I have had this novel for a couple of years, but never got around to reading it in my reading slump. Being somewhat outdated about world literature, I hadn’t heard of the author till he won the Nobel price. I picked it up mainly because of that. Still, I didn’t read it as I was into not-so-serious books while I battled corporate life.
Now that I got around to reading it, it was enjoyable. No, I wouldn’t call it a favourite. I wouldn’t call it haunting, as such love stories have a habit of being. I don’t even feel sorry for or empathise with Ricardo. Something is missing that makes me want to feel deeply for the guy. When I read ‘The Brokeback Mountain’ I obsessed over Ennis’ tragic love for months; but no, this love does’t feel that deep or meaningful.
In 1950, 15 year old Peruvian boy Ricardo Somocurcio meets two Chilean girls in his middle class neighbourhood. They take the neighbourhood by storm, with their exotic accent and daring dresses and dancing. Ricardo promptly falls in love with Lily, the eldest. Though they appear to be going steady, Lily refuses to be his girlfriend. She is mysterious and obviously poor, and the perceptive Ricardo is all innocent love and care for the girl. The Chilean girls disappear from the social scene after it is found out that they made up being Chilean, but are just poor Peruvians trying to fit into the better social class in Miraflores.
Ten years later, Ricardo has achieved his life-long dream -To live in Paris. He works as a temporary interpreter for UNESCO and strikes up a friendship with fat Paul, a Peruvian with revolutionary leanings. He meets a new recruit named Comrade Arlette, who’s to be shipped to Cuba for guerilla training. Ricardo recognises his long lost crush, though the woman denies ever being Lily or about having a sister. She does recognise Ricardo as the ‘good boy’ from Miraflores though. After a whirlwind courting and affair, Comrade Arlette says she’ll stay with him in Paris if he will get her out of her commitment to Cuba. Ricardo tells her to come back after six months, as it will be a big problem for Paul otherwise. Next he hears about her is that she’s seduced a Cuban commandant to get out of training, and later he meets her in Paris as Madame Robert Arnoux, the wife of a diplomat. They have a complicated and masochistic sexual affair, till she disappears again emptying her husband’s swiss bank account and breaking Ricardo’s heart.
We know she’s gonna appear again once the venue shifts to London. There’s mention of London’s hippie culture, and we see the bad girl again as the wife of a rich English horse breeder. Thoroughly bored with her life, but as rich as she wanted to be. Ricardo and the girl promptly restart their affair, as masochistic as ever till he suggests to her she loves him too. The gold digging femme fatale doesn’t have a happy ending in her English marriage, and she flees the country after being threatened with bigamy court procedures since Madame Robert Arnoux never bothered to get a divorce before marrying into British upper class. She does call Ricardo before fleeing pretending to call from Paris.
Few years later, Ricardo comes to know of her being in Japan. As the obsessed idiot he is, he travels to Japan. Kuriko as she is known is now the plaything of a Japanese smuggler, and he rues that this maybe the only time she’s in love. The subsequent sexual encounter so traumatises her ‘little pissant’ that he flees the country and thinks he flees her too. However she keeps calling him, because she needs his help again. She waltzes in again, and lets him get into debt to cure her of her maladies, and after trying to live the mundane life he has for her as his wife, breaks his heart again and flees. Riacrdo now is an old man and he finds a selfless woman, the antithesis of the bad girl, but of course he doesn’t love her as he loves his obsession. Bad Girl resurfaces, seemingly jealous of his new girlfriend, to die of cancer in his arms.
Riacrdo is the good boy to Otilia’s bad girl. The novel is a good read, the mark of a great writer is there. However as I said, it didn’t effect me deeply. The characters don’t invoke awe, or sympathy. I really should read some other works by the author too.