Defiantly amiable

Published : Nov 16, 2007 00:00 IST

The backdrop of this love story resounds with unfulfilled dreams of a more prosperous Peru.

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA is loved by millions around the world, especially in his country, Peru. Like Jorge Luis Borges, Llosas aesthetic pursuit coincides with his political concern, though it is often alleged that his writings are not candidly devoted to the Latin American cause of political and cultural emancipation. He has played a fundamental role in an attempt to fashion a Latin American literary tradition and revitalise the Latin American novel. The creative output and the theoretical and critical enthusiasm have always had close links with the ongoing cultural growth, an innate critical self-awareness of its history and local reality being the source of the efforts towards political, economic and cultural revolution. Why then should he not be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature? Possibly the committee in Sweden feels he is a little timid.

Llosas powerful and side-splitting satire on Latin American backwardness and machismo, with a more imaginative exploration of the myth and legend of Peru, sets him somewhat apart from his fellow writers. The Time of the Hero remains his finest book, a savage spoof on life at a Peruvian military academy. The Green House is more experimental. Conversation in the Cathedral, a gripping novel, remains one of the most terrifying and striking portraits of political evil. His doctoral dissertation on Garcia Mrquez (1971) was followed by several books on literary criticism, among them La Orga Perpetua (1975) about Flauberts masterpiece Madame Bovary. With Julio Cortzar, Carlos Fuentes, and Garca Mrquez, Vargas Llosa is among the most notable writers whose endeavour has been to reinforce the literary foundations of their land.

Mario Vargas Llosas latest novel, absorbing as well as full of anticipation, is a reinvention of Flauberts Madam Bovary, a life-long obsession for Llosa, especially its passionate view of reality that moves beyond the commonplace. It is an irresistible novel: it steps beyond the hackneyed idea of a liberated contemporary society that boasts of transcending gender bias. Emma was castigated by her society at the end of the 19th century. Llosas world of the 1960s is equally guilty of a retrogressive treatment of a liberated woman.

The Bad Girl, which reflects the writers own life and love, becomes an outlet for his nostalgia for the years spent in Lima: In the early years of the 1950s there were still no tall buildings in Miraflores, a neighbourhood of one-story houses two at the most and gardens with their inevitable geraniums, poincianas, laurels, bougainvilleas, and lawns and verandas along which honeysuckle or ivy climbed, with rocking chairs where neighbours waited for nightfall, gossiping or inhaling the scent of the jasmine. You could still hear birds singing in that Miraflores, where families cut a pine branch when their girls reached marriageable age because if they didnt, the poor things would become old maids like my aunt

The defiantly amiable new novel takes the reader at the outset into Miraflores, where the narrator, Ricardo Slim Somocurcio, is attracted by the beauty of 15-year-old Lily. Her erotic mambo dance enslaves him to the girl who devastates him with her unbridled affairs. Many years pass and, at the age of 25, he moves from Lima to Paris. There he engages in the translation of old Russian texts, an occupation that enables him to confront his world of moral decay.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez,

Lily reappears suddenly as Comrade Arlette, masquerading as a revolutionary who is moving to Cuba for guerilla training, a pursuit that pictures her social behaviour. Ricardo adores his steady job but does not mind reuniting with the unpredictable girl of his boyhood fantasies. She makes love to him and then nonchalantly exits his life once again. She will resurface as Mrs. Richardson, and this time her passion will be for thoroughbreds.

But Ricardo takes a compassionate view of her deceitful ways: I tried to picture her childhood, being poor in the hell that Peru is for the poor, and her adolescence, perhaps even worse, the countless difficulties, defeats, sacrifices, concessions she must have suffered in Peru, in Cuba, in order to move ahead and reach the place she was now. Ricardo exonerates her of her lies, entanglements, egotism and disappearances because he appreciates the harsh world she has to meet head-on. However, he begins to question the authenticity of his love story: I was a hopeless imbecile to still be in love with a madwoman, an adventurer, an unscrupulous female with whom no man, I least of all, could maintain a stable relationship without eventually being stepped on. He struggles mentally to not relegate his love to a farce.

In his quest for authenticity in the artistic portrayal of Latin American mores, nature, myth, and society, Llosa stands as one of the most important contemporary novelists. European and nativist tendencies jostle with each other in the cosmopolitan climate that he inhabits. A Peruvian social activist, novelist, playwright, essayist, journalist, literary critic, he emerges in this novel as a writer of romance and seduction, which, though a far cry from the Latin American political novel, still involves the reader in Peruvian history.

In A Fish in the Water, the memoir that Vargas Llosa published in 1993, he recollected the advice with which Paz tried to dissuade him from entering politics: incompatibility with intellectual work, loss of independence, being manipulated by professional politicians, and, in the long run, frustration and the feeling of years of ones life wasted. Nevertheless, the decadence, the impoverishment, the terrorism, and the multiple crises of Peruvian society, depicted in his new novel, drew him to the challenge of seeking the most dangerous job in the world. Llosas bid for the presidential election many years ago made anonymity impossible. He is of the view that his life as a novelist and a playwright would have been ruined as both politics and writing are activities that demand total dedication and have a very different attitude towards many things. As a politician, you dont really have the independence, the isolation that is indispensable for a writer; I knew that would mean at least a temporary sacrifice. It is apparent, therefore, that his defeat in the election was a blessing, enabling him to focus on writing.

Mario Vargas Llosa

The ascending bourgeoisie and the constant struggle between the civilised and the barbaric are reflected in The Bad Girl as well as in his previous writings. Vargas Llosa has followed the tradition of social protest of Peruvian fiction, exposing political corruption, racial prejudices and violence, but he has underscored that a writer should never compromise artistic aims for ideological propaganda. Though a love story, the backdrop of The Bad Girl resounds with the unfulfilled dreams of the people for a more prosperous Peru in the context of the countrys dark history from the middle of the last century.

Accentuating the close link between writing and politics, especially in Latin America, Llosa elaborates on it: The basic problems are not solved yet in our countries. They are not like advanced Western societies where the basic model is more or less agreed upon by everybody, and writers dont feel pushed to intervene. But in countries where nothing is settled, where basic decisions are still uncertain, I think that pushes writers to be much more engaged in political matters as they were in Europe in the 19th Century.

He has written how other Latin American nations have adopted the free market economy, except Peru, which continues to live in wretched poverty. For Llosa, the need of the hour is concern for his country, and this is something that Ricardo realises when he sees himself adrift and homeless in a world of sexual perversion. Peru, his homeland, refuses to fade away.

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