(Review of The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa, Skopje: Tri, 2021)
Pain is often a source of women’s experience and a catalyst for mental health. Not only the physical pain through the corpus of gender-based violence but also the emotional trauma that is embedded into a person and then is manifested at different stages throughout life. After I read the novel The Bad Girl by Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, I immediately fell in love with the book. Just as the main protagonist Ricardo falls in love with the little Chilean girl Lily who changes her identities like socks for forty years, and every time she unexpectedly appears in his life, she tears pieces of his heart. The bad girl who wears a modest dress, coming from a poor home in Peru, through the revolution in Cuba, then through mondaine Paris, hippie London, and sophisticated Tokyo, will end her life in Madrid as a sick, exhausted, and traumatized fifty-year-old woman in the arms of the love of her life.
The Bad Girl is a multilayered novel. The first is the one we peel to find out if the love that is unrequited and cruel can have a happy ending. The second layer is the political one, tangled between the ideals of the revolution and the class struggle against poverty. And the third layer is one of the arts and the cultural establishment. The hippies, shifted their focus from books and ideas to music – starting with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, and other psychedelic delights of the flower children. Through the story of devasted political ideologies, class struggle, and starving children, we arrive at various forms of resistance, including those subversive outbursts that gave birth to the counterculture, the miniskirts, long hair, and eccentric clothing made famous by movie musicals like Hair in the sixties. In this complex novel by Llosa, through the vicissitudes of love and personal traumas, in fact, the collective trauma is intertwined, the historical narrative from the Movement of the revolutionary left MIR, the activists of the Communist Youth in Latin America, including the periods when marijuana, LSD and the fascination with Indian spirituality and Buddhism become modern. In that time span, when regimes and dictatorships fall, and democracies are created and decline, the only constant is Ricardo’s love for the bad girl Lily, the Peruvian adventurer who later in the novel appears as a woman under a different mask. The bad girl goes through her identity transformation once as a guerrilla girl from Chile, then as a mondaine Vogue model, the beautiful and flirty spouse of a French diplomat, the lover of an English businessman, and finally as the sex slave of a Japanese mobster.
Namely, through the narration of the novel The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa critically contemplates free love, monogamy, homosexuality, and the bourgeois establishment, the hedonistic life of the high social classes, the anarchist pacifism of young people and the rejection of traditional morality. In this novel, he not only criticizes the political platform and history like a bloody butcher’s cloth but also creates mental hardships for the characters, digging his nails deep into the complex psychological states of the lonely man and the traumatized woman. Through the character of the main heroine, we recognize an urge to reject the origin as a tattoo, the memory of the native land, and the numerous ugly memories of poverty, racism, discrimination, and humiliation. Her transformation into Otilita (or Comrade Arlette, Madame Robert Arnoux, Mrs. Richardson, Kuriko…) dreams of what is gone, struggling to free herself from the burden of being the daughter of a cook and a dike builder. Her life is a claustrophobic escape from a brutal childhood in Peru, seeing home as a trap, a prison, and a curse. The main heroine goes through the mill and takes dangerous risks until she turns into a cold, heartless, and cruel woman. Leaving behind pieces of her skin and deepening wounds on her body and psyche, the price she pays for her new status and a new identity is too high. It is crystal clear to the amorous Ricardo that her marriages are a mere formality, a trap for wealth, and although he burns with jealousy, he still feels sorry for her as he imagines all the beds and men she has had to go through. As the bad girl returned him, cyclically, this time as a thirty-year-old woman, with a different name and surname, he says, “It was the second time we made love, now in full daylight while light streamed in through the wide roof window, from where few pigeons watched us curiously, as we were naked and huddled on the sheetless mattress. Her body felt like an iceberg as my hands caressed her waist, and shoulders, and rested on her firm breasts with swollen buds. She remained calm, passive, and resigned before those outbursts. For the next ten days, Arlette and I had something like a honeymoon. She was not at all interested in politics, especially not in the revolution. It was obvious that she managed to get the guerrilla scholarship only to get out of Peru and travel the world, something she could never have done otherwise because she was a girl from a poor background” (Llosa, 2021: 53). As time passes, Ricardo becomes convinced that the secret of happiness and peace is to be able to separate sex from love, the physical from the spiritual. Unfortunately, he had had no success. The agony of waiting to see her, as well as the numerous questions that had run through his head – whether she has maintained that sassy attitude that attracts him so much – never stopped. At their next meeting, the bad girl is already an adult woman, confident that life is a jungle in which only the worst succeed.
Namely, through this love story, Mario Vargas Llosa makes an excellent parallel with authentic rebellion, social injustice, difficult life, and pain of the poor people, as opposed to the poser idealism of hippies. “Most of the hippies’ milieu was from the middle or upper class. And their rebellion had a family origin. It was against the orderly life of their parents, against what they considered hypocrisy, against their puritan customs and social facades behind which they hid their egoism and lack of fantasy. So sweet were their pacifism, naturalism, and vegetarianism. Same as their fervent search for a spiritual life, that would emphasize the rejection of the materialistic world worn out by the classes. And their rebellion against social and sexual prejudices, too. Their philosophy did not have grounds on opinion and reason, but on feeling” (Llosa, 2021: 89). Oppositely the hippies’ disdain for the industrial world and, in general, this kind of rebellion, outside the rigid framework of cultural upheavals and freedom movements, Llosa masterfully describes the miserable life of poor people in Peru. The injustice becomes even more emphasized through the painful consequences of the sadomasochistic relationships of the characters, the sexual abuse of the women, and the traumatic experiences that run through the novel.
The Bad Girl is a story about all the poor girls worldwide who dream of a warm home and beautiful clothes. It’s a story about all the women who have a dream of being more than what tradition and patriarchy allow them to be. It’s a story about all the ladies who bleed inside while being gorgeous for the outside world and coquettish in the high snobbish circles of that hypocritical society being on the edge of dissolution. It is not a story about unmarried and unfaithful women. Although at first sight, the story may seem so. It is a sad story about the nostalgic wounds of youth and missed chances in life, buried in the hearts of those who have set rules for how they should live to achieve some goal, social status, and wealth they dreamed of – all they lacked in their childhood.
The Bad Girl is a novel where childhood trauma is dressed in expensive women’s clothes and transformed into different identities. It’s unable to escape from the root of the pain. Each new life chapter in another city brings another trauma. The tumor in the vagina of Ricardo’s greatest love is bleeding from the emotional pain of lacking. It’s a terribly hard novel. It’s a terribly wonderful novel.