Memories of My Melancholy Whores: A Novel
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Chronicle of a life postponed
A review by Michael Kerrigan
"The first thing a writer ought to write is his memoirs, when he can still remember
everything." So said Gabriel Garcia Marquez's little brother Cuqui, one day when
he was a winsome six. The comment is recorded in Living
To Tell the Tale, the first of a projected trilogy of autobiographical volumes,
published in 2002, when the Nobel Prize- winning novelist was seventy-five. And
yet it is not mentioned for its engaging naivety alone. The more one reads in
a memoir which is as satisfying -- and significant -- as any of its author's fictions,
the less eccentric the observation comes to sound. Butterfly clouds are all very
well: the real magic of Garcia Marquez's realism lies in the various tricks that
are played with time. It is, for example, typical that, in describing the tenure
of the United Fruit Company, the defining episode in the recent history of his
home town, Aracataca, Garcia Marquez should describe the firm's departure -- leaving
a population "devastated by memories" -- before its coming.
That is his authorial prerogative, of course, but other chronological reversals,
he clearly feels, are thrust upon him. So we learn that, in the economic boom
that followed the Company's arrival and the "blizzard of unknown faces"
it brought to this tropical backwater, "those who had arrived first became
the last...the eternal outsiders, the newcomers".
Garcia Marquez describes a life pursued by prolepsis: as a young university
student arriving in Cartagena de las Indias, he agrees to do some work for the
local paper. "A terrifying note" is promptly published "about
my arrival in the city, which committed me as a writer before I was one."
When he has to leave a few years later, the notices read like obituaries, one
citing him "as the author of a novel that never existed and with a title
that was not mine: We've Already Cut the Hay". It might easily have
been his: the sense of something completed before the story's start -- and the
hint of mortality -- are well suited to a work by an author for whom the stable
door so often seems to be locked only after the horse has gone. (Ironically,
it is a door locked prematurely which is pivotal in the action of Chronicle
of a Death Foretold, 1982. This true-life story had obsessed him for decades,
and the reasons aren't hard to find: built around a death anunciada, it is a
murder mystery turned backwards.) The circumstances of his leaving Cartagena,
in fact, have something of the same flavour: he has collapsed "dead drunk"
in a rainstorm and been left a living corpse, "skeletal and pale",
by pneumonia. We are reminded of his description of the Colombian poet Luis
Carlos Lopez. El Tuerto, or "One-Eye", we are told, is
"More alive than anyone else, but also with the advantage of being alive
without anyone finding out too much, aware of everything, and determined to
walk to his own funeral. People spoke of him as if he were a historical relic
. . . . He died two years later, and the upheaval it caused among the faithful
seemed to be not because he had died but because he had been resuscitated.
On view in his coffin he did not appear as dead as when he was alive."
The narrator of Garcia Marquez's new novel is supposed to be writing his own
memoirs, provisionally entitled Memories of My Melancholy Whores. An
elderly journalist, he arranges with the local madame, Rosa Cabarcas, to celebrate
his ninetieth birthday with a night of love with a teenage virgin. She offers
him a seamstress of fourteen. Such a conjunction of January and May, many will
feel, belongs either in the medieval fabliau or the magistrate's court, but
Garcia Marquez is disposed neither to ridicule nor to judge. Which is not to
say that this is a work of unreflecting romance or -- still less -- erotica:
the dirty-old-man-of-letters label will not stick. Not for Garcia Marquez, nor
for his narrator, although sexual exploitation -- like other sorts -- is taken
for granted in his world. He does not have many illusions: "I'm ugly, shy
and anachronistic", he confides; this improbable love is one of the few
he does permit himself. At the same time, however, he is in no doubt that it
is the great -- even the sole -- achievement of his life. "I am the end
of a line", he admits, "without merit or brilliance." He would
have nothing to leave his (in any case merely rhetorical) descendants, he says,
"if not for the events I am prepared to recount, to the best of my ability,
in these memories of my great love".
He certainly tells a beguiling story. Moralists may prefer the straightforwardly
sad (tristes) whores of the novel's Spanish title but the translator Edith Grossman's
"melancholy" seems justified, given the narrator's old-fashioned elegance
of expression and the tone of wistfulness we find captured so beautifully here.
The narrator takes full advantage of his authority as storyteller in a strikingly
univocal text, whose dialogue for the most part comes as semi reported speech.
A few exclamations stand out in their own quotation marks, but this only underlines
the degree of narrative control which is otherwise maintained. This is to be
a one-sided folie a deux, then, and readers seeking to castigate the
"male gaze" will not be disappointed. Not by the businesslike eye
with which he assesses his purchase when he is escorted into the room where
she lies sleeping -- worn out after a shift in the shirt factory -- nor by the
way he blazons her beauties one by one, like some soft-porn sonneteer.
