Mario Vargas Llosa


"The Bad Girl"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 3, 2007)

"You're my praying mantis, didn't you know?  The female insect devours the male while he's making love to her.  He dies happy, apparently.  My case exactly."

In 1950, when Ricardo Somocurcio first meets Lily, a "Chilean" exotic who has recently joined the teenage social scene in Lima, Peru, he is fifteen, sure of only one thing—that she is the most bewitching creature he has ever known.  His young infatuation eventually develops into a lifelong obsession, and his story of how Lily dominates all aspects of his romantic life for more than forty years shows both the mysterious power of unconditional love and the peril of misplaced devotion. 

Lily is a will-o'-the-wisp throughout much of Ricardo's life, appearing and vanishing, changing names, following the lure of power to revolutionary Cuba, the lure of wealth to Paris and the "horse country" of England, and eventually the lure of both power and wealth to Japan, where her lover is a high ranking yakuza sadist.  Somehow, however, she always makes her way back to Ricardo, whom she professes not to love, despite, or perhaps because of, his unquestioned acceptance of her humiliations of him. 

From Lima to Paris, London, and Madrid, the story of the "bad girl" and the "good boy" unfolds, exploring all aspects of love and betrayal within the changing settings and political climates of the various countries in which the two have commitments.  Whether it be revolutionary Cuba, to which Lily goes as Comrade Arlette; the Tupac Amaru guerilla movement in Peru, where some of Ricardo's friends battle the government; the French revolutionary movement which brought about the downfall of Charles DeGaulle; or the various United Nations conferences in the 1970s and 1980s, which Ricardo attends as a UNESCO translator, love and politics and violence exist side by side.

Author Mario Vargas Llosa, bases the plot of his book on that of Madame Bovary, a novel that has fascinated him for much of his career and to which he has often referred in essays and interviews.   Yet so completely does he make Lily an individual—a femme fatale who forever drops in and then out of Ricardo's life, no matter where he goes—that the parallels with the Flaubert novel remain in the background.  Lily, or whatever name she uses when she bursts in on his life throughout the novel, is a product of her times, a woman whose sexual freedom allows her to pursue whatever pleases her, whether that means having an affair with one of the leaders of the Cuban revolution or engaging in kinky sex with her Japanese gangster.  At times, and always when she is in dire straits of some sort, she is pleased by Ricardo -- though not in love with him, and she has no qualms about using him to solve whatever problems she may have at the moment -- and then moving on at her own whim, disappearing unexpectedly and leaving him bereft—as usual.

Ricardo, for his part, seems content to work as a translator, travel the world in that role for UNESCO, and live what would be, to most people, an empty life without reciprocated love.  He sacrifices any kind of long-term happiness in a "normal" relationship for the excitement she occasionally brings to him, unable to stick to his vow that the next time she shows up, he will refuse to respond to her (a trait which may makes him an annoying protagonist for some readers).

Vargas Llosa, whose fascination with politics permeates many of his novels, broadens the perspective of this novel beyond that of a love story by tying many of the characters' experiences to revolutionary politics, paying particular attention to the various Peruvian strongmen whose administrations led to the impoverishment of the populace between 1960 and 1990.  A candidate for President of Peru himself in 1990, the author draws loose parallels between the bad girl, who represents Ricardo's constantly dashed (and always revitalized) hopes, and political candidates who promise the world and fail to deliver.
 
Intense, vibrant prose brings the characters to life, while the author's ability to set scenes and create periods allows him to trace these characters smoothly through four decades. His peripheral characters—Paul (Comrade Jean), a revolutionary who fights in Peru: Salomon Toledano, a translator who knows twelve languages and loses his head and heart to a woman who feels suffocated by his love;  young Yilal, a victim of war who, even after his adoption, refuses to speak; and Arquimedes, an intuitive "architect" of breakwaters along the Peruvian coast, are among the several characters who broaden the themes of love and loss by sharing their lives and, sometimes, their deaths in different places throughout the world.  Though Vargas Llosa focuses on two people, the bad girl and the good boy, he creates a world around them that is so fully realized that their lives take on symbolic significance:  the praying mantis has many parallels in life, love, and politics.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 34 reviews
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"The Feast of the Goat"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 16, 2003)

In prose which is dense, dramatic, and saturated with images of violence of all kinds, Vargas Llosa reconstructs the final, tumultuous years of Rafael Trujillo's despotism in the Dominican Republic.

