The Perpetual Orgy is the title of Mario Vargas Llosa’s non-fiction tribute to Madame Bovary. ‘The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy’, wrote Flaubert. Vargas Llosa has been making love to Flaubert for most of his life and here the orgy continues. The Bad Girl is about one man’s obsession with a woman. The eponymous heroine is so elusive and maddening that she reinvents herself every few years and pops up in various countries around the world assuming different identities. The narrator Ricardo’s curiosity is constantly aroused and over half a century he falls in love with Lily again and again.
When I first read the blurb I had my doubts about whether Vargas Llosa would be able to keep the conceit up. It is playful, but would it work? The novel turns out to be a brilliantly sustained piece of writing and, like Ricardo’s desire for Lily, it doesn’t flag for a minute. The ‘Bad Girl’ even assumes the married name Madame Arnoux (the heroine of Sentimental Education) in one of her incarnations, but this novel is much more than just a Flaubert pastiche. Lily leads her admirer – and us – a merry dance around the world, weaving her web of mystery and intrigue.
Ricardo first meets her in Lima in 1950 when she is fifteen and he dreams of living ‘among the leafy chestnut trees of Paris’. She is apparently a Chilean girl from the affluent suburb of Miraflores, and all the boys are in thrall to her. The teenage nymph with honey-coloured