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By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
New York: Picador – Farrar, Straus and Giroux Scholastic Inc., 2007
ISBN: 13-978-0-312-42776-4 276 pages

Bob Corbett
September 2015

Ricardo Somocurcio is the narrator of this sad but beautifully told story. In about 1950 Ricardo is 15 living in his upper middle class neighborhood, Miroflores, in Lima, Peru. A beautiful young girl, Lili, arrives from Chili. However, she doesn’t seem as wealthy or privileged as the other local kids. However, Ricardo falls madly in love with her, and while she seems to like him, she’s never really a “girlfriend” toward him.

This begins Ricardo’s relationship with “her” which lasts, on and off, more off than on, for the next 45 years. It seems that each time he meets up with her she has a different name and identify, and most of the time she’s with or married to a rich guy. Nonetheless, she seems to like Ricardo, calls him the good boy, makes fun of him and sometimes even makes love with him (but seems to never be IN LOVE with him).

However, his love never wavers and he dreams about her, seeks her out, allows her to treat him so very badly and even very often calls her his “bad girl.” She is very hard to figure out. Certainly she likes to be with and supported by a very rich man, yet, with one exception of a Japanese criminal, she never seems to love any of these men, and does actually seem, in some crazily perverted manner, to love Ricardo.

The reader follows Ricardo’s narration of his life as a translator living in Paris, one of his great dreams for his life. His is fluent in his native Spanish, and also in English and French. He even adds a very decent Russian to the languages he can translate. He lives very simply in a small apartment in his beloved Paris and seems to sort of live a crazy life of his world as a translator and the man who waits and waits and waits for “the bad girl” to finally come to be with him again.

He is (seemingly willingly) constantly deceived when he meets her or she just shows up and she needs him for the moment. Yet she constantly makes fun of him, belittles his simple life of translating and scrapping out a decent but middle class life. Nonetheless, when she’s in need, and that is fairly often, she does turn to him, seemingly treats him decently, lies to him about loving him, and then, usually sooner than later, deserts him for the next rich guy she lands.

While the bulk of the novel is this tragic and frustrating love story (at least a love story from his perspective), itl is also a narrative of the changing situation in Peru and Cuba and the nature of life in Paris from 1950 until very close to the end of the 20th century.

Ricardo’s own life is not terribly interesting (and especially not to himself). He translates, ekes out a quite simple living, works constantly and very hard at his translating work, has almost no friends and is simply obsessed with the bad girl who is seldom with him and lies to him constantly, treats him horribly, but does return to him when she’s in need, which is fairly often. She pretends her love for him (which he willingly and gullibly chooses to believe) and then goes on her way to her next adventure.

While I can’t really imagine a man as obsessed, as forgiving, or as patient as Ricardo is, I was fully taken in by Mario Vargas Llosa’s brilliant and gripping version of Ricardo’s life. I found myself going between feeling so very sad for “poor” Ricardo, and frustrated, almost angry with him for not simply giving up on the bad girl and getting a fuller life for himself. Yet, for Ricardo, there seems to simply BE no life without her, no matter how horribly she treats him. Despite the frustration I felt toward Ricardo, Llosa was able to convince me that he was really and truly this man who simply had no life without her. I felt so sorry for him at times, but then I would have to back off and reflect – what is a person’s life? Each of us has to create, choose, make, even earn a life of our own and for one’s self. Ricardo never ceases doing this; it’s just that his choices cause him, time after time, such pain and suffering, such frustration, that I so often just wanted to scream at him: GET A LIFE – AND THE BAD GIRL’S NOT IT. That would be true for me, but Ricardo is who he is and Llosa creates a very believable character who simply is who he is and seeming can be no other.

The novel is a gripping story, frustrating to the core, but very hard to put down. I would recommend it to anyone with a willingness to accept the author’s creation of main characters and allow them to be who they are no matter how much one wouldn’t want to be like them myself! I was gripped by Ricardo’s story, but oh my, I simply could not even imagine living such a life of pain and suffering, and allowing the bad girl to dominate, even define his life.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett