Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores

I can give not what men call love
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the Heavens reject not:
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.

– P.B. Shelley

We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies

– William Shakespeare, ‘King Lear’ V.3

There was a time, not so long ago, when a new Marquez novel was as exciting as an exotic stranger, a woman so full-bodied, so wholly carnal, that just to glance at her was to become her slave forever, just to be shown that tantalising first line was to be irrevocably seduced. All you had to do was catch one whiff of the book’s rich, animal language and you were lost, surrendered to an overwhelming passion, given utterly and hopelessly to the chapters of her caresses, to the sheer lustiness of her characters, to the baroque and endless pleasures of her prose; the sheer energy of her engagement would keep you up through the night, leaving you spent and dizzy until the dawn found you, a broken figure staggering slowly back to the world, sinking into a dream from which you would only emerge in the evening when you went to a bar and drank tequila and bragged to your friends about what you had just experienced. To read Marquez was to know the madness of a love affair, that breathless, headlong rush into a world whose beauty was not meant to be so much admired as embraced.

Memories of my melancholy whores, Marquez’s new novel, is not that kind of book. Thinner, less voluptuous; this is a delicate waif of a novel, a story of fragile bones and almost pre-pubescent beauty, a book so supremely unconscious that to even touch it seems like sacrilege.

Not that Marquez stints on local colour here – there is the same tropical sense of place, the raw jungle smell of the writing, and every now and then we get flashes of the old Marquez (“In the afternoons of my final old age no one remembered the immortal Castorina, dead for who knows how long, who had risen from the miserable corners of the river docks to the sacred throne of elder madam, wearing a pirate’s patch over the eye she lost in a tavern brawl. Her last steady stud, a fortunate black from Camaguey called Jonas the Galley Slave, had been one of the great trumpet players in Havana until he lost his entire smile in a catastrophic train collision”), but it seems to me that this one of Marquez’s quietest, most poetic works, a tender-hearted meditation on the power of love and the perils of old age.

The narrator of Memories of my melancholy whores is a ninety year old man who finds himself strangely drawn to a teenage virgin whom he watches sleeping night after night, never managing to bring himself to consummate with her the night of passion he has paid for. As the book progresses, the narrator finds himself finally experiencing, so late in the course of a life filled with meaningless sexual triumphs, the sublime joy of falling in love – and the glow of that emotion becomes the light by which he defines a new life for himself. The teenage girl (who he names Delgadina, not knowing her real name) and he exchange no words – she is almost always asleep when they are together – but his imagination conjures her into a presence, a ghostly spirit who teaches him how to see the world in an entirely different way. “Love is not a condition of the spirit”, Marquez writes, “it is a sign of the zodiac.” It is these constellations of feeling that the narrator is learning to read for the first time, and in them he begins to see, dimly, a future he could never before have imagined. The story of Memories of my melancholy whores is the story of the slow, prickly flowering of an old man’s passion, a story as gentle and bitter-sweet and reluctant as the love it seeks to describe.

Not that the idea of an old man’s lust for a young girl is a new theme for Marquez. Updike, in his review of the book in the New Yorker details the many different avatars of young girls sold into prostitution in Marquez’s novels, a list to which I can only add the insistent memory of an episode in Autumn of the Patriarch (my favourite Marquez, btw) where the Patriarch develops a fondness for young schoolgirls, watching them walk by his palace – an appetite that his courtiers sate by arranging for whores dressed in school uniforms. That the new novel is a sadder, more melancholy exploration of this idea is undeniable, though, and Marquez adds an intriguing twist to the plot by ensuring that the girl is always asleep when the narrator is with her, so that her very unconsciousness becomes at once a form of innocence and a metaphor for disdain.

Given the story of the book, the comparison with Lolita is inevitable, but also, I think, misleading. It’s not just that Marquez’s style and sensibility are very unlike Nabokov’s, it’s also that his whole endeavour is entirely different. Memories of my melancholy whores is only tangentially a novel about an old man’s fascination for a teenage girl, it is more a story of an old man’s reflection on his own life and the reality of his old age. The right comparison for Delgadina is not Lolita, but Dulcinea – like Quixote, the narrator of Marquez’s novel is a man driven by an impossible quest, and despite her undeniable physical presence in the bed next to him, the object of his affections is more fiction than fact.

All in all, Memories of my melancholy whores is a calm yet lyrical portrait of the grandeur and pettiness of old age that is pure Marquez for its genuiness, its richness of observation and detail. Reading the book, the writer I was most reminded of (perhaps because of the quotation from his work at the front of the novel) was Kawabata. There are points in this novel where Marquez achieves the calm, translucent humanity of the great Japanese master, points where the silences are as aching, as relentlessly sincere, and the minimalism of detail creates a scene that is both timeless and universal in its message.

But if Memories of my melancholy whores is a deeply realist book it is also bravely, magically allegorical. In a sense, Delgadina is life, and the narrator’s discovery of her is nothing more than an old man’s realisation of an entire existence spent too busy living to ever be truly alive. As the narrator descends slowly into make-believe, drawing consolation from the small re-arrangements of a room that can only be thought of as memory, we find ourselves asking the question – is it too late? Should the narrator embrace life even now, at this late hour? Or must he content himself with a brittle and tearful contemplation of a life that he can never really share in, a life that pays him no attention and that he dare not disturb? Even the messages that the narrator finds scribbled on the mirror are symbolic (“The tiger does not eat far away”). If the metaphors here are more direct, more blatant, they are also more passionate – it is as though Marquez, tired of his own skill as artificer extraordinaire had chosen to write more directly from the heart, so that the book feels rawer, more fragmented, but also, perhaps, more true.

If there is one problem I had with the book, it was with the way it concludes. The end, when it comes, is both a surprise and a disappointment. (As a madwoman says to the narrator at some point in his lovesick wanderings “I’m the one you’re not looking for”). Marquez, speaking through his narrator, writes “I became aware that the invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love.”. It is an observation that he would have done well to keep sight of.

Nevertheless, Memories of my melancholy whores is a beautiful, evocative and deeply satisfying read. And if Marquez, having brought us so far, allows himself to be optimistic, allows his concern for his characters to get the better of his judgement, this is only an old man’s fooling, the harmless little joke of a world weary writer that we can only smile at sadly, because we bear him too much affection to scorn him something so small. There’s a point in Memories of my melancholy whores where the narrator’s old maid, tired of his ceaseless importuning says “Have you thought about what you’ll do if I say yes?”. It’s this generosity of spirit, this sort of genial and kindly magic, that makes Marquez a writer you can’t help being touched by.