In honor of the great Gabriel Garcia Márquez, who died this week at the age of 87, I post the following discussion of his last work of fiction, the novella Memoria de mis putas tristes, (Memories of My Melancholy Whores), published in 2004. A novella, rather than a novel, it has many of the characteristics of those forms from which the short story is descended—the fable, the fairy tale, and the romance.
The plot of Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores is quite simple, summed up in the initial sentence, in which the unnamed first-person narrator says that on his ninetieth birthday he wants to give himself the gift of a riotous night of lovemaking with an adolescent virgin. The remainder of the book recounts the results of this decision by the narrator, a journalist in a Colombian town. The most important result is that the elderly hero does not engage in a night of sexuality with a young girl, but instead sits by her bed, watching her as she sleeps. For the remainder of his ninetieth year he returns to the brothel night after night, continuing to watch the girl sleep, hardly ever touching her and hearing her voice only once. However, he falls helplessly in love with her, and as, improbable as it may seem, she ultimately falls in love with him, and they finally come together as a most unlikely couple on the last page.
Some critics chastised the author and the novella’s hero as dirty old men who have no social conscience about the exploitation of young women in third world countries, but it is a misunderstanding of the tradition of Memories of My Melancholy Whores, as well as Garcia Márquez ’s obvious intention, to label this a perverted book about an old man’s wicked lust for a teenage girl. As Garcia Márquez has suggested in previous works, visiting a brothel does not have the same unsavory aspect in Colombia as it does in America. Indeed, the author of the classic One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) has praised the brothels of Bogota, where he studied law, even though he was once beaten up there for failing to pay a prostitute. There is no hint of criminal exploitation in the book, no sordid reality of young women made chattel to men with money. Rather the story is about enrapt attention, fantasy, the romantic dream of pure ideal love.
Although the protagonist realizes that sex is merely a consolation for not having love, he has never been able to experience love; indeed has never had sex with a woman unless he paid for it. That the final object of his desire is a fourteen-year-old girl has nothing to do with the social issue of preying on the helpless and innocent. Neither love nor sex in this novella has anything to do with social reality; the story is rather a complete romantic idealization of the art-like object of desire.
The romantic nature of the old man’s silent observation of the girl as he watches her each night can be compared to the famous metaphor that opens the quintessential romantic adoration of an untouched object—John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” For the young girl in Garcia Márquez ’s novella is a frozen work of art, not to be approached if the true nature of ideal romantic love is to be sustained. She is indeed Keats’ “still unravished bride of quietness,” a ‘foster-child of silence and slow time.” The protagonist knows that he does not want her to awaken, does not want to hear her voice, does not want to see her in daylight, but rather wishes only to watch her in silence.
Memories of My Melancholy Whores has been compared to Vladimir Nabokov’s paean to passion for a child, Lolita (1955), but it is Dante’s celebration of a similar love for his Beatrice that invented this kind of romantic love story. Gustave von Aschenbach’s tragic love for the young Tadzio in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) is perhaps the most famous twentieth century model.
The most immediate comparison is suggested by Garcia Márquez’s opening epigraph from Yasunari Kawabata’s “House of Sleeping Beauties” (1926), another classic story of idealistic love of an older man for a young girl. “House of the Sleeping Beauties” centers on a brothel visited by old men who can no longer perform sexually. Forbidden to have sex with the young women, and thus free of sexual expectations, they lie down with beautiful young virgins who, under the influence of a sleeping potion, are unaware of their visits. The central character is a man who does not tell the madam that he is still able to function as a man, and his visits are tormented by the fact that he desires more than the girls are allowed to give. As he lies by different girls each night, he remembers his youthful adventures and contemplates his own future impotence as he grows older.
The difference between Kawabata’s story and Garcia Márquez ’novella is that whereas Kawabata is concerned with the inevitability of growing old and the longing for death, Garcia Márquez holds out for the romantic ideal of never being too old to fall in love. Memories of My Melancholy Whores is not a fairy tale for the aged, but rather a fable for the romantic.
The unlikely her says he is ugly and shy and seems proud to admit that he has never gone to bed with a woman he did not pay. He was even voted client of the year two different times in the red-light district he frequents. He says by the time he was fifty, he had slept with 514 women. Then he simply stopped counting. He lives in an old ancestral mansion, has no wife, no children, no kin, no pets. He is cultured, surrounding himself with great literature, listening to classical music. Each week he writes in longhand a weekly column for the local Sunday newspaper, and he is fairly well known in the town. At one time in his youth he was engaged to be married, but at the last minute he hid from his bride and never again made a commitment to a woman.
The virgin the madam arranges for him to visit is a poor girl who works by day sewing buttons in a clothing factory. She lives with her crippled mother and provides for her brothers and sisters. She is afraid of sex because a friend once bled to death when she lost her virginity. The madam gives her some bromide and valerian that makes her sleep during the protagonist’s visit. Each night he lies beside her, listening to her breath, imagining the blood flowing through her veins. Neither he nor the reader ever sees her awake. He sometimes speaks to her in her sleep, but she does not respond. Her only sentence is the sleep-laden cryptic remark, “It was Isabel who made the snails cry.”
On one other occasion, she writes an enigmatic sleepwalking message on the mirror when she goes to the bathroom about the tiger not eating far away. He reads to her from “The Little Prince” and “The Arabian Nights” and eventually begins to write love letters to her that he publishes as his columns. It is appropriate that the protagonist reads fairy tales by Perrault to the young girl, for she is the classic Sleeping Beauty, untouched and untouchable; to waken her would be to make her merely human, and that is not what the protagonist falls in love with. Realists may say that it is immature to fall in love with a child, with someone you can never have, with someone you have hardly spoken to; however, most great love stories in western culture, from Tristan and Iseult to Romeo and Juliet, share such characteristics.
The old man’s idyll is interrupted by an intrusion from the real world when an important banker is stabbed to death in the brothel, and the investigation and bad publicity shuts it down for months. The protagonist watches for the girl on the street, even though he knows he would not recognize her dressed and in daylight. He imagines her in what he terms her “unreal” life, caring for her brothers and sisters, sewing buttons at her work. He feels he is dying for love, but he also knows that he would not trade his suffering for anything in the world. During this separation from his beloved, the protagonist happens to see his long-ago bride-to-be, aged and infirm. He meets with an old sexual companion who advises him not to die without knowing the wonder of having sex with someone he loves.
He is anguished by jealousy, thinking that the madam Rosa Carbacas has sold his loved one to someone else, and he flies into a rage when it seems that his romantic fantasy love has been contaminated by sordid reality. But he cannot stay away from his “Delgadina.” On the morning of his ninety-first birthday, he and Rosa Cabarcas make what they call an old people’s bet--that whoever survives keeps everything that belongs to the other one. The madam says instead that when she dies everything will belong to the young girl, which will amount to the same thing, for, she tells him in the final improbability of this most romantic novella, that the poor girl is head over heels in love with him. Radiant, he feels that finally he is experiencing real life, with his heart condemned to die of happy love. Garcia Márquez thus ends his romantic fable in the classic fairy tale manner, leaving the reader hopeful that the couple will live happily ever after.