Literary seduction

<strong>The Bad Girl</strong>

Mario Vargas Llosa <em>Faber & Faber, 352pp, £17.99 </em>

For Ricardo Somocurcio, narrator of The Bad Girl, life is what happens to other people when he's busy making plans. As a teenager in 1950s Lima, he claims that his only ambition is to move to Paris, and that is exactly where he ends up, living modestly and working as a translator, a job that his colleague Salomon describes as the "profession of phantoms". Lily, the "bad girl" from Chile with whom he falls hopelessly in love at 15, is also a phantom, though in a different, less predictable way. Her vague, teenage aspirations include "being a stewardess for an airline . . . or maybe a movie star", but acting and travelling turn out to be less career options, and more a way of life.

However, "Lily the Chilean" is an invention, and her creator disappears from Ricardo's life as soon as she is found out. Yet over the years the same bad girl keeps reappearing in different cities and in various incarnations, complete with new names, wardrobes, passports and lovers. She torments him, calling him a "good boy" and a "little pissant", and dismisses his confessions of love as "cheap sentimental things". But every time he sees her, Ricardo is consumed by love for the one person who makes life seem less like "a series of monotonous routines", and their sporadic affair continues.

It's not just the bad girl who "lives intensely" while Ricardo stagnates. Most of the friendships that punctuate his largely solitary life glimpse a livelier world, too. In Paris, he meets Paul, a fat and cheerful member of Peru's revolutionary left who refuses to believe Ricardo is happy with his mundane life, playfully urging him to "admit that you write poetry in secret". Even the more settled friends he finds in middle age comment on his mildness: Simon, a respected physicist and a family man, isn't exactly living a wild life, but he still thinks that the nickname "good boy" fits Ricardo "like a glove". Only Salomon, who prides himself on being a "non-existent gentleman", and spends a lonely life collecting stamps, toy soldiers and languages he uses to express other people's ideas, doesn't find Ricardo's life remarkable. A "saddened and alarmed" Ricardo takes this approval as a fairly clear warning about the kind of future lying in store for him.

Each time Ricardo enters into a new section of society, he finds the bad girl is there already in one guise or another. To Paul, she is Comrade Arlette, a guerrilla fighter who seduces the revolutionary left's second-in-command; Salomon meets her on a business trip to Japan, where she is introduced as Kuriko, mistress of the dubious and sinister Fukuda. It is only when she falls into desperate circumstances that the bad girl appears without a rich man to bankroll her. Even then, living in Ricardo's flat, she remains mysterious: she stays distant even during the book's sex scenes, "sinking down into herself" rather than engaging with Ricardo.

Increasingly the good boy also seems enigmatic, but whereas the bad girl has several false identities, Ricardo hardly gives enough information about himself to scrape together one real personality. As he ages, he becomes even less engaged with the world, accepting that his fate is to be "a confirmed bachelor and an outsider". He loses his interest in French politics, which he "once followed passionately", and the brief relationships with women he has occasionally enjoyed, and concentrates his energies instead on working and on translating novels, despite Salomon's warnings that he will end up a frustrated drunk, as "a literary translator is an aspiring writer... someone who will never be resigned to disappearing into his work as good translators do".

The Bad Girl feels as if it should be a cautionary tale about the dangers of being timid. Ricardo is doomed to carry the "dead weight" of his love for the bad girl while she runs after rich, powerful and dominant men. And if the suspicions of all those around him - even the bad girl - are correct, he "always wanted to be a writer and didn't have the courage". Then again, the bad girl's unrestrained hunger for money and power is so rapacious that she is never happy either. In fact, the only thing you really know for sure about either Ricardo or the bad girl is that they are unfulfilled. But, rather than moralising, Vargas Llosa just unfolds their story; and, as a result, The Bad Girl is both provocative and oddly satisfying.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn