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It was a fabulous summer. Vargas Llosa and the enchantments of South American literature

Elaine Hodgson By Elaine Hodgson Published on May 29, 2016
This article was updated on June 23, 2016

The line 'It was a fabulous summer' is the first line in the novel The Bad Girl, by the Nobel Literature Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa. Although the book was originally published in Spanish, the native language of this renowned Peruvian writer, it reached world success and since then has been translated and published into a number of different languages, including Arabic, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Serbian. 

Vargas Llosa is considered one of the major South American writers, alongside Gabriel Garcia Marquez, also a Nobel Prize winner, Argentina's Jorge Luis Borges, and Brazil's Jorge Amado, to name a few. These writers manage to beautifully and richly describe their countries and their people entwined with historic events and culture, sometimes through magical realism and fiction, sometimes through semi-biographical novels, as in the case of The Bad Girl. Love, power, hate, and fate are also pervasive in the works of these and other South American writers who hook the reader with their narratives, short stories, articles, novels, and many other different genres.

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Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa

But what is a genre, after all?

Genre can refer to both textual genre and literary genre. Despite being defined as different things, the two can be confused or at least difficult to define very precisely, as different scholars will have different explanations. We can simplify the explanation by saying that textual genre is how we classify different kinds of text, both written and spoken. For instance, articles, comic strips, short stories, and infographics are examples of written genres, while debates, dialogs, presentations and lectures are examples of spoken genres. 

When we talk about literary genres, we are basically talking about the text's structure and content. Some authors classify literary genres differently, for example, into lyrical, epic and dramatic. Others classify them into two broad categories. The first is fiction, including poetry, short stories, and novels. The second is non-fiction, and includes, biographies, autobiographies, and essays. 

While The Bad Girl is considered a work of fiction, the author himself says it has autobiographical elements. His biography, however, is not the inspiration for the unusual love story we describe below, which the author says is totally fictional, though the historic moments and cities draw on his own experience.

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Obsessive love

The story begins in Miraflores, a district in Lima, Peru, in the summer of 1950. That is when the 15-year-old Peruvian boy, Ricardo Somocurcio, meets a girl called Lily, who is believed to be Chilean. He falls in love with her and, though she seems to reciprocate, she never does so in the same way or with the same intensity as he loves her. 

Due to a traumatizing and unexpected event, she ends up leaving Miraflores and they only meet by chance about a decade later, in Paris, the city where Ricardo had dreamed of living since childhood and where he works as a translator. She is on her way to Cuba after the revolution and she has a new name. His love for her resurges as strong as ever, but she leaves, marries to one of the revolution's leaders, and comes back years later, with a different name and with a different social status. They become lovers, but it is always Lily who dictates the rules.

 Throughout the story, Lily keeps changing her name and keeps leaving Ricardo without previous notice, always breaking his heart. She becomes the source of all Ricardo’s happiness and pain. He keeps going, working hard and learning Russian, leading a life that does not seem very exciting as an interpreter trying to get Lily, something he never manages to do. He happens to find her again in London, via a Peruvian friend from his childhood he had not seen in years and who was acquainted with Lily's - now Mrs. Richardson - husband. Once again, she has a new identity and hides her real name from everyone, including Ricardo, along with her life story. As well as getting acquainted with the hippie years in London, Ricardo, or Ricardito, as he is usually referred to in the novel, sees his Peruvian friend struggling with AIDS, a disease we all knew very little about in those days. 

Years later they meet again in Japan, but this time Ricardo is extremely disappointed and it seems to be the end of their romance. Their story, however, continues, with lots of surprises, not always pleasant, and lots of ups and downs. At some point, the reader may feel distressed and wonder why Ricardo does not simply get over his obsession, but the way the story progresses shows that, though he would probably be able to do so, he does not want to forget her.

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Miraflores (Peru) where the story begins.

A feeling of nostalgia

The Bad Girl’s status as a literary masterpiece is not unanimous. Some critics would say that it is a minor work of a great writer such as Vargas Llosa. Nevertheless, the book has sold millions of copies all over the world proving that a negative, or at least not wholly positive, critical response does not always go hand in hand with public opinion. The far from common love story spanning more than four decades can be moving to some, but can sound unconvincing to others. 

The constantly shifting locations of Peru, France, England, Japan, and Spain, combine with historic social and political moments to keep the pace quick and can make you think of your own love stories, dreams, ambitions, values, and beliefs. The summer setting so often associated with Latin America is common, though it is not the only season in these stories. This can be seen from the first line of the novel The Bad Girl. A simple sentence that keeps the reader going, making you curious to find out what was special about that summer. This is a novel that seems to be a perfect choice for the summer approaching in the North Hemisphere.

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Sète (France), where the story ends.

A Brazilian teacher and ELT materials writer, interested in education, literature, history and culture.


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