García Márquez / Memories of my melancholy whores / Review by John Updike
Memories of my melancholy whores
by Gabriel García Marquez
DYING FOR LOVE A new novel by García Márquez. BY John Updike
The New Yorker, November 7, 2005
The works of Gabriel García Márquez contain a great deal of love, depicted as a doom, a demonic possession, a disease that, once contracted, cannot be easily cured. Not infrequently the afflicted are an older man and a younger woman, hardly more than a child. In “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967; English translation 1970), Aureliano Buendía visits a very young whore:
The adolescent mulatto girl, with her small bitch’s teats, was naked on the bed. Before Aureliano sixty-three men had passed through the room that night. From being used so much, kneaded with sweat and sighs, the air in the room had begun to turn to mud. The girl took off the soaked sheet and asked Aureliano to hold it by one side. It was as heavy as a piece of canvas. They squeezed it, twisting it at the ends until it regained its natural weight. They turned over the mat and the sweat came out of the other side. Aureliano was anxious for that operation never to end.
Her condition is pitiable:
Her back was raw. Her skin was stuck to her ribs and her breathing was forced because of an immeasurable exhaustion. Two years before, far away from there, she had fallen asleep without putting out the candle and had awakened surrounded by flames. The house where she lived with the grandmother who had raised her was reduced to ashes. Since then her grandmother carried her from town to town, putting her to bed for twenty cents in order to make up the value of the burned house. According to the girl’s calculations, she still had ten years of seventy men per night, because she also had to pay the expenses of the trip and food for both of them.
Aureliano does not take advantage of her overexploited charms, and leaves the room “troubled by a desire to weep.” He has—you guessed it—fallen in love:
He felt an irresistible need to love her and protect her. At dawn, worn out by insomnia and fever, he made the calm decision to marry her in order to free her from the despotism of her grandmother and to enjoy all the nights of satisfaction that she would give the seventy men.
This curious blend of the squalid and the enchanted—perhaps not so curious in the social context of the author’s native Colombia in the years of his youth—returns, five years later, in the long short story “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” (translated 1978), which was made into a movie from a script by the author. The situation has become more fabulous, with its Catholic subtext—whoredom as the martyrdom of an innocent—underlined; Eréndira’s would-be rescuer is Ulises, “a gilded adolescent with lonely maritime eyes and with the appearance of a furtive angel,” and her grandmother is fully demonic, huge in bulk, with “mercilessly tattooed” shoulders and, it turns out, green blood, “oily blood, shiny and green, just like mint honey.”
Eréndira, when we first meet her, has “just turned fourteen,” whereas Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles, the heroine of García Márquez’s uncanny short historical novel “Of Love and Other Demons” (1994; translated 1995), turns twelve as the book opens. Her mother is “an untamed mestiza of the so-called shopkeeper aristocracy: seductive, rapacious, brazen, with a hunger in her womb that could have satisfied an entire barracks.” Her father, the second Marquis de Casalduero, is a “funereal, effeminate man, as pale as a lily because the bats drained his blood while he slept.” Neither parent has any energy or affection to spare the child, so she is reared by the decaying household’s contingent of slaves, and learns their languages, dances, religion, and diet—a goat’s eyes and testicles are her favorite meal, “cooked in lard and seasoned with burning spices.” Her most striking physical feature is her radiant copper hair; it has never been cut and is braided into loops so as not to interfere with her walking.
On her birthday, she is bitten by a rabid dog, and though she never develops symptoms, the medical precautions, and her own charisma, prove to be fatal. Her father, roused to notice her existence, falls in love with her, suddenly “knowing he loved her as he had never loved in this world,” and so does the devout and learned thirty-six-year-old priest, Cayetano Delaura, who is placed in charge of the exorcism that the Church has deemed necessary, in view of her willful and feral behavior. Delaura at last proclaims his love to her: “He confessed that every moment was filled with thoughts of her, that everything he ate and drank tasted of her, that she was his life, always and everywhere, as only God had the right and power to be, and that the supreme joy of his heart would be to die with her.” Denis de Rougemont’s analysis of romantic love as a Catholic heresy could scarcely be better illustrated. As García Márquez frames these cases, an element of whoredom is necessary to the, in Stendhal’s term, “crystallization” of love.
Sordid imputations swirl about the pre-teen Sierva María. Condemned to a convent, she shows up in a hat, found in an old chest and gaily decorated with ribbons; the abbess, in her perpetual puritan fury, calls it “the hat of a slut.” Rumors of Delaura’s attentions in her convent cell cause the child to be called “his pregnant whore.” The pair do embrace, and even begin to experience, through daily exposure, “the tedium of everyday love,” but she remains a virgin, in hopes of an eventual marriage. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that she has the talent that the physician and seer Abrenuncio names when he says, “Sex is a talent, and I do not have it.” For all of Delaura’s vows, it is Sierva María who stops eating and dies for love. Her hair tells the tale: the nuns shave it off, but when she is found dead “strands of hair gushed like bubbles as they grew back on her shaved head,” and two hundred years later “a stream of living hair the intense color of copper” flows from her crypt, to the length of twenty-two metres. The miracle was witnessed, it is explained in a foreword, by the twenty-one-year-old journalist Gabriel García Márquez.
His new novel, “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” (translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman; Knopf; $20), is his first work of fiction in ten years, and a mere hundred and fifteen pages long. It revisits the figure of a young whore, “just turned fourteen,” stretched naked on a soaked bed. The moisture, this time, is her own “phosphorescent perspiration,” and her lover, our unnamed protagonist and narrator, is all of ninety years old. García Márquez, a master of the arresting first sentence, begins his little book, “The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” Though the author was born in 1927 and is thus still shy of eighty, many homey details seem lifted from within his own study. The hero is a writer, having for fifty years composed a column, “El Diario de La Paz,” for the local newspaper; he reads and cites books, favoring the Roman classics, and keeps a collection of dictionaries; he listens carefully to classical music, and supplies the titles of his selections. The city he lives in is, as he is, unnamed, but its location, “twenty leagues distant” from the estuary of the Great Magdalena River, puts it in the neighborhood of García Márquez’s native town of Aracataca. As for the time of the action, the narrator gives his age as thirty-two when his father dies, “on the day the treaty of Neerlandia was signed, putting an end to the War of the Thousand Days”; that would be 1902, so our hero would have been born in 1870 and aged ninety in 1960. He tells us that he is “ugly, shy, and anachronistic,” and has “never gone to bed with a woman I didn’t pay.” A retired prostitute whom he meets on a bus refers to, perhaps in a reflex of professional flattery, “that burro’s cock the devil gave you as a reward for cowardice and stinginess.” He has never married and keeps no pets; a faithful servant, the “Indianlike, strong, rustic” Damiana, tends to his modest needs, moving about barefoot so as not to disturb his writing. Though impecunious, he attends many cultural events and knows the trials of fame: strangers approach him “with a frightening look of pitiless admiration.” His prose displays, in Edith Grossman’s expert translation, the chiselled stateliness and colorful felicities that distinguish everything García Márquez composes. “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” reminiscent in its terseness of such stoic fellow-Latins as the Brazilian Machado de Assis and the Colombia-born Álvaro Mutis, is a velvety pleasure to read, though somewhat disagreeable to contemplate; it has the necrophiliac tendencies of the precocious short stories, obsessed with living death, that García Márquez published in his early twenties.
The virgin whom the veteran brothel madam Rosa Cabarcas provides for her old client is a poor girl who lives with her crippled mother and feeds her brothers and sisters by a daily stint of sewing on buttons in a clothing factory. She is, Rosa Cabarcas confides, “dying of fear,” because a friend of hers bled to death in losing her virginity. To quiet her nerves, she has been given a mixture of bromide and valerian that relaxes her so soundly that our hero’s night with her consists of his watching her sleep:
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. . . . The adornments and cosmetics could not hide her character: the haughty nose, heavy eyebrows, intense lips. I thought: A tender young fighting bull.
His subsequent visits follow the same pattern: she, drugged and exhausted by overwork, sleeps while the ninety-year-old lies beside her, eavesdropping upon her breathing, at one point so faint that he takes her pulse to reassure himself that she is still alive. He imagines her blood as it circulates “through her veins with the fluidity of a song that branched off into the most hidden areas of her body and returned to her heart, purified by love.” Whose love? Presumably his, directed toward an inert love object. He reads and sings to her, all in her sleep. Not once do we see her wake, or hear her talk, though the happy ending reports that she has feelings and awareness. His relationship, insofar as the action holds any, is with Rosa Cabarcas and those others who witnessed his whore-crazy prime, when he “was twice crowned client of the year.” Sleeping Beauty needs only to keep sleeping; her beauty under the male gaze is her raison d’être, and what she does when kissed awake is off the record, as is the cruelty of the economic system that turns young females into fair game for sexual predators. The narrator does not deplore the grim underpinnings of whoredom, or consider the atavistic barbarism of buying girls in order to crack their hymens. Such moral concerns are irrelevant to the rapture that is his basic subject—the rebirth of love and its torments in a body that he had thought was “free at last of a servitude that had kept me enslaved since the age of thirteen.” He reassures the reader, “I would not have traded the delights of my suffering for anything in the world.” He is, at ninety, alive, with love’s pain to prove it.
“Memories of My Melancholy Whores” feels less about love than about age and illness. Furtively vivid images give us whiffs of the underlying distress: “My heart filled with an acidic foam that interfered with my breathing”; “I’d rather die first, I said, my saliva icy.” The narrator’s asshole, we are told more than once, burns. His sense of reality keeps slipping, as it does with old people, sometimes into a startling loveliness: “The full moon was climbing to the middle of the sky and the world looked as if it were submerged in green water.” Magic realism has always depended on the subaqueous refractions of memory. So does love: “From then on I had her in my memory with so much clarity that I could do what I wanted with her. . . . Seeing and touching her in the flesh, she seemed less real to me than in my memory.” As both de Rougemont and Freud (in 1912’s essay “The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life”) suggest, the woman present in the flesh, the wife or surrogate mother with her complicated, obdurate reality and pressing needs, is less aphrodisiac than the woman, imagined or hired, whose will is our own. In “Of Love and Other Demons,” this phantom appears as a forlorn little princess, a wild and enigmatic waif. In “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” she is a working-class cipher who surrenders in her sleep, and whose speechless body represents the marvel of life. The instinct to memorialize one’s loves is not peculiar to nonagenarian rakes; in the slow ruin of life, such memory reverses the current for a moment and silences the voice that murmurs in our narrator’s ear, “No matter what you do, this year or in the next hundred, you will be dead forever.” The septuagenarian Gabriel García Márquez, while he is still alive, has composed, with his usual sensual gravity and Olympian humor, a love letter to the dying light.