BY CASEY PRATT
Fiction inevitably investigates some aspect of human psychology, but the best fiction – the fiction that rings true – presents us with images as the only tools for understanding human action and impulse. For example, how are we to account for the insensible desire of a ninety-year old man for a fourteen year old virgin prostitute? In his new short novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Gabriel García Márquez artfully evades answering the question explicitly, offering instead the perfect image: “I had finished a first draft of my column when the August sun exploded among the almond trees in the park, and the riverboat that carried the mail, a week late because of the drought, came bellowing into the port canal” (10). And suddenly we understand how the slant of light on an almond tree could prompt an ugly nonagenarian to call an old friend, the owner of a brothel, to ask for help in celebrating his birthday.
This is García Márquez’s first novel in a decade, and it has been twenty-three years since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The book that made him famous, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was first published in Spanish almost forty years ago. We imagine a kind of frustration that must take root in the psychology of great writers as they struggle to meet the standard they set early in their careers. If García Márquez has felt any of that pressure, however, we can see that he has also felt the freedom and self-assurance that come with early success. Memories of My Melancholy Whores feels like something from the past as much as it does a product of its time, but that is perhaps only evidence of how pervasive García Márquez’s literary influence has been over the past three decades.
In these sumptuous 115 pages, in an effort to reintroduce sincerity to serious contemporary literature, García Márquez returns to those few unchanging, permanent themes: lust, love, jealousy, and death.
The premise is, of course, both upsetting and exciting: a successful journalist, turning ninety-years old, who has stopped counting sexual partners at 514, decides to pay to sleep with his first virgin. But we quickly recognize a strain of unconventional virtue in the old narrator, who candidly remarks, “I had my own ethics. I never took part in orgies or in public encounters, and I did not share secrets or recount an adventure of the body or the soul, because from the time I was young I realized that none goes unpunished” (12). García Márquez’s narrator struggles to maintain this kind of honesty throughout, and his story is consequently more in the tradition of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich than it is an updated version of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. Like Tolstoy’s dying Ivan Ilyich, García Márquez’s unnamed narrator tells us mostly about himself, even when he is describing the people in his life.
The novel is packed with compelling and deeply human characters, including the narrator’s loyal friend, a brothel owner named Rosa Cabarcas, who seems to recognize early that something is different about this visit to her establishment. The fourteen-year old girl, dubbed Delgadina by the narrator, whose other job is sewing in a factory, works to support her young siblings and her dying mother. A haunting old angora cat that comes with an instruction manual and that somehow sheds light on all of García Márquez’s characters, lurks at the edge of the story.
The old narrator is, like García Márquez himself, a successful writer. He describes his opinion column and his refusal to change style in ways that hint at something paralleling García Márquez’s career: “I maintained the same tone and made no concessions to the winds of renovation. I remained deaf to everything… The world is moving ahead. Yes, I said, it’s moving ahead, but it’s revolving around the sun” (38). As the younger generation gains perspective, the old narrator’s steady Sunday newspaper columns finally become a welcome and dependable “relic among the ruins of the past.” In short, readers who had demanded radicalism and experiment finally learned to appreciate their old columnist; they had, ultimately, “discovered nostalgia” (39). If García Márquez has not outdone his early triumphs, if he has not pushed the novel form into a new frontier with Memories of My Melancholy Whores, he has made it possible to remember and reflect even as he confronts us with mortality. Of course – of course – this is enough.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
115 pages. Hardcover. $20.00