MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES
By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
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 Garcia Marquez, 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" habitue 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 Garcia Marquez 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 Garcia Marquez 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 Labyrinth 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 Garcia Marquez'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.
But it will be as easy to bid her goodbye as it is for Humbert Humbert to leave Lolita; or Gustav von Aschenbach to turn his back on the boy; or Dante to ignore Beatrice. The old man cannot help himself: He dials the number again, calls the madam. He begins to live for the moment when he might actually possess the girl. He dreams, imagines, smells, tastes: And life -- against all evidence of its decrepitude -- is suddenly shot through with love.
What follows is a hallucinatory hunt -- for redemption, beatitude, rebirth. The journalist visits the heavily sedated girl again and again. He sings her songs, brings her gifts, decorates the tawdry room with paintings, reads aloud his favorite stories. And always, always, she