Monday, June 20, 2011

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

Most of you who are avid readers will already have read one of the many novels by the Nobel Prize winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. For some reason, I had not been introduced to him until picking up a copy of his 2006 novel The Bad Girl. The ethicist and novelist Iris Murdoch reminds us again and again that egoistic selfishness is only one of many ways of being morally blind. As she shows us in novel after novel, anger, resentment, grief, infatuation, hatred, lust, all can return the gaze to the self in ways that make attention to others, which she sees as the essence of morality, impossible. I have to admit that for the first hundred pages or so of The Bad Girl, I saw this novel as simply another example of how so-called love (really obsessive infatuation) can lead one away from the social-political world and into self-absorption. And this is one very plausible interpretation/explanation of the entire novel. However, I think a careful reading shows clearly that the author, if not his lead character, has a keen eye on the political and social turmoil not only of his native country Peru, but of all of South America and ultimately of Europe and the world from the 1960s to the present.

The story-line is deceptively simple: Ricardo Somocurcio, a young Peruvian boy, falls in love with Lily, a mischievous, full-of-life Peruvian girl who appears in his life one summer with a story about coming from a wealthy family in Chile—the first of many stories and made-up backgrounds that she is to tell him over a lifetime. Ricardo has a rather simple ambition, which is to go to Paris to be educated, and then to live out his life there in what to him is the most glamorous and wonderful city in the world. He does not desire great wealth, or power, or even erudition; he simply wants to be a Parisian. From the first, Lily finds this an impoverished ambition; she wants to be rich, very rich, and to live in a style that only the rich can live.

This is the summer of 1950, and Ricardo is fifteen. Soon enough, the summer is over, and the lie about the wealthy Chilean background is uncovered; Lily and her sister are nothing but very poor Peruvians from a small, insignificant village. They soon disappear from the larger city Ricardo lives in and are forgotten by all but Ricardo:
I keep her in my memory, and evoke her again and again at times, and hear her 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.
Ricardo realizes his dream of moving to Paris, and because of a relatively easy command of languages, becomes an interpreter for UNESCO. In Paris he meets again one of the many incarnations of Lily, this time as Comrade Arlette, a freedom fighter who has been awarded a kind of scholarship to go to Cuba and receive guerilla training. Ricardo finds out quickly that Lily has had no conversion to political awareness, but has simply used the scholarship process as a way of escaping Peru and poverty. Because of passport and identity problems, she ends up having to remain with the other scholarship recipients and actually leaves for Cuba despite begging Ricardo to find a way to rescue her. And thus begins a series of perhaps incredible coincidences that bring Lily back into his life again and again over the next forty years, each time with a different name and very different economic circumstances, usually as wife or mistress to a rich and powerful man who has fallen for her flamboyant charms.

He knows her as Madame Arnoux, when she is married to a semi-wealthy Parisian, who himself stole her away from a Cuban military officer. And again as Mrs. Richardson, the wife of an even wealthier British businessman. And later still in Japan as the mistress of a rich and powerful Japanese man, Fukuda.

However, what is really interesting about this novel (quite apart from Ricardo’s obsession with the many Lilies), is the commentary Llosa gives of political and social life in Paris of the 60s, London of the 70s, and of world events from the 50s through the turn of the century as seen through the eyes of a Peruvian. Very little is said of the United States, partly because it seems such a politically backward and unenlightened country—increasingly powerful economically, but so conservative politically that it only adds to the economic woes of South Americans and of poor, disenfranchised people around the world. It is certainly not seen as the beacon of democracy and freedom.

I am no doubt betraying my own political myopia when I confess that I felt a great let-down in the 70s with the dissolution of the so-called new-left in this country and the abandonment of the high hopes for significant cultural and economic revolution that occurred as the Viet Nam war ended. Writers like Doris Lessing, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (and many others) revealed to me the much larger and longer struggles against economic oppression that had been going on all through the 20th century, continuing on into this one. Llosa’s novel again reminds me of a bigger picture and the need for continued struggle.

The hero of this novel is almost the same age as I, and he witnessed the same world events. While his eye is trained particularly to Peru and the nearly constant political upheavals that have occurred there since the 50s, by moving his hero to Paris and then having him work as a translator in London, Russia, and Japan, Llosa enables us to get beyond a narrow American-eye-view of both culture and politics. I find that not only refreshing, but also more hopeful and less pessimistic. Ricardo sees the declining influence of the Soviet inspired Communist Party in France, but also birth of “a left more modern than the French Communist Party.” In London in the second half of the 60s, he saw “the emergence of homosexuals from the closet, gay pride campaigns, as well as a total rejection of the bourgeois establishment, in the name not of the socialist revolution, to which the hippies were indifferent, but of a hedonistic and anarchic pacifism, tamed by a love for nature and animals and a disavowal of traditional morality.” He sees the rise of structuralism “in the style of Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, and then the deconstructionists like Gilles Deluze and Jacques Derrida, with their arrogant, esoteric rhetoric, isolated in cabals of devotees and removed from the general pubic, whose cultural life, as a consequence of this development, became increasingly banal.”

Yes, this is a simple, even a demented, love story, but it is also a long look at fifty years of cultural and political struggle. Lily, the bad girl, repeatedly refers to Ricardo as ‘the good boy,’ both because of his stubborn loyalty and his refusal to sacrifice his life to the pursuit of riches and power. And while Ricardo is neither a political hero nor a champion of the good, he does give us readers a broad view and in-the-end hopeful view of the world.

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