Ironic homage to Flaubert in this dolt’s tale of serial S & M liaisons
IN a letter, the novelist confides that he is hitched since last month to a novel of modern mores that will take place in Paris. I want to do a moral history of my generation; sentimental’ would be more accurate. It’s about love, passion, but passion of a specifically modern kind, which is to say, inactive.’’
While this might have been the celebrated Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa confiding about his most recent novel, The Bad Girl , it is in fact his beloved Gustave Flaubert writing about his work- in- progress, Sentimental Education ( 1869), a novel whose hero is sentimental in the pejorative sense, and which is an education of the sentiments.
Yet the invocation of Flaubert is even more appropriate if we consider that Vargas Llosa, who in 1975 published The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary , offers in The Bad Girl the story of a nino bueno (‘‘ good boy’’) who falls in love, time and again, over 40 years, with a nina mala (‘‘ bad girl’’) whom he treats with tender- ness, to which she responds with cruelty. They are, he observes, the perfect pair: the sadist and the masochist’’. She mocks his devotion, vilifies his lack of ambition ( his only desire is to live in Paris and earn his living as a translator and interpreter). She exploits his generosity when it serves her purpose and abandons him when it does not.
So it goes, until she dies a horrible and lingering death. This is the plot of The Bad Girl . It is also the plot, of course, of the first modern novel, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary . Vargas Llosa writes in The Perpetual Orgy : It is because she feels that society is fettering her imagination, her body, her dreams, her appetites, that Emma
suffers, commits adultery, lies, steals and in the end kills herself.’’ Much the same is true of Vargas Llosa’s bad girl.
In its metatextual relation with Flaubert’s novels, The Bad Girl asks to be viewed as a postmodern novel. As Michael Wood observes, it is not a bad novel, but it is about being trapped in a bad novel. Which is Emma Bovary’s fate also, she being the victim of her sentimental reading habits. It may also be a post- feminist novel, the irony of which is that feminism has brought in its train pre- feminist sufferings.
It is crucial that, unlike Flaubert, Vargas Llosa has given over the narration of his fiction to his male protagonist, the good boy, Ricardo Somo- curcio, who is, to be not particularly unkind, a dolt, a sentimentalist, happily inactive. He utters, as the bad girl serially reminds him, cheap sentimental things’’, which she sometimes sees as distinctively Peruvian.
The bad girl, who has no authentic name, but a series of inauthentic ones, first appears in Lima, Peru, as Lily, claiming to be Chilean, which she is not, being rather from an impoverished region of Peru. Lily from Chile’’ is surely a joke that the thick narrator cannot see, or hear. She passes through life, and through Ricardo’s life, as Arlette ( which sounds suspiciously like the name of a French film star), a revolutionary training in Cuba for the overthrow of the Peruvian order. She shows up in Paris as the wife of a UNESCO diplomat, M. Arnoux, which Vargas Llosa signals so broadly to be the name of the husband in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education that even Ricardo gets the allusion. At Newmarket in England she appears married to a wealthy man and pretending to be a Mexican; unfortunately, she loathes horses. Then she is in Tokyo with a sadistic yakuza, returns to Paris to be nursed by the ever- faithful Ricardo, whom she then abandons once more, only to join him in Madrid to die from excruciating cervical cancer.
The novel is a history of serial liaisons, and is structured through polarities: bad girl v good boy; lust in Paris v revolution in Peru; sadism v masochism. It is also a history of the cultural and intellectual fashions in Paris and London from the 1960s through to the 80s. In addition to earning a living as a translator and interpreter at UNESCO, Ricardo ( or the little pissant’’, as she calls him and he accepts) translates from Russian into Spanish Anton Chekhov and Ivan Bunin, writers from whose moral subtleties he might have learned a thing or two.
Vargas Llosa is rumoured to be writing a pornographic novel, a consummation doubtless devoutly to be wished. Don Anderson taught North American literature at the University of Sydney for 30 years.