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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, December 4th, 2005


 

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 happened."

"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.



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