Newsweek trumpets Mario Vargas Llosa as "One of the world's outstanding contemporary narrative masters". And his UK publisher, Faber & Faber, a publishing house known for its literary output, declares on the jacket that The Bad Girl
I was certainly gripped by the narrative of this master until, that is, at page 58 I came up short with a jolt. What? I stopped and read the sentence at the foot of the page again. Then I re-read it. Then I read it just one more time. This is what it said :
"According to the press, Lobaton and his people had animals, prints, and paintings of Mongol warriors with popping eyes, twisted beards, and curved scimitars who seemed to be rushing the bed with very evil intentions."
Hmmm. I had, it seemed, hyperspaced from a description of the political situation in Peru to a hotel room I didn't know where. It being quite late at night, it took me a while to do the obvious thing, which was to glance down at the page numbers. 58...92. 58...92? Where were pages 59-91? I looked all over the book in the vain hope that this section had been bound in somewhere else. Nope. Nowhere to be found.
Rather upset (because I had been enjoying Mario Vargas Llosa's masterful narrative), I contacted Faber & Faber. It took a little while to make the very polite and patient young woman charged with answering my email understand that, no, I hadn't expected the book to be signed by the master of narrative himself, but I did expect it to come with all its signatures. A signature, I found myself pompously expounding, is a printer's sheet containing a number of pages which is printed, folded, collated with the other signatures and then bound together in the right order and not missing any out to make a book. Later I felt sorry for her. They tell me books as artefacts are about to be replaced by some funky digital gadget connected at one end to the Internet and at the other to your bank account, so why would anyone bother arming her with this soon-to-be-outdated information in the first place?
By the time the new copy of The (complete) Bad Girl arrived, though, I had ploughed on regardless, mastered by Mario Vargas Llosa's narrative. Here's the blurb :
Ricardo Somocurcio is in love with The Bad Girl. He loves her as the teenage 'Lily' in Lima in 1950, when she arrives one summer out of the blue, saying she's from Chile, and vanishing the instant her claim is exposed as fiction. He loves her again in Paris where she is the enchanting 'Comrade Arlette', an activist en route to Cuba. As the years pass, whatever guise the Bad Girl assumes, and however she abuses him, Ricardo is doomed to worship her...
But the book isn't actually what it purports to be. It's not really about the Bad Girl at all. It's about the man who's obsessed by her, Ricardo. It's about how his love is born and how it seeps into the pores of his entire life. Ricardo is masterfully narrated. He's a fully-rounded, three-dimensional character who is brought to life and then made to evolve. Somehow, and this proves just what a great writer Vargas Llosa is, between the start of the book and the end, Ricardo grows and changes. And we see this not only through the external changes in his way of life, and not only through his defining relationship with the girlie of the title (the early sex scenes are excruciating), but also, somehow, through very gradual changes in his voice. I don't know how Vargas Llosa does it, but it's pretty masterful. And fascinating.
By contrast, the Bad Girl herself is very hard to get to grips with. Mostly because it's difficult to tell what is the truth and what is lies (recalling another book I've mentioned recently). The reader is made to feel just as Ricardo feels - frustrated, confused, disorientated. And the final stroke, when it comes, is felt by narrator and reader alike.
I'd recommend this book if you like to read about massive love affairs or if you want to know something about Peruvian revolutionary history, or if you'd just like to enjoy a master crafting his narrative like a...well...a master.
Copyright © Louise Bostock 2007, 2008. All rights reserved. Please ask first.