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.