There was a certain amount of confusion among the fans and celebrity watchers when this new novella by Gabriel García Márquez appeared in Spanish. He had just published the first volume of his autobiography and was supposed to be working on a second. Was this it? The title included the word memoria, which can mean “memoir” just as easily as it can mean “memory.” The book was written in the first person, and it was about an elderly Latin American writer. But then the differences, on inspection, began to overtake the similarities. The writer in the novella is not a novelist; he doesn’t live in Mexico City but in an unnamed Colombian port that has all the signs of being Barranquilla (where the young García Márquez attended boarding school and later worked as a journalist). And he is not just elderly but old; he turns 90 in the course of the story. García Márquez, by contrast, at 77 (when the Spanish version was published last year), is a mere juvenile.
But the confusion has a critical interest, because the autobiography had plenty of fiction in it, in the shape of apocryphal stories, characters recognizable from the novels and indeed whole passages quoted verbatim from One Hundred Years of Solitude. The implication was not that the autobiography was untrue but that García Márquez himself had lived among the scenery and personnel of his fictional work and that much of what he experienced as life was already fictionalized. There are stories, he says, that are not invented on paper: “Life invents them.” Memories of My Melancholy Whores is an exploration of old age and desire, and life certainly invented most of the stories we tell about both of them.
Informed by a doctor that the pain he has is natural for his age (he is 42 at the time), the writer in the novella says, “In that case…what isn’t natural is my age.” The doctor gives him a pitying smile and says, “I see that you’re a philosopher.” In one of the story’s many expert plays on identical or closely related words, the writer tells us this “was the first time I thought about my age in terms of being old.” Every age, even the lowest, has to do with being old. The question is: how old? Or how far from death? Curiously, when the writer uses the phrase “my true distance from death,” he means almost no distance at all. Happily, he gets a breather; and by the end of the book, since he now counts in decades rather than years, he is looking forward to dying “any day after my hundredth birthday.”
Like many of García Márquez’s fictions, Memories of My Melancholy Whores tells two stories. One is a simple, sentimental tale about a man who finds true love very late in life. The other is a bitter but still romantic narrative about a man who exchanges one kind of loneliness for another. He likes the second loneliness better and he calls it being in love, but his self-absorption has hardly been touched. The remarkable moments in the book occur when the two stories cross or start talking to each other.
Our narrator is a longtime columnist and occasional music critic for a local newspaper. He describes himself as “ugly, shy, and anachronistic,” says his life is “wasted” and insists he has no talent for narration or dramatic composition. None of these apparent disadvantages affects his self-esteem or sense of entitlement, and for his ninetieth birthday he decides to make himself a present of “a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” He calls a madam he knows and after some hesitation–on practical rather than moral grounds, of course–she takes on his commission and finds him a 14-year-old girl. The girl is sedated and asleep when our writer arrives at the brothel, and in fact she doesn’t wake up at all during the night. He contemplates her naked body, nudges her and caresses her, but does nothing more. He leaves at five in the morning, having discovered, as he puts it, “the improbable pleasure of contemplating the body of a sleeping woman without the urgencies of desire or the obstacles of modesty.” Well, he has discovered more than that: “my great love,” “the first love of my life at the age of ninety,” “the beginning of a new life at an age when most mortals have already died”–the cause and subject, in other words, of this memoria, this memoir and these memories.
Somewhere around here we realize that the writer’s disavowals of talent have been a bit coy and that he’s a better narrator than he would have us believe. His supposedly wasted life sets the stage perfectly for the sudden, redemptive moment he has in store for us. At 90 he is not only a man who can ignore his age but a man who enters youth at the latest possible date. He blushes when he talks about his nights; he thinks of joining a student revolt and carrying a placard saying: “I am mad with love.” His columns become saturated with thoughts of the girl, and his readers take them as models for love letters. But the girl never wakes up. She works at sewing buttons during the day and reappears at the brothel at night when the writer comes to call. Someone, perhaps the girl, perhaps a ghost, scribbles a mysterious message on the mirror over the sink: El tigre no come lejos (“The tiger does not eat far away”). The writer reads to the girl and offers her gifts, imagines a relationship through the movements of her sleeping body. At least once she talks in her dreams. She says, “It was Isabel who made the snails cry,” but the conversation doesn’t go far, and the writer thinks that this is “when the last shadow of a doubt disappeared from my soul: I preferred her asleep.” The girl is lost for some time in the turbulence surrounding the murder of one of the madam’s other clients in another room, but then she is found again. The writer is jealous because he thinks she must have slept with someone else in the meantime, and in a fury he smashes up the room at the brothel. The girl curls up on the bed, continues to present her back and shows no sign of waking. The madam has a wonderfully unexpected reaction: “My God! What I wouldn’t have given for a love like this!” Peace is made, and our writer settles down with the girl to await his next decade, but he never sees her awake. She is the sleeping beauty who continues to sleep, and he is the aged prince who doesn’t need to rouse her.
Both the sentimental tale and the bitter story are readable in Edith Grossman’s able English version, but she has chosen to underplay the self-conscious element of writing and leans toward the sentimental. Hence the vanishing of “memoir” into “memories,” not only in the title but at various points in the text where “memoir” is clearly meant, and hence the word “melancholy” for “sad,” which makes good alliterative music but sings a new song. There is no reason to assume the whores in the book are anything but sad: because they are poor, because they grow old too soon, because they belong to a world where only men get to act out their dreams of purity and lust. It’s striking that within the novella the title refers not to the story our writer tells but to a book he once thought of writing: an account not of his new love but of his old habits, “the miseries of my misguided life,” his nights in the brothels and the sex he never had without paying for. “We had made love without love,” he says of these old libidinous sessions, “half-dressed most of the time and always in the dark so we could imagine ourselves as better than we were.” It’s because the new book has the title of the old project that we have to wonder how much has changed.
In a characteristic quiet irony García Márquez suggests that the strange final idyll of the happily watching prince and the eternally sleeping girl, while morally an improvement on the violation of a minor, leaves the man’s old sexual fantasy and inhibition exactly where they were: sex or love but never both. One of the writer’s old friends, a prostitute he used to frequent long ago, tells him to give up what she calls romanticismos de abuelo, “grandfather’s romanticism.” “Don’t let yourself die without knowing the wonder of fucking with love.” This is one of the points where the two stories cross. The man who never knew love because he was always hanging out in brothels is now dominated by a single passion–and again hanging out in a brothel. But would he be in love if he had slept with the girl, and isn’t he far more interested in his own new feelings than in a new relation, however miraculous? Perhaps anything that makes us foolish can also make us young, and we may think the whole story is just another way of saying that age has nothing to do with being old.