The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa

Sometimes a book doesn’t seem particularly remarkable or memorable when you first finish it, but then it stays with you, festering. That is what happened to me with The Bad Girl. It is a story of old age. A good boy, Ricardo Somocurcio, meets the eponymous “Bad Girl” and becomes obsessed with her, even though she has a habit of disappearing without a trace only to reappear years later–a pattern that continues his entire life. This story is framed as Ricardo’s memories of his encounters for her and, for the most part, it is a pretty straightforward story of love and loss. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I came to Llosa through the list of Nobel laureates (he won in 2010) and had my interest piqued because his named kept coming up along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez as one of the titans of 20th century Latin American literature. The Bad Girl is the first of his book I have read, but, published in 2006, it is clearly a mature novel. As I said, a novel of old age, both in subject and in mood.

Ricardo Somocurcio is a teenage Peruvian from a family of moderate means. He has a bit of a talent for languages and a dream of living in Paris. One summer he meets a “Chilean” girl who comes to hang out with his friends and begins to date her, but toward the end of the summer she disappears. His life continues, he goes to Paris and becomes a translator and where the bad girl crosses paths with him several more times, each time in a different guise and with a different husband.

She treats the good boy badly. His income is insufficient for her and when she leaves him it is always for a man with more money and more power. But she also always comes back, asking him to tell her sweet, empty things about how much he loves her. And he does, both love her and tell her the words. He sees other women from time to time, but the bad girl is the only woman he actually loves with this much deep devotion. At the same time, the story takes place through the span of decades and there are subtle changes in the world that the non-couple inhabits.

I found myself sympathetic to Ricardo, as I imagine Llosa intended, but there was nothing in particular that jumped out as remarkable or memorable. I put down the book thinking to myself that he was not as powerful a character as the subject of other stories about obsession such as (for example) Humbert Humbert in Lolita. But, ironically, Ricardo’s mundane appearance amps up the pathos of the story, in large part because he manages to live up to the “good boy” moniker that the bad girl gives to him and the contrast between the two characters is extreme.

In a conversation about the new HBO show “Looking” on this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, Glen Weldon made a point that sex, whether on TV or books, is sometimes perceived as plot development rather than as added dialogue. Sex features prominently in the relationship between the good boy and the bad girl in this book and in a way that I found awkward and difficult. But it is part of the relationship that the two of them have and is in its own way touching, particularly because Llosa contrasts what they have with sexual dynamics that involve people other than just the two of them.

The Bad Girl is not a story of daring adventure or intrigue, but a study of affection, obsession, and, at times, love. It is pretty well paced, but that pacing is deliberate and subdued instead of intense and manic. When I had just finished the book, I thought that it was good, but a week on my appreciation for it has grown. The reason for this is that, on some level, I am still trying to work through the emotions that Llosa works the reader through and the dominant impression I am left with is profound sadness that few other books have elicited.

Some thoughts about Paris

Living in Botswana or being a Bonesman does not intrinsically grant anyone insight into the world, but both seem somehow more substantive than watching the world unfold on Twitter from a coffee shop in Columbia, MO. Then again, there is a case that the Lost Generation, watching the world unfold from a cafe in Paris created an artificial sense of nostalgia and culture that is replicable elsewhere. After all, their reputation was created only after their success, and A Moveable Feast is a retrospective. Given an artful commentator, a comparable situation could be created anywhere.

Yet, Paris is exotic. It has a rich history, amazing art, and a sense of gravitas that even Hitler could not pass up. Columbia is not Paris. But, then, in very real ways, Paris is not Paris. Parts of it are. Parts of it can be. But in Midnight in Paris, the background people are meticulously crafted to fit the type, and in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway simply leaves out those people who do not fit. So does Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris. The invisible majority are the non-conformists, ironically. Merely by conforming to another paradigm they are condemned to obscurity as authors and filmmakers glorify and normalize the artificial construct that suits the Paris of the Lost Generation. That Emerald City brimming with culture.

How often does Hemingway go to the Louvre? How often to the Opera? How often to the tourist sites? The answer is rarely, if ever. Orwell’s account of Paris is even more deficient in that respect–he mostly accounts for poor neighborhoods and restaurants. Now, partly this is due to living there. Having lived in Boston, there is something in an atmosphere of a city and you need not do all those cultural events to take advantage of it. Columbia, where, in some ways, I have been coming of age, has its own vibe, but also too much thoughtless drunkenness and trashed streets. At the same time, Hemingway’s two major activities seem to be going to cafes and going to the races. Life is more mundane than the stories, even in Paris.

For a person who often daydreams about far-off places, this has been something I have struggled to reconcile, sometimes. Ultimately, everything is normalized based on what you are used to. One of my favorite memories of Greece was sitting a town square in the countryside watching children entertaining themselves, some on bicycles, some on foot. I know that there were some other tourists in the town (a French couple I had met and walked around with earlier that day made this clear), but there were not hordes of tourists the way there were in Delphi or Istanbul. And yet the town was set beneath the soaring rock spires of Meteora, which was rather exotic. The same way that to urban and suburban people the forests of Vermont are exotic. Perhaps the advantage that Paris holds for the creation of nostalgia and some sort of cultural movement is that it is a location that lends itself to this type of memorialization and thereby eases the job of a commentator (at this point in time, I would also venture that the Lost Generation aids and abets in this mystique), but though it might be more difficult elsewhere, it is not impossible.

Just as there is with the Lost Generation in Paris, there is an allure about those people who were members of Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key at Yale (starting with the fact that they went to Yale), or those people who attend any number of other prestigious universities, or who worked with the Peace Corps, or went on their own to remote corners of the world. The obvious idea of the allure is the experience they had while participating in that activity. A better way of putting it, I think, is that they are the type of people who merited joining a secret society or a great university, or would travel the world for the sake of traveling, or would donate their time. The experience helps, but it is not the experience alone that marks that person, just as it is not the fact that they lived in Paris alone that marks the Lost Generation. Too often the mystique of these organizations or activities causes people to overlook the actual individual, in much the same way that the negative aura of certain activities, experiences, or professions can cause people to overlook those individuals as well.

Midnight in Paris

This week I attended the latest Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris. The main character, Gil (Owen Wilson), is a screenwriter in Hollywood whose ambition is to give up his career as a “Hollywood hack” so that he can live in a small apartment in Paris and write novels. His fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams), is the daughter of a successful businessman whose plan for life is to live in a house in Malibu. The happy couple join Inez’ parents on a business (and sightseeing) trip to Paris, and while Gil falls in love with the city (all the while pining to see it in 1920), Inez becomes ever more convinced that Paris is not for them.

Each night Gil walks through the city and at midnight he is confronted with his artistic idols–literally. Gil’s wanders remind the audience, perhaps as well as any historical movie, that these larger than life figures were people too. Midnight in Paris broaches the topic of nostalgia for a past that never was, while pointing out that life ought to be lived in the present. Whimsical and clever, characters are paraded in front of Gil, whose action the audience follows. I repeatedly laughed aloud and emerged both with the message about living life in the present or pining for a bygone era, and an overwhelming desire to visit Paris–perhaps without a cell phone or iPod so that I may walk in the rain.

I highly recommend this movie and it will likely be the next DVD purchase I make.