Llosa, Mario Vargas: The Bad Girl

The proposer first came across Llosa’s writing when visiting Miraflores, an upmarket neighbourhood of Lima, the capital of Llosa’s native country, Peru, and the setting for the opening section of ‘The Bad Girl’.  The assistant in a bookshop recommended Llosa as an introduction to Peruvian literature.  The proposer had subsequently read a number of his books, but found this to be ‘by far’ the most accessible.  It was also more overtly international in its content and sphere of action than some of the others, which contained, for his tastes, rather more than he wanted about Peruvian history and politics.

‘The Bad Girl’ has been compared with last month’s book ‘Madame Bovary’, by Llosa himself as well as others.  However, the group felt that the comparison was rather stretched.  Like Madame Bovary, the bad girl is seeking escape from her circumstances in pursuit of a flawed ideal.  But Madame Bovary’s ideal is romantic, whereas the bad girl’s is financial: the ‘high life’ at any emotional cost.  A similarity does exist however in that each of them pays a heavy price for their ‘escape’.  We felt that Llosa was less judgemental about his characters however, and both the narrator Ricardo and the subject of his obsession, the bad girl, are treated sympathetically.  The even-handedness of Llosa’s account of the bad girl was evidenced by the range of opinions about her in our group.  Some saw her primarily as a victim, others as a selfish predator.  She had elements of the classic ‘femme fatale’ of noir fiction and film, using her looks and charm ruthlessly to get what she wanted, and not hesitating to break up families and embark on bigamy.  As for Ricardo, we noted that he too had a fascination with the exotic – represented in his case both by the bad girl herself and by the attraction of life in Paris.  Like her, he is following his dream, although he is considerably more timid, and only at the very end of the story is it implied that he will produce the work of literature (the book itself) which will transcend his role as a humble translator of the words of others.

We agreed that the book was a superbly ‘easy read’, being very linear in structure and engaging in its content. Because of the range of characters and locations, each chapter felt like a new short story, although continuing the main thread of the narrative.  There was one reader who felt that sometimes we got too much circumstantial detail about Ricardo’s daily life, and another who thought background research had been a little too overtly displayed.  However, these were minor objections. We discussed whether it would make a good film, which raised the question of how the highly explicit sex scenes would be handled.  It was agreed that these were not pornographic, since the writing did not seem calculated to titillate.  It was pointed out that in today’s cinema, explicit sex scenes had become widely accepted.  There was also some discussion of the portrayal of the bad girl as a woman with a deep need to be dominated, as demonstrated by her acquiescence in the degrading treatment meted out by Fukuda.  Equally disturbing was her comment when Ricardo, for the only time in his life, hits her: “You’re learning how to treat women, Ricardito.”  A comparison was drawn (not in terms of literary merit!) with the current best-seller of the moment, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, which takes as its premise a female’s need for submission and rough treatment.  As mere men, we felt disqualified from drawing any conclusions from this, and moved on.

Returning to the qualities of the book in general, discussion ranged over characterisation and structure.  One reader thought that it was a very engaging love story, which was two-way and not a one-sided obsession.  Someone else pointed out that the bad girl was frequently trying to escape Ricardo, and that he was, until the end, the one who sought her out and ‘gatecrashed her party’.

The explication of the initial mystery of the bad girl’s origins was felt to be very satisfyingly delivered in the later part of the book.  Her father was in fact only one of a number of vivid minor characters who came on stage for sections of the book before disappearing forever.  One of the most enigmatic of these was Yilal, the boy who wouldn’t speak.  There was a feeling that his role in the story was rather tangential, but he at least demonstrated that the bad girl was capable of one altruistic relationship.  In some measure it was felt that the coming and going of minor characters left readers with quite a few loose ends, although this could well have been intentional.

Although the book seemed squarely aimed at an international readership, one of us pointed out that there was a continuous strain of political reference in the story, most notably with the account of what happened to Ricardo’s friend Paúl, and with the observations of Ricardo’s uncle on the decline of Peruvian idealism and democracy.  It was noted that Llosa himself was very active in politics, and in fact ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990.

Finally, in the light of Llosa’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, there was some discussion of the qualities necessary to attain this distinction.  Among the requirements were universality, prolific output, longevity, and, no doubt, consistency with various political considerations at the time of the committee’s deliberations.

From the Nobel Prize we meandered to J.K. Rowling’s forthcoming first adult novel, Scottish independence, Catalan independence, whether ‘the further south you go in Europe the worse it gets’ (economically!) and, finally, whether Richard the Second had been unfairly treated by historians.  By now we had really lost our thread, the bottles of wine and beer were depleted, and so we slunk away into the night.