Vargas Llosa's apparent lack of an out-and-out masterpiece may in part account for his failure thus far to secure for himself the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Yet the buzz of admiration I felt for this work the moment I had turned the last page, led me to briefly consider whether it could edge it for him.
Then I reflected back on the rather clichéd tours of Lima, Paris, London, Tokyo and Madrid, the workaday accounts of the relevant political and cultural goings on across three decades, and the rather uninspired collection of secondary cast members.
No, this is perhaps no masterpiece, but whilst acknowledging that readers with a markedly different romantic education to my own will possibly not find this apparently light novel as moving as I did, I'd say that the unusual love story at the heart of it is one of the subtlest, most perceptive studies to emerge from the Peruvian author's imagination over the course of his long career.
It's as if there are two channels within this narrative: one in which the author was working at the height of his powers and another in which he was on autopilot. (Oddly enough many of his novels have a more explicit two-tone structure, with the chapters toing and froing between alternative perspectives.)
Unlike that difficult fictional symphony Conversation in the Cathedral, this story of love at cross purposes saunters off unpretentiously from the first page at the buoyant compas of a Pérez Prado mambo. Plot-wise there isn't much to it. Ricardo recounts the various stages of an interpretor-translator's life lived in five different capitals, relieved of mediocrity only by its repeated intersections with the biography of his miscreant lover.
It was a story that was always going to be hard to end, and Vargas Llosa does rather well in the circumstances. It struck me quite early on that it would be fun to adapt this for the screen, yet how much of the subtlety of this narrative would be lost in the third person, so to speak? The narrator Ricardo is to a large extent a foil for la niña mala. If we can't directly witness the effect she had on his mind, his character will lose a good deal of definition.
Whatever my misgivings this is a very good novel indeed, and la niña mala could well be one of the better female characters in contemporary fiction. Compared to nineteenth century archetypes like Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, the cleverness of Vargas Llosa's compact rendition of this audacious Peruvian woman lies in what has been omitted. And if you take the time to fill in the gaps the lively beat does eventually give way to a haunting bolero.