Read excerptUsing three points of view to give breadth to the portrait of the country in 1961, the author cycles the chapters through three distinct viewpoints: that of Urania Cabral, a contemporary 49-year-old woman who has returned to the Dominican Republic for the first time in 35 years, and who shares her reminiscences of her life there in 1961, when her father was President of the Senate; that of Trujillo himself as he reflects on his declining health, his 31 years in power, and his relationships with subordinates, the church, and the U.S.; and that of four conspirators waiting to ambush and assassinate "The Goat," as they individually recall the events which have driven them to take this final step.

The heavily masculine atmosphere, redolent of whiskey and sex, and full of dramatic scenes of intrigue, sudden violence, graphically depicted torture, and casual murder, reflects the realities of life under Trujillo--nothing is gratuitous or irrelevant, however ugly it may be. In fact, the book's only "soft" feelings are elicited by Urania's story and her long-term rejection of her father after his betrayal of her, thirty-five years ago, when she was fourteen. While this is the least "important," and perhaps least effective, of the story lines, it gives a necessary feminine perspective on the violence and on Trujillo's government, and it keeps the reader from becoming overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the violence in the other stories.

The scope of this novel is large, and it is well worth the reader's effort to concentrate, during the first hundred pages, on the large cast of characters and their interrelationships. All these characters are integral to the final outcome, and as they rotate among the three story lines, the reader benefits from increasingly broader and more subtle portraits which emerge from the new points of view, making the conclusion and the political aftermath of the assassination especially intriguing. This is a beautifully developed novel of power and its excesses, presented lucidly and unambiguously. I was stunned by its power.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 64 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Feast of the Goat at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Mario Vargas LlosaMario Vargas Llosa's was born in 1936 in Arequipa, Peru. As his parents were separated by the time he was born, he was brought up by his mother and maternal grandparents in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Piura (northern Peru), and then in Lima.   When he was about eight years old his parents reconciled. He attended Leoncio Prado Military Academy, and Colegio Nacional San Miguel de Piura. In 1955 he married Julia Urquidi; they divorced in 1964. From 1955 to 1957 Vargas Llosa studied literature and law at the University of San Marcos. He then attended graduate school at the University of Madrid, from where he received his Ph.D. in 1959.

In the 1950s, while still a student, Vargas Llosa worked as a journalist for La Industria, a coeditor of the literary journals, and as a journalist. His first collection of short stories, LOS JEFES, appeared in 1959. In the same year he moved to Paris because he felt that in Peru he could not earn his living as a serious writer. Although the boom of Latin American fiction in the 1960s opened doors to some authors for commercial success, the great majority of Peruvian writers suffered from the problems of the country's publishing industry.

In France Vargas Llosa worked as Spanish teacher, journalist for Agence-France-Presse, and broadcaster for Radio Télévision Française in early 1960s. From the late 1960s Vargas Llosa worked as a visiting professor at many American and European universities. Vargas Llosa made his debut as a novelist with The Time of the Hero (1962), set in Leoncio Prado military Academy, where he had been a student. The book received an immediate international recognition. In 1965 he married Patricia Llosa; they had two sons and one daughter. In 1970 Vargas Llosa moved to Barcelona and five years later he settled back in Peru, ending his self-imposed exile. In 1977 he was elected President of PEN Club International. The military dictatorship, which started in 1968 when General Francisco Morales Bermudez took over the country, ended in 1980.

I in 1990 Vargas Llosa was a conservative candidate (Fredemo, the Democratic Front) for the Peruvian presidency. Vargas Llosa was defeated by Alberto Fujimori, an agricultural engineer of Japanese descent, also a political novice. President Fujimori escaped to his ancestral homeland Japan after a corruption scandal in 2000.

Vargas Llosa has received several prestigious literary awards, including Leopoldo Alas Prize (1959), Rómulo Gallegos Prize (1967), National Critics' Prize (1967), Peruvian National Prize (1967), Critics' Annual Prize for Theatre (1981), Prince of Asturias Prize (1986) and Miguel de Cervantes Prize (1994) and the Nobel Prize for literature in 2010.

He now lives in Peru and London.

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