I keep her in my memory, and evoke her again at times, and I hear the mischievous laugh and see the mocking glance of her eyes the color of dark honey, and watch her swaying like a reed to the rhythms of the mambo. And still think that, in spite of my having lived for so many summers, that one was the most fabulous of all.
If it weren’t for unrequited love, our literature and film would be in sorry shape. As a clear representation of how deeply buried in our psyches this trauma is, we have seen it reflected back to us time and again: the moon-eyed lover sighing into the wind as his/her beloved walks past, blissfully unaware of the wonderful torment they are inspiring simply by existing. Often these things work themselves out in the end, the distant object of affection is suddenly made to realize how perfect their admirer is for them, and so into the happily ever after they go. Or, the other common resolution is that the admirer is made to realize that it is not the uncaring, gorgeous target of all their woo-pitching whom they should be with, but instead the good friend who has stood by them throughout their torture (normally more homely in appearance, but sharper of mind and generally seen as a better match overall).
So it was with bad premonitions of generic retread that one begins The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa’s new novel, whose core narrative is one of pure and seemingly unreciprocated love. In this story, Ricardo Somocurcio spends decades in love with “Lily,” the bad girl of the title who seems able only to draw him in long enough to grab hold of his brittle but resilient heart, smash it, and send him back into emotional exile for years before seeking him out again to wreak some more emotional violence on him. There are numerous times when Llosa seems ready to pitch over the edge into one of the standard, calculated plot points of the unrequited romance, but he resists every time. Until he doesn’t — and then things get strange.
Ricardo, who narrates the novel, is the scion of a Lima family with a decent name but no great supply of funds, so he is raised in the 1950s with a good education but still the need to support himself. As a boy he is infatuated with the first incarnation of Lily, a sarcastic and tempting siren who shows up one glorious summer in his Miraflores neighborhood playing at an arch and mysterious Chilean background. Once her lie is exposed in the cruel way that children do such things, she disappears from his life. Only, in the fabulist manner of Llosa’s writing here, she seems connected by some fibrous thread to Ricardo’s and continually reenters it, over many decades and numerous countries.
The Bad Girl works better as a travelogue of Ricardo, the rootless intellect, then as a fabulist’s tale of love gone sour right from the start. Good with languages and obsessed with Paris almost more than the haunting memory of Lily, he decamps for that city and arrives in the full tumult of the rebellious 1960s. Working as a translator for UNESCO, he communes with a circle of Latin American revolutionaries, and experiences the full weight and crush of the thrilling history being enacted around him. Llosa brings the full weight of his elegant style (albeit filtered through Ricardo’s stunted and almost hermetic worldview) to bear on his rich, ravishing descriptions of Ricardo’s expatriate life, presented almost as beautifully as a series of postcards one could mail home to family and friends. Then Lily reappears.
First she’s a revolutionary off to training (on scholarship, no less) in Cuba. She allows Ricardo to show her the city in a manner she couldn’t (and he definitely can’t) afford, studiously ignoring his romantic overtures. It’s a cavalcade of cruelty, enacted again years later when she shows up again, this time as a wealthy, kept wife. Always the illusion of love is dangled just slightly before the sad, moony Ricardo (and the reader, who can’t help but want some vindication for the poor sap) only to be snatched away once again at the last moment with honest but spiteful lines like “I’ll never tell you I love you even if I do love you.” It’s a painful cycle, especially as one watches Ricardo get older and older, his friends dying or moving away, the occasional stabs at love withering through lack of attention. It’s Lily, the selfish abyss, who has his heart, for better or worse, and he’s determined to pursue it to the bitter end.
Llosa deserves some credit for at the very least presenting us with a novel that never stoops to the expected. By the time this melancholic tale drifts to a close, it’s clear he wanted to show a life in full, not just a limited impression of a single romance; although the novel is ostensibly about the titular bad girl (Ricardo’s nickname for the woman whose name seems to change with each new lie of a continually reincarnated life) it’s really more a portrait of a man in love, for better or worse. The Bad Girl doesn’t come to much in the end, but it’s a lush and emotive journey to get there.