Ironic homage to Flaubert in this dolt’s tale of se­rial S & M li­aisons

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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