Memories of My Melancholy Whores
In Gabriel García Márquez’s first work of fiction in 10 years, the archetypical Dirty Old Man slips delicately from low-end Viagra gags and into the pages of proper literature. García Márquez’s unnamed protagonist, nearing his 90th birthday, is seized suddenly with the desire to gift himself with “a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” An “ugly, anachronistic” man, he’s been a prodigious client of the local whorehouse his whole long life, and the obliging madam procures him a 14-year-old girl, a desperately poor young seamstress. A cool, measured counterpart to the tortured heat of Lolita, Memories of my Melancholy Whores treads similar territory but draws the map in wholly different contours.
The ancient john’s teenaged quarry is fast asleep when he reaches the room where this night of wild love is to take place. García Márquez’s description of the sleeping girl echoes faintly the observations of Humbert Humbert regarding Dolores Haze—skinny and feral, incipiently downy, intoxicating. She does not wake at his touch, and he does not force the issue, electing instead to watch over her for the night. His abstract little princess stays nameless—he never learns her name but calls her Delgadina—and voiceless, too, for that matter. More adept at being a symbol than a whore, she stays asleep through every one of their encounters.
Though the old man professes to fall deeply in love with his inert young thing, this novella can’t really be read as a love story. Perhaps this points to some unpleasant truths about desire, which, along with death, is the true focus of the book—that the purest, most perfect state of desire is before the object of yours has a chance to ruin it for you. In one passage, the narrator notes that it “troubled me that she was real enough to have birthdays.” Indeed, a girl who has birthdays, who knows what else she might have? If she awakens and becomes real, the potential is there for her to be stupid, or lazy, or boring, and the whole delicate structure comes crashing down.
The elegance of García Márquez’s prose makes it possible for him to dismiss the malodorous whiff of misogyny with a flick of his pen. To get hung up on the creepy premise does the reader a disservice, as rejecting it means rejecting also the reflections on life, love, and death that García Márquez so skillfully renders. With an economy befitting his mastery, he has turned out a slender, brilliant novel that, like most small treasures, bears close and repeated inspection.