him), and the two resume their affair until she disappears again, breaking his heart and emptying her husband's Swiss bank account.
Her career as a gold-digging femme fatale thus launched, and her pattern of devastating recurrence in Ricardo's life established, it becomes a foregone conclusion that when Ricardo starts visiting England during the mid-60s, she will cross his path again. She does: this time as Mrs Richardson, wife of a wealthy, horse-breeding toff in Newmarket. The "gestures, looks and expressions that were a consummate display of coquetry" have their predictable effect, as they do again a few years later in Tokyo after she trades up once more, this time becoming "Kuriko", mistress to a sadistic Japanese gangster. So it continues: another round in Paris after she returns from Japan, brutalised by her gangster's nasty sex-games but soon recovering "the old vivacity and mischief" under Ricardo's dependable ministrations; then further rounds in Madrid, the south of France . . .
Once upon a time, in a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, there was a good boy who fell in love with a bad girl. He treated her with tenderness; she repaid him with cruelty. The bad girl mocked the good boy’s devotion, criticized his lack of ambition, exploited his generosity when it was useful to her and abandoned him when it was not. No matter how often the bad girl betrayed the good boy, he welcomed her back, and thus she forsook him many times. So it went until one of them died.
Do you recognize the story? It’s been told before, by Gustave Flaubert , whose Emma Bovary has fascinated Vargas Llosa nearly all his writing life, from his first reading of “Madame Bovary” in 1959, when he had just moved to Paris at the age of 23. In 1986, “The Perpetual Orgy” was published, and it’s as much a declaration of Vargas Llosa’s love for Emma as a work of literary criticism. Now, in his most recent book, a splendid, suspenseful and irresistible novel, he takes possession of the plot of “Madame Bovary” just as thoroughly and mystically as its heroine continues to possess him. Translated by Edith Grossman with the fluid artistry readers have come to expect from her renditions of Latin American fiction, “The Bad Girl” is one of those rare literary events: a remaking rather than a recycling.
The genius of “Madame Bovary,” as Vargas Llosa describes it in “The Perpetual Orgy,” is the “descriptive frenzy … the narrator uses to destroy reality and recreate it as a different reality.” In other words, Flaubert was a master of realism not because he reproduced the world around him, but because he used language to create an alternate existence, a distillate whose emotional gravity transcends that of life itself. Emma, Vargas Llosa reminds us, has survived countless readers. Not merely immortal but undiminished by time, her passions remain as keen as the day her ink was wet.
Vargas Llosa, too, is a master. Long one of the pre-eminent voices of postmodernism, he has transformed a revolutionary work of Western literature into a vibrant, contemporary love story that explores the mores of the urban 1960s — and ’70s and ’80s — just as “Madame Bovary” did the provincial life of the 1830s. In each case, the author revisits the time and geography of his own youth in a work poised, minutely balanced, between the psychic and corporeal lives of its characters. The trajectory of Emma’s yearning leads inexorably to her poisoning herself with arsenic, the torturous death of a woman who seizes freedoms allowed only to men. And if contemporary society appears less inclined to penalize a sexually liberated woman than did the rigidly censorious era of Emma Bovary, Vargas Llosa evinces a more dangerous postfeminist world, one in which misogyny flourishes under a veneer of progressive attitudes and token equalities.