Mario Vargas Llosa's engaging novel The Bad Girl is not only a story of thwarted love, it reveals a haunted swath of the third world diaspora. Its characters are cast about the globe like seeds in the wind. Homeless in their adopted countries, the host of nationalities that populate the novel become the sum and subject of their ambitions and desires. Sound familiar? It should. Llosa has snatched the art of self-invention away from the earnest and mopey Great American Novel and fashioned it, with glorious effect, to suit his cast of exiles.
Ricardo, the book's affable, torpid Peruvian narrator meets the Chilean bad girl and her sister as an adolescent in his hometown of Miraflores, Peru. He falls in love with her, but she eludes him, setting a precedent that will last a lifetime. “Why didn't the Chilean girls, who were so free, want boyfriends?” Ricardo asks. Well, for one thing, the beguiling Chilean girls were actually Peruvian and the daughters of servants to boot. It is the first of the bad girl's many costumes. Soon after, Ricardo is off to Paris, a city in which he yearns to live, not to partake in the moveable feast, but to get “a nice steady job that would let me spend, in the most ordinary way, the rest of my days [there].” Incredibly, he encounters the Chilean girl again. He rekindles his romance with her, now known as Comrade Arlette, a Communist revolutionary bound for Cuba, and when Ricardo asks her to marry him her answer would make most men run and hide: “It isn't for love, why lie to you? I don't want to go to Cuba, and I want to go back to Peru even less. I'd like to stay in Paris. You can help me…” Ricardo doesn't blink.
Comrade Arlette goes to Cuba, but the bad girl keeps turning up in Ricardo's life, like an irresistible bad penny, morphing from guerilla fighter, to kept woman of a Parisian diplomat, to English society maven, Yakuza gangster moll, middle class housewife, and, finally, terminal cancer patient. No matter the disguise, the bad girl is on the lam—from creditors, ex-lovers, and anyone who might try to pin her down to what she calls “this routine, this mediocrity” of a settled, middle class life. But it's to the settled, middle class Ricardo that she repeatedly returns to continue the love affair they began as teenagers in Peru.
Ricardo is an avuncular narrator, which gives the novel a deceptively airy, meandering feeling. In actuality, Llosa's is a frenetic world, fraught with meaningful coincidence—a world that bears strong resemblance to the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu like Babel or Amores Perros, with their global reach and domino-like strings of cause and effect. Llosa's insistence on coincidence and chance, Ricardo's improbable run ins with the bad girl and the strange fate that brings them together at the most critical moments of their lives, brings to mind novels of Paul Auster, or the stories of Chekhov, both of whom Ricardo professes admiration for.
Worth taking note of is the novel's lack of American characters—surely an intentional omission for a book in which the narrator is visited by seemingly every nationality. Self-invention is said to be the subject of the American novel—Ishmael and the Pequod, Gatsby and East Egg, Kerouac and the Road—but in The Bad Girl, a novel of third world expatriates contemplating ambition between costume changes, Llosa claims a piece of America's old turf. There's a lot of Gatsby in the bad girl, who concerns herself with “money, [and] finding a man who was powerful and very rich,” and in Ricardo, the “cheap, sentimental” touchstone of the hatred the bad girl feels for the Peru of her buried past, there's a little Nick Carraway, watching guests get drunk at a party. Ricardo's great ambition is to live a quiet life in Paris, but he can't—the world, like the mud on the bad girl's boots, keeps showing up at his doorstep.
“La joie venait toujours après le peine?” asks Ricardo, quoting Apollinaire, after the Bad Girl has left him once again. Does joy always come after pain? For the children of the developing world, drifting homeless over the oceans of affluence in which they can never be at home, for Ricardo, whose life doesn't seem to encompass real joy or pain, but some middling level of non-feeling, and for the world he lives in, a world of constant upheaval punctuated by bolts of violence, the answer is a resounding no.