|Oct/Nov 2006 Book Reviews|
Memories of My Melancholy Whores
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Alfred A. Knopf (2005)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. He has written numerous books, including "One Hundred Years of Solitude" (I will never forget this story) and "Love in the Time of Cholera." His latest novel Memories of My Melancholy Whores is a 115-page, strangely erotic, and spiritual masterpiece. The man is a great writer, but I don't have to tell you that.
The nameless narrator of this novel, a cultured, shy, unattractive journalist, lives somewhere in Mexico, "twenty leagues distant" from the estuary of the Great Magdalena River. To celebrate his ninetieth birthday he calls an old friend, Rosa Cabarcas, a madam whose establishment he frequented years ago. The only women he knew intimately were whores. He wants to buy himself the gift of a wild night of passionate love with an adolescent virgin. Rosa finds a young peasant girl. She overly sedates the young nervous girl with valerian. The naked girl sleeps all night. The man watches and touches. He says, "Trying not to wake her, I sat on the bed, naked, my eyes accustomed by now to the deceptions of the red light, and I scrutinized her inch by inch. I ran the tip of my index finger along the damp nape of her neck, and she shivered inside, along the length of her body Ö " And later, "That night I discovered the improbable pleasure of contemplating the body of a sleeping woman without the urgencies of desire or the obstacles of modesty."
She continued to sleep each night (as the man visited) exhausted from her daily work at a button factory, where she worked to support a crippled mother and brothers and sisters, and drugged by the madam. The man liked the silent arrangement between them. He lay beside her. There is nothing happening between them, at least visibly. Yet for the first time in his life, the man falls in love.
He names the girl Delgadina. The name comes from a medieval or Renaissance ballad about the incestuous desire of a king for his daughter.
Over the course of the year his love for the girl intensifies. He brings gifts to their room at the brothel. He sleeps in bed with her. He turns on the radio to play classical music for her, and fans to cool her in the humidity of the night. In part the story reminded me of a strange version of the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty.
As I read I thought, what a foolish old man, dewlaps and all. No young girl would love him and his love must be an illusion and this voyeurism is strange. But who knows the ways of men and women? This May-December relationship works. The girl tells Rosa she returns his love. For a poor whore, the manís attention and concern for her well-being are gifts that induce feeling.
I found this book overwhelmingly beautiful as well as often disturbing. The tropics with their heat and violent rainstorms, their decay and rebirth, the growth of new vegetation that occurs alongside the transformation of the manís interior life, the blossoming of uncorrupted love in an aged body, renewed my spirit. There is still something to be experienced at 90. There is no end to human growth. The body may decay, but the heartís capacity to love is strong.
The age difference between the two is extreme. I think it was extreme to point out the irrelevancy of age in the face of this experience that led to the manís experience of an untainted love. Or this large division of years may be intended to show the improbability and immorality of this liaison, allowing readers to question the true nature and motivation for the relationship.
Readers may find a man of this age, with his sagging flesh and lust, offensive. I did have to suspend belief at moments. I have seen the weakness and demise of old men like this narrator. He says about waking up on his ninetieth birthday, "my bones had been aching since the small hours, my asshole burned," not the stuff romance is made of.
It could be said the story is more about death than life, more about age and illness and some idealized version of love that holds off inevitable death, a sort of love of memory and despair. This may be so. Who knows the intent of the author? Perhaps in an analysis of all of Marquezís work, an educated guess could be made.
What I feel Marquez has achieved using the two unlikely lovers, is a novel about the need we all have for connection and love. In the manís case, it is all the more poignant because of his age and the life he has led. For those who may say this book is about an old man abusing an innocent young girl, think again. There is nothing but a win for both people in this tale of individual revelation and happiness.