Let me be honest. I started out feeling lukewarm about the first Mario Vargas Llosa novel I picked up: The Bad Girl, translated into English by Edith Grossman in 2007. I found it tucked in the romance section of a Nairobi bookshop. More than a few people who saw me reading it made it clear that they thought I was turning the pages of a trashy novel. And the book, which follows the story of a "good boy" who falls for a "bad girl" that keeps showing up under new names and new identities, at first seemed to follow too clear of a pattern. "The bad girl" would turn up, via remarkable coincidence, in Paris, in London, in Tokyo, and I would think, "oh, dammit, it's you again." The title character -- who we first meet as Lily in 1950s Lima, Peru -- is unlikeable enough to earn her moniker, but not fascinating enough to understand why Ricardo, the narrator, is obsessed with her.
But two things about the novel hooked me. First, the secondary cast of characters and the vibrant, fascinating background stories kept me from putting the book down. And second: about halfway through the book, the pattern changed completely.
This love story is a sort of manic, internationalized version of Madame Bovary, buoyed by a backstory that spans four decades and accounts for Peru under dictatorship, Cuba under revolution, the London hippie and horse-racing scenes, the toxic world of wealthy Japanese smugglers, and a Madrid that teems with immigrants and artistry. Ricardo's only ambition as a young Peruvian is to live in Paris, and he is able to do so through his work as an interpreter. The ambitions of Lily, who romanced him as a young teenager under a false name, are more precise: to escape an impoverished background by attaching herself to a series of wealthy and powerful men around the world. She comes in and out of Ricardo's life long enough to rekindle his obsession, and then she abandons him. That pattern drags on for an eye-rolling length of time, until the terms of their encounter change and the stakes become higher than -- forgive me -- one man's love story.
Nonetheless, our leading characters ultimately pale in comparison to a striking secondary cast that is far more memorable: the genius and boastful interpreter from Eastern Europe, the Vietnamese boy with a slate around his neck who won't speak, the bisexual Peruvian artist who lives as a sort of classy hippie in London, the older British woman who commissions paintings of her dogs and is intrigued by counter-culture, a Venezuelan pediatrician in Paris who goes out of her way to help the bad girl, the brilliant Italian stage designer who fills the apartment with balsa maquettes ... and so on. Expatriates lose their last family link to their country of origin. Elections happen. AIDS (and fear of AIDS) makes an appearance (that is, incidentally, dated earlier in the text than the first reported case of the virus in 1981). The stories of these characters, who come in and out of the text, are what I loved best about The Bad Girl. In many ways, more than a love story, the beating heart of this novel is in its rendering of the twentieth-century diaspora of the developing world.
It is likely that the Vargas Llosa intended this cast to overshadow Ricardo. Our protagonist is someone of limited ambitions who makes his living being as invisible as possible, by letting the words of one person pass through him and reach another. His ambition is to be a conduit, a fact that occasionally haunts him, but most often stays in the back of his mind. While he eventually tiptoes into poorly paid literary translation, for most of his life, he never dares to write his own work. Ricardo's steadfast timidity can strike a certain fondness in the reader -- I'm rather interested in these sort of quiet narrators, as a counter to the trend of hyper-quirky protagonists in much of contemporary literature. But it can also be frustrating, the way a mope is frustrating. For Ricardo, it is as if he chose a single vessel - la niña mala - for all the passion of his life. One almost gets the sense that he feels he owes it to her to be ordinary.