'Memories of My Melancholy Whores':
Client of the Year
By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
Published: November 6, 2005 NYTimes
BECAUSE the great subject of the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez is time, no reader of his luminous, strange new book should fail to be aware of exactly how much time its author has spent on earth: on the day of the publication in English of "Memories of My Melancholy Whores," García Márquez will have lived 78 years, 7 months, 3 weeks and 4 days, and he continues to write, as he so often has, about the people for whom time has seemed to stand still. He has always been most interested in the extremely old and the extremely young - for the reason, I think, that our first experiences of the world and our last are the ones that stop us in our tracks, and turn the long confusion of our days into something like stories.
The hero and heroine of "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" are a 90-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl, both nameless, who meet periodically in a room in Rosa Cabarcas's brothel - "the theater of our nights," the old man calls it - and, more constantly and more vividly, in his fevered imagination, where the curtain never comes down. The nonagenarian narrator is the latest in an illustrious line of cranky, obsessive García Márquez geezers, of which the most memorable, perhaps, is the romantic madman Florentino Ariza, whose determination to woo and win in his 70's the woman who spurned him in his 20's is the perpetual-motion machine that powers "Love in the Time of Cholera." But the writer was only in his late 50's, a mere pup, when he invented Florentino Ariza and granted that elderly fool for love the belated fulfillment of his desire. These days, García Márquez needs a dirtier, older dirty old man just to satisfy his insatiable taste for novelty, his lust for sudden and unforeseeable accesses of meaning, his itch to probe the mysteries of last things.
And the central codger of "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" seems, at least at the outset, a very dirty old man indeed. The story begins, with García Márquez's characteristic hit-the-ground-running conciseness, like this: "The year I turned 90, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin." A superb opening - Edith Grossman's translation is, here and elsewhere, elegant and exact - but not, perhaps, the sort of statement that generates waves of good feeling toward the speaker. The peculiar charm of this narrator, though, is that he really doesn't give a damn what his audience thinks of him. "I'm ugly, shy and anachronistic," he writes, by way of introducing himself, and he's just warming up. "I am the end of a line, without merit or brilliance," he calmly informs us; and despite enjoying some local fame as a critic and newspaper columnist in his native La Paz, he admits to being "a mediocre journalist." His lechery is, in fact, among his more attractive qualities; it is, in any event, one of the few areas in which he has truly distinguished himself. "I have never gone to bed with a woman I didn't pay," he writes, and with sheepish pride reports that he was "twice crowned client of the year" in the city's red-light district.
That brief moment of boastfulness is a rarity in "Memories of My Melancholy Whores." Mostly, this old man is beyond pride, and beyond shame, too. Because García Márquez doesn't often tell his tall tales in the first person, and because the story inevitably evokes comparisons to "Lolita," readers might expect this little book to be more of a departure from its author's usual, unmistakable style - the lulling, deadpan bedtime-story tone that has always enabled him to get away with both murder and the more improbable kinds of love. Some might even manage to persuade themselves that this monologue is, like Humbert Humbert's, an ironic apologia, a literary game whose object is to catch the speaker out in his evasions and self-deceptions.
But that's not at all what García Márquez is up to here. The cunning of "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" lies in the utter - and utterly unexpected - reliability of its narrator. This daft coot is, in his way, as trustworthy as St. Augustine (whom he does not, I hasten to add, otherwise resemble) because his story is, like the saint's, a conversion narrative. His reason for writing, he says, is to record "the beginning of a new life at an age when most mortals have already died," which means, of course, that he has no motive to be anything but brutally honest about the now-despised former life, the 90 years, to the minute, he "wasted" (his word) before seeing the light.
The light is, in this case, nothing celestial, just the "miracle of the first love of my life at the age of 90," the object of his passion being the anonymous teenage virgin whose naked body he rents from Rosa Cabarcas: a girl who is usually asleep when he comes to her, who rarely speaks even when she's awake, and with whom he does not consummate his physical desire. "I preferred her asleep," he admits, and, sounding disturbingly like James Stewart in "Vertigo," further confesses that "seeing and touching her in the flesh, she seemed less real to me than in my memory."
Yes, the young virgin - whom the old man calls Delgadina, after a girl in a song - is an abstraction, and that, as we all know, is no basis for a mature, healthy relationship. The wonderful joke of "Memories of My Melancholy Whores," though, is that its hero's life is changed by the late onset of a profoundly immature and not especially healthy emotion: the painful, idealizing, narcissistic romanticism of adolescence. And the narrator knows all too well how ludicrously out of season this desperate yearning is, how silly it is for a man his age - the whores' client of the year, no less - to be born again into puppy love.
Who needs Nabokovian verbal ironies when time itself plays practical jokes like this? The besotted old man of "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" may or may not actually deserve his 11th-hour redemption, but neither he nor García Márquez is inclined to question it too rigorously, to look this particular gift horse in the mouth. In the end, a marvel is a marvel, best left unexamined, and all any of us can do, this funny, dirty old story says, is laugh. The wisdom the narrator comes to after his great conversion is so mundane, so homely, it's hilarious: "When I woke alive on the first morning of my 90's in the happy bed of Delgadina, I was transfixed by the agreeable idea that life was not something that passes by like Heraclitus' ever-changing river but a unique opportunity to turn over on the grill and keep broiling on the other side for another 90 years."
"Memories of My Melancholy Whores" is García Márquez's first book of fiction in a decade - since "Of Love and Other Demons," which was also a short novel about an unlikely romance. He has filled that time with memoir-writing: the first, large volume of his autobiography, "Living to Tell the Tale," was published here in 2003. So perhaps it's natural, after 10 years of looking back, that he has now treated himself, and his readers, to this sprightly, perverse little fable about looking forward. Not many of the remarkable storytellers of Latin American literature's boom years are left: Borges and Cortázar are gone, and Puig and Donoso and Arenas; and earlier this year we lost the wily and passionate Guillermo Cabrera Infante, too. But Gabriel García Márquez is still around, turning on the grill, and gratefully. Although he has spent a bit less time in this world than the moonstruck narrator of his latest book, he is now old enough, at last, to feel that every new story arrives as a miracle, and to understand that as long as he writes he can keep being born again.