The Love of His Life
MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES
By Gabriel García Márquez
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Knopf. 115 pp. $20
"I decline to accept the end of man," William Faulkner said as he accepted the Nobel Prize in the grim dawn of the nuclear age. "It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening . . . there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking."
Gabriel García Márquez, another Nobel Prize-winner and Faulkner's most famous disciple, puts it differently. In his new novel, an old journalist -- a third-rate hack, lifelong bachelor, "ugly, shy, anachronistic" habitué of a teeming brothel in a sad and nameless Latin American city -- struggles mightily against the last dingdong of doom and dying evening, but what he declines to accept is not the end of man. It is the end of one man -- himself. On the eve of his 90th birthday, feeling the chill bite of approaching death, he decides that what he wants more than breath itself is a night of wild love with a young virgin.
Put aside the disturbing aspects of that premise. Put aside the fact that García Márquez has been racing against the last dingdong of doom himself (diagnosed with lymphatic cancer six years ago, he holed up to produce his recent masterly memoir, Living to Tell the Tale ). Put aside the slenderness of this work. (Every novel from García Márquez is smaller and smaller, a veritable recessional: One Hundred Years of Solitude was a mesmerizing 417 pages. Love in the Time of Cholera was 348. The General in His Lab yrint h was 274. His most recent, produced 10 years ago -- Of Love and Other Demons -- was 147. This one, a spare 115.) Put all this collation and comparison aside, because García Márquez's new novel arrives with all the improbability of a miracle. A long decade has passed since his last novel. We thought we might never have another.
"Ah, my sad scholar," the brothel madam tells the nonagenarian when he calls her with the query he has in mind, "you disappear for twenty years and come back only to ask for the impossible."
"Inspiration gives no warnings," he replies.
Memories of My Melancholy Whores chronicles his encounter with the 14-year-old the madam procures for him. The girl is naked when he first sees her -- dark, warm, preened and beautified down to the hair on her pubis. Her breasts are small, her toes as long and sensitive as fingers, her skin aglow with perspiration. But for all her paint and powder, she cannot hide her haughty nose, her intense lips. She is vital as a fighting bull. And she is fast asleep.
The old man has never had sex with anyone except skillful whores, but he undresses, runs a finger along her neck. The girl turns her back and curls into her shell, stubborn as a snail.
This is new to him. He "had always chosen my brides for a night at random, more for their price than their charms, and we had made love without love, half-dressed most of the time and always in the dark so we could imagine ourselves as better than we were." He has never been forced to contemplate the act as he has now, in this twilight of his mortality, in this creep of his old age. As the night wears on, he discovers the pleasures of studying the female body. Come morning, the girl is still "absolute mistress of her virginity." The old man puts his money on her pillow, kisses her forehead and says goodbye.