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Mario Vargas Llosa: Travesuras de la niña mala (The Bad Girl)

The Spanish title translates as something like Misdeeds of the Bad Girl which gives a bit more of a clue as to the nature of this novel than the English translation. Our hero/narrator is Ricardo Somocurcio, a young Peruvian from the Miraflores district of Lima. Ricardo has one aim in life – to live in Paris. He leads a generally easy life and then he meets Lily. Lily is one of two Chilean sisters, who have come to live in Miraflores. The two sisters – Lily and Lucy – clearly have an impact on the young men of Miraflores and there is almost a competition to see who will win them. But the young women are smart and are not about to lose their heart to any individual. Ricardo falls for Lily but, while she is happy to go out with him, she is not going to lose her heart to him. And then one of the young women of the area has a party. Her Chilean aunt is visiting so, naturally, she plans to introduce Lily and Lucy to her aunt. But the aunt soon realises that the two women are not Chilean. They lose face and disappear, never to be seen again.

Till.. Ricardo obtains his dream. He studies languages and goes to Paris with a view to working for UNESCO as a translator/interpreter. He does, indeed, achieve this aim, working as a freelance for the rest of the book, initially in English, French and Spanish and then adding Russian to his repertoire. Eventually, he will become a French citizen. However, he is also there for another reason. He is assisting the MIR, the Peruvian guerrilla movement. The Cubans provide scholarships for guerrilla training but, for some reason, all recruits are passed through Paris. It is Ricardo’s job to place these recruits in safe houses and look after them for the brief time that they are in Paris, before they go off to Havana. It is in this capacity that he meets Comrade Arlette who, he soon realises, is Lily. Contrary to the rules but with the tacit consent of his superior, he resumes his relationship with Lily/Arlette. But she is to be sent off to Cuba. Like Ricardo, she is not really committed to the cause but has used the opportunity to get to Paris and now calls on Ricardo to get her out. But he cannot and she is off to Cuba. He loses track of her.

Ricardo is getting on with his career in Paris, as well as following the fate of his MIR comrades (most end up killed). When his aunt Alberta dies, he goes to buy a ticket to Lima and bumps into a well dressed woman. It is, of course, Lily/Arlette, no longer a revolutionary but the elegant Madame Robert Arnoux. They resume their relationship though, as before, Ricardo declares his undying love while she remains interested but cool. Mr. Arnoux is much older than she and it is clear she only married him for his money. So when Ricardo has a series of contracts abroad and returns to UNESCO to find Mr Arnoux, who thinks that his wife has run off with Ricardo, he is not surprised. Once again, she has disappeared, taking all her husband’s savings. No-one has any idea where she is, least of all Ricardo.

Naturally, this sequence of events occurs again. And again. Each time she has a new personality, a rich lover/husband and is happy to sleep with Ricardo but not to respond to his declarations of undying love. Of course, Vargas Llosa is too clever a writer to let this same scenario go on forever, though the outcome is not necessarily what we would expect. As with some of his earlier writings, this book may be considered light, even frivolous, but he is such a skilled writer that he keeps our attention at all times, even if we wonder why Ricardo is such a fool. We want him to dump her but he is irretrievably in love with her and cannot let go, try as he might. And Vargas Llosa is going to show us the consequences for both of them of their behaviour.

Publishing history

First published in 2006 by Seix Barral
First published in English in 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by Edith Grossman