Literary 'Quickie'

In his latest book, Vargas Llosa takes us on a journey spanning four decades and three continents. Take a few hours, forget everything - and fall in love with a 'bad girl'.

"The Bad Girl: A Novel," by Mario Vargas Llosa, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 276 pages, $16.50 (Hebrew version translated by Tal Nitzan)

I fell in love, I fell in love with a bad girl. It took me by storm, a "quickie" of fascinating reading, which moved me to tears. A virtual love - my real love belongs to another woman - an impossible love. Not only because its object is a character in a book, but also because this woman, who drove the character of Ricardo Somocurcio crazy, is an unattainable love object.

Not only did I fall in love. I even traveled back in time in a time machine, to the far-off days of my youth, to the days when books took us to distant places and far-off heroes, shaking up our lives - the days when books still did it for us. "The Bad Girl," by Mario Vargas Llosa (recently published in Hebrew by Ahuzat Bait), is such a book. It brings its readers back to the great literary days of their youth, the days when the story itself, more than anything else, would penetrate your soul and arouse it with passion. Let me put it in simple terms: "The Bad Girl" is a great book, written by a literary giant.

Hebron mirage

The first time I met this great writer was on Hebron's Shuhada Street. Of all the places in the world, of all the people in the world who wind up in this crime scene - a Palestinian neighborhood most residents were forced to abandon for fear of rioting settlers - it was here that I met Mario Vargas Llosa, in person. It was a hot, sunny day. Shuhada Street was deserted, as usual, but I saw a small group approaching from down the street. In a wide-brimmed felt hat and fashionable safari clothes, an elegant man was walking in their midst, his sideburns graying and his manner radiating nobility.

"Pleased to meet you, my name is Mario Vargas Llosa," he said, shaking my hand, in what at first seemed to me like a late-summer mirage.

Far from the media and the guided tours of the Foreign Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces, the prizewinning Peruvian writer (whose awards include the Jerusalem Prize) was then spending two anonymous weeks in Israel, devoting his time to meeting those he later dubbed Israeli "dissidents." That was exactly two years ago; back then Vargas Llosa joined members of the "Breaking the Silence" movement in Hebron (a group of former IDF soldiers who talk about their experiences during their army service), drove to an anti-separation fence demonstration in Bil'in, and thirstily drank in the words of his interviewees, which in the end he gathered into a series of articles published in El Pais and also into a book.

A few days after our strange encounter in Hebron we met once again at Jerusalem's King David Hotel. Since then we have met twice more in Madrid, two years in a row. "Israel is reaching the grotesque stage of the occupation," he said to me during one of our meetings, and at another he confessed: "I'm ashamed to be a friend of Israel," both expressing the profound friendship he feels for us as well as its cost. At our meeting in Jerusalem he also told me that he had finished writing his last book to date, which is about his 40th, "The Bad Girl."

This is a story about a youthful love for a girl named Lily, who dances the mambo marvelously, like magic - a love that begins in the summer of 1950 in Lima, Peru, and extends over 40 years, crossing borders and continents, moving between Paris, Havana, London and Tokyo, with South American revolutions and revolutionaries in the background, until it ends tragically, heartbreakingly.

"Anyone who danced the mambo with her always had a hard time, because how could anyone go on and not be ensnared by the demonic whirlwind of those madly leaping legs and feet? Impossible!" And in fact, our hero Ricardo becomes entangled and at this stage in the book, we don't even realize yet just how much. Three times he offers to be Lily's boyfriend and three times she refuses, tossing out her first lie, but definitely not her last: She claims that she is Chilean, but that is not the case. From that moment on, not only does she ignite the ostensibly destructive fire of love, but the borders of fiction and reality also start to blur. "I fell in love with Lily like a calf ... Lily was the incarnation of coquettishness," the narrator confesses; and this time, too, he and we readers haven't the faintest idea of how true his words are, and how valid they will be for the coming four decades of his life.

Thus begins the life story of a Peruvian translator, whose entire work consists of translating statements made by others at conferences. From this point onward, "the bad girl" will enter his life every few years, in unexpected places, look at her victim and harm him. Harm him? That's very doubtful. What would Ricardo's life be without her? To what emotional wasteland would he have been doomed had he never met her? True, she taunts him, lies brazenly, uses him and throws him out, alternately approaches and distances herself, pulls him out of his gray routine and abandons him to sighs. But she also enriches his life. A temptress, a liar, clearly unattainable, a fiery whirlwind that never stops exciting him. How can we not fall in love with her, too?

Art, or not

Vargas Llosa, as mentioned, brings us back to the days when the story was the main thing and Tal Nitzan's Hebrew translation is fluent and excellent. But the language is not the main thing; it is but a tool for telling a complicated story in a simple manner. Don't look for complex symbols in the book - I've already read a critique that turned "The Bad Girl" into a symbol for art. Read it in one go, with bated breath, without asking unnecessary questions.

One may, of course, compare the "bad girl" - which is how the hero almost always refers to her throughout the book - to art, and one may also pile up mountains of psychological explanations about the emotional disability of those who only fall in love with impossible objects. One may be impressed by the Latin charm and rhythm that accompany all the book's pages, and one may also learn about the spirit of the times and the tumultuous events that shaped them.

True, it is impossible to ignore the colorful nature of the supporting characters: the dumb boy, the revolutionary who dies, the Jewish translator, etc. And one may also follow the book into its ramified secondary plots, and get excited about the first words of the dumb boy, for example. But above all, one has to read this book as a story of a great love, the kind people used to write. To allow it to work directly on your emotions: straight to the veins, straight to the heart, an overdose of feelings, to allow it to shake you up, to move you, to excite you, as this book in fact does.

From one climax to another, Vargas Llosa takes us on a journey spanning four decades and three continents, occasionally letting up, only to then strike once again. And when it seems for a moment that the storm has abated, and some quiet is prevailing in both Ricardo's life and ours, the bad girl appears once again, an emotional tsunami that noisily violates the imaginary quiet, kicks up a large cloud of dust, leaving more and more ruins behind.

"One day, when we were sitting in the garden at twilight," writes Ricardo, "she said that if it ever occured to me one day to write our love story, I shouldn't make her look too bad, because then her ghost would come and pull on my feet every night. 'And what made you think of that?' 'Because you always wanted to be a writer and didn't have the courage. Now that you'll be all alone, you can make good use of the time, and won't miss me so much. At least admit I've given you the subject for a novel. Haven't I, good boy?'"

That is how Vargas Llosa concludes this saga, in which, as in at least one other book of his ("Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter"), the hero is a man of words, but not a real writer - thereby proving beyond any doubt what a great writer he himself truly is.

Take a few hours, forget everything - your overdraft, the occupation, Annapolis, Ehud Olmert and Yigal Amir - and fall in love with the "bad girl." Accompany her on her adventurous journeys to the ends of the earth, as a revolutionary in Cuba and a sex slave in Japan, be saddened by her bitter fate - you are even allowed to feel self-righteous anger at her rotten character - identify with her or with her lover Ricardo, admire the wonderful descriptions of Vargas Llosa, who with the same charm portrays a street corner, a cafe or making love, and then tell me: Is it possible to put this book down for even a moment? Is it possible not to wipe away tears at the end, not only because of its sad ending, but simply because you've reached the last page?