"I sat down to contemplate her from the edge of the bed, my five senses
under a spell. She was dark and warm. She had been subjected to a regimen
of hygiene and beautification that did not overlook even the incipient down
on her pubis. Her hair had been curled, and she wore natural polish on the
nails of her fingers and toes, but her molasses-colored skin looked rough
and mistreated. Her newborn breasts still seemed like a boy's, but they appeared
full to bursting with a secret energy that was ready to explode. The best
part of her body were her large, silent-stepping feet with toes as long and
sensitive as fingers."
"Newborn" but "full", her breasts are a chronological contradiction
in themselves; she is barely pubescent, but a hard life has aged her skin. She
embodies other paradoxes too, with her boy's body and big feet (a few lines
later the firm set of her facial features will put the narrator in mind of a
"young fighting bull").
The most important contradictions of all, however, are in the narrator's developing
response to her -- part ownership, part reverence, part tenderness. Far from
ducking the transgressive nature of his passion, he insists on it, naming his
beloved "Delgadina", after the heroine of one of Latin America's best-known
ballads. A princess, in the story she resists the incestuous attentions of the
king her father; he imprisons her in her chamber where she wastes away and dies.
So precious is this little fiction to the narrator that, when one day Rosa Cabarcas
begins to tell him the girl's real name, he stops her in frantic haste.
It is, of course, a comparison which, however unfavourably it shows his feelings
of love, at the same time celebrates the heroic chastity of "Delgadina".
He discovers, for the first time in his life, "the improbable pleasure
of contemplating the body of a sleeping woman without the urgencies of desire
or the obstacles of modesty". Over time, their "meetings" take
on the quality of tableaux, even of "theater", our Pygmalion surrounding
his sleeping beloved with a range of props and lights.
The object of all this devotion was never quite substantial, perhaps -- once,
for example, the narrator imagines Delgadina in what he calls her "unreal
life . . .as she woke her brothers and sisters, dressed them for school, gave
them breakfast if there was any food, and bicycled across the city to serve
out her sentence of sewing buttons". We catch odd glimpses of other Delgadinas
and their hardships in the city as we go, especially when the brothel is shut
down after a police raid and the narrator searches high and low through the
streets for his beloved; he tries her sweatshop, too, and even the city hospital.
Despite his desperation, one wonders who or what he is looking for. Even when
his rendezvous resume, Delgadina seems to grow more wraithlike by the day. One
night he brushes his finger against her sleeping nakedness: "Incredible:
seeing and touching her in the flesh, she seemed less real to me than in my
memory". Another night she murmurs something in a dream: he is shocked
to hear how common her accent is, and confirmed in his feeling that he prefers
her asleep. She is, in short, a fantasy creature: he sees her around his home
and has conversations with her. "Just as real events are forgotten",
he observes, "some that never were can be in our memories as if they had
"Today", the narrator tells us, "I know it was not a hallucination
but one more miracle of the first love of my life at the age of ninety."
We need not necessarily share his conviction that all has been redeemed. Yet,
whatever its follies and falsehoods, the impulse that can bring about "the
beginning of a new life at an age when most mortals have already died"
is not to be dismissed lightly in Garcia Marquez's scheme. The key to the happiness
of this "new life" is the re-examination it brings of the old: the
compromises made, the commitments sidestepped, the emotions unacknowledged.
Here once again, Garcia Marquez turns back time and we witness an existence
in rewind. Between his trysts with Delgadina the narrator recalls -- in vivid
excursus -- the other women he has come close to loving and we sense the other
men he might have been. We are changed by our relationships, uncomfortable as
they may be, but the narrator has refused to submit to that discipline. His
freedom has been dearly bought, his selfishness self-defeating, his creativity
has been fossilized. Younger journalists have long attacked his work "as
if they were assaulting a mummy from the past". Now, to the excitement
of the whole city, his once-creaky column is resurrected as a series of "love-letters
that all people could make their own". More dead than alive through his
first nine decades, he is only now embracing his world: this has been the chronicle
of a life postponed. The key is the recognition of mortality; death too has
been postponed, but will not be put off for ever. No writer is more conscious
than Garcia Marquez that existence has a tragic aspect, yet we have everything
to gain by going out to meet it face to face. If time devours, in Shakespeare's
terms, a ruin has its own dignity - and a man may grow by his experiences, if
he is prepared to. Garcia Marquez's later works have too often suffered by comparison
with a half remembered One
Hundred Years of Solitude - big and "colourful"; "energetic";
"life-affirming"; with a cast of thousands. But he was never really
that writer: now, in this problematic and yet profoundly haunting novel, one
of twentieth-century literature's great figures pushes back the years and gives
us fiction of the very highest order.
Michael Kerrigan's most recent book is Lewis and Clark: Blazing a trail
through the American West, published last year.