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Memories of My Melancholy Whores
By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Translated by Edith Grossman
Ever since men and women have possessed bodies to sell, there have been scribes to document the deed - and novels, too. From a literary standpoint, the interest is not unfounded: presumably, clients show prostitutes sides of themselves not even their spouses know about. This is humanity at its most bare.
But it would be a mistake to equate this act with intimacy. After all, the coin of a prostitute's transaction is not love, but debasement - and in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's new novella, the Nobel laureate uses this truth to skewer an aging newspaper columnist who believes, on the eve of his 90th birthday, that he has found true love in a whorehouse.
The narrator of Memories of My Melancholy Whores is an unnamed bachelor who has spent his years in the arms of many women of the night - 514, in fact, when he stopped counting (and logging their details) at age 50. By 90, the number is surely close to double that - so to celebrate he demands of his favored madam a virgin.
Marquez deftly sets us up for a grim scene of geriatric sex, only to subvert these expectations by having his hero so enraptured by his companion's beauty that he just watches over her in awe while she sleeps. When morning comes, her 14-year-old body remains untouched.
Thus begins this book's cyclical pattern. Every night at 10 p.m. the columnist ferries over to the bad side of town, and each morning at 5 he slips out of their sheets - leaving more and more of his savings behind.
It's not hard to feel this book's kinship with Thomas Mann's parable of decadence, Death in Venice, in which an aging tourist conducts a fantasy affair with a young boy from afar, while all around him the city falls to plague.
Here the world around enters at more oblique angles, though. A murdered John one floor below is reported in the papers as the victim of liberal outlaws - when in fact he was probably stabbed by a jealous lover.
At one point, our hero attempts to track down his prostitute at the button factory where she works during the day. To gain entrance, he merely tells the owner that his shop has been selected as an example for a developing plan at the UN.
IN OTHER words, vanity and vice filigree Marquez's Columbia like ivy, but where this book most successfully reveals their stranglehold are in his depiction of the main character.
It's hard not to think of a man more willfully removed from his humanity than Marquez's narrator. When he is given a cat as a retirement present, the columnist must use a manual to learn how to care for it.
The closest he comes to penning his whore a love letter is a message scrawled in lipstick on her mirror: "Dear girl," he writes, after one of their chaste encounters. "We are alone in the world."
Through fatuous gestures like these, Marquez masterfully keeps us at the edge of judging this man. He is too much a fool to hate, but too blinded to his own faults not to loathe more than a little. Somehow, all this is news to him.
"I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue," he writes, noting the prostitute's salubrious emotional affect on him, "but as a reaction to my negligence, that I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness, that I pass myself off as prudent because I am civil minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to hide how little I care about other people's time."
Such confessions say all the right things and yet nothing at all. The solipsism of his gestures shows the real truth. When the prostitute wakes and speaks in a garbled accent, the narrator says "I preferred her asleep." "Ah me," he says just a few pages later, when she has gone back to being silent, "if this is love, then how it torments."
Self-delusion this magnificent has a name: folly. In spite of the evidence, a man intelligent enough to string sentences together is willing to believe that a woman who has slept through paid encounters is his true love.
In this sense, Memories of My Melancholy Whores is not a story about a man who finds eros in the nick of time, but of how much sway the idea of it has over us - even at the end of our days.
Shortly before this book ends, our hero walks over to the city's best jeweler to sell his mother's prized jewels. It's the last thing of value he owns. Only he discovers that the precious stones were swapped out by his own mother for imitation ones years before.
Why did she do this? What did she spend the money on? Or more aptly, on whom? We'll never know the answers to these questions, but the detail sticks in the mind. In fact, it's hard to think of a better metaphor for the bargain this aged and decrepit hero made long ago.
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