The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

By Mario Vargas Llosa. Translated by Edith Grossman. Douglas & McIntyre, 276 pp, $29, hardcover

Mario Vargas Llosa is one of a few novelists who have had a serious tilt at running their own countries. Unlike Václav Havel in the Czech Republic, his Peruvian presidential bid was unsuccessful, defeated in 1990 by the controversial Alberto Fujimori. However, he remains a giant of South American literature, and in The Bad Girl , a tale of romantic obsession taken to the point of destruction, his sure touch and dexterity are undiminished.

Vargas Llosa's protagonist here is Ricardo Somocurcio, whose "fairly normal, though empty" life is viewed across 40 years and the seven phases when the Bad Girl comes into–and consumes–his existence in different guises, before abandoning him each time in cruel ways.

It begins in Miraflores, a middle-class suburb of Lima, Peru. Here, BG is Lily, the flamboyant elder of two Chilean sisters in the summer of 1950. Ricardo falls under the spell of the "incarnation of coquettishness", but his passion is not reciprocated, and he is devastated when Lily flees after her false background is uncovered.

BG signposts Ricardo's life. In Paris, where he fulfills his dream of living there as a translator and interpreter, she is first Comrade Arlette, a trainee guerrilla. She returns a few years later as Madame Arnoux, the wife of a high-ranking UNESCO diplomat, in a nod to Gustave Flaubert's L'Education sentimentale ; then she is Mrs. Richardson, the Mexican wife of a wealthy racehorse owner in London; and also Kuriko, the mistress of an unsettling and brutal Japanese gangster.

No matter the name, her dispassionate, sometimes sadistic treatment of Ricardo stays constant. For BG, he is her "little pissant", and their sex is one-sided, even icy on her part: "She remained still, passive, resigned to this effusiveness, like a queen accepting the homage of a vassal."

Yet Ricardo is undaunted, pursuing her ceaselessly with what BG calls "cheap, sentimental" declarations of love and marriage. Her absences are alleviated by the friends Ricardo meets on his travels, especially Juan, an elegant hippie enjoying free love in London, who gets Ricardo to loosen up a bit.

Although not as breathtaking as 2001's The Feast of the Goat , Bad Girl is deeply satisfying. A Nobel Prize in literature is long overdue.