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When Ricardo, the main character in Mario Varga LLosa's novel The Bad Girl, describes the neighborhood in Madrid to which he has traveled, he describes it as such:
"When I came to live Lavapies, the neighborhood had changed so much I sometimes wondered if in that Babel there was still some authentic Madrilenian left, or if al the residents were, like Marcella and me, imported. The Spaniards from the neighborhood came from every corner of the country, and with their accents and variety of physical types, they helped to give the admixture of races, languages, inflections, customs, attire, and nostalgia in Lavapies the appearance of a microcosm. The human geography of the planet seemed to be represented in its few blocks."
Lavapies is, as Varga Llosa describes it, a very ethnically-mixed community in the heart of Spain's capital. A lower-income neighborhood home to many immigrants, it was designated by the Spanish government for revitalization, which has forced out some of the poorer immigrants while attracting wealthier Spaniards.
Whether Lavapies can be considered a metaphor for Ricardo's transformation during his years as a translator for the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is subject to debate, but there is no question the similarities exist. A nameless, faceless voice in the headsets of low-level diplomats, Ricardo begins to lose his sense of identity. Compounding that realization is the sense of homelessness that he starts to experience, a Peruvian civil servant residing in a myriad of foreign capitals, mainly in xenophobic Paris. As his colleague, Salomon Toledano, the Dragoman, points out:
"It isn't the fault of France if we're still a couple of foreigners, dear friend. It's our fault. It's a vocation, a destiny. Like our profession as interpreters, another way of always being a foreigner, of being present without being present, of existing without existing."
Just as Lavapies was a conglomeration of nationalities and ethnicities and religions with no discernible identity, so is Ricardo the Interpreter a conglomeration of whatever mixture of languages and cultures is required of him on any given day. He knows it, and it eats away at him, evident in his reflections on the Dragoman's observations: "Being a phantom was not something that left me unfazed, but it didn't seem to matter very much to him."
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