By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
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For Gabriel García Márquez, it always comes down to love and death. Yes, through 40 years of publication—giving the world two of the greatest novels of the past century, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, and yielding García Márquez the Nobel Prize—he's written about God, time, memory, sex and loneliness, about the sins of the fathers passing to the sons, about the clash between indigenous cultures and the perils of modernity, about the dual legacies of folk spirituality and Catholicism in South America, about the phantasmagoria of history—but ultimately they all fold into the twin obsessions that have seemed to motivate just about all enduring writing since the Bible and The Odyssey. In García Márquez, love and death are symbiotic antagonists whose fortunes shift from book to book: the final lesson for the characters of One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, is that "dominant obsessions"—like love—"can prevail against death" (my italics), while in the story "Death Constant Beyond Love," the main character, who has found the "woman of his life" only months before he knows he is to die, reminds himself that "whether it's you or someone else, it won't be long before you'll be dead and it won't be long before your name won't even be left." García Márquez's famous contribution to literary style ("magical realism"), in fact, is the literary elixir that gets stirred up by these two chimeras wrestling with a comic wonder and strenuous tragic pathos that may be unmatched by any writer of the past half-century.
García Márquez is in his late 70s now, and his latest work, Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores, is a novella that, like the last few works by Isaac Singer, feels at once modest and brazen, magisterial and bizarre, breaking no new ground but summing up a career's worth of imaginative creation in a little fable of head-shakingly absurd sweetness. It takes up the story of the nameless 90-year-old narrator, who begins his tale by saying, "The year I turned 90, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin." So he rings up an aging madam named Rosa and makes his request. The old story: Feel the panic of mortality coming on? Get thee to a whorehouse right quick. The old bachelor certainly has trod this path before: though by the age of 50 he had slept with 514 women (after that he slowed down a little and stopped counting), "I have never gone to bed with a woman I didn't pay." Why he has never fallen in love has something to do with "the most beautiful and talented woman who ever lived in this city: my mother" (!!) and a career as a writer and critic that brooked no intervention by serious romantic relationships. Why this old man, on his last legs and raised to revere the Virgin Mary, wants an innocent girl is probably obvious if too queasy for some to contemplate.
In any case, Rosa comes up with the girl, and our narrator trudges to a little unplastered adobe room "with burlap windows to keep out the mosquitoes," where he finds a nude girl stretched out on the bed, "beautiful, clean, well-mannered, and dying of fear"—so scared, in fact, that she's taken a drug to keep her unconscious of what's about to happen to her. Only practically nothing does: after his halfhearted attempt to spread her legs, her "sorrowful moan" stops him, and instead of the wild love he'd contemplated, "I discovered the improbable pleasure of contemplating the body of a sleeping woman without the urgencies of desire." He sleeps next to the girl and quietly leaves the next morning, content for the moment with the thought that his whoring days are over.
But the memory of the virgin preys on his mind, especially since the thought of a night of wild love was all that he'd kept between himself and the thought of his imminent end. Rosa the madam keeps calling, wondering why nothing happened the night he was with the girl, and after a birthday party filled with the reminders of the humiliations of age, he consents to see the girl again. Again, she's drugged and asleep when he arrives; again she's beautiful and exposed; and again he does nothing. Why? It may have something to do with his recognizing her mortality. ("She gave a half-turn in bed and lay with her back to me, and it looked as if she had left a pool of blood the size and shape of her body.") In any case, at this point love blooms for him like "vertigo," like a "delirium," like a madness, and though he will "kiss every inch of her body" in future meetings, during which the girl, whom he names Delgadina, always remains asleep, he never deflowers her.
(At this point, Weekly readers may recall a review by Gustavo Arellano of the Spanish edition of the novella, which came out last October. Gustavo hated the book because of what he thought of as García Márquez's pedophiliac tendencies, but it needs pointing out that, contrary to Gustavo's claims, the old man never has sex with the girl.)
Complications ensue, of course, which keep the narrator from his nightly visits to Delgadina and foment the kind of changes in him that you'd think would be impossible for a 90-year-old to endure, including a wholesale re-evaluation of the kind of man he is. At the same time, it becomes clear that the love he has for Delgadina is an invention of his imagination. He never sees her awake and actually "preferred her asleep," which will raise all sorts of flags not just for feminists but for anyone skeptical of the idealizations involved in the madness of romantic love. Still, in this book, love does prevail against death—the fear of death, anyway—and we're given the kind of deliciously happy ending that just might have gotten whipped up by Prospero's wand in The Tempest. Whether you buy it will depend almost entirely on how much of a romantic you are.
"An old man is a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick," W.B. Yeats wrote in "Sailing to Byzantium." "Sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal/It knows not what it is." For Yeats, the only solution for aging is the consolation of art, which is symbolized for him in the gorgeous artifacts of the Byzantine empire. But for García Márquez's narrator, Byzantium is no country for old men. For him, the modern embrace of the aesthetic is explicitly rejected: love again reigns supreme, and Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores is a reckless embrace of Love's Desire as All.
MEMOIRS OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES BY GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ; KNOPF. HARDCOVER, 115 PAGES, $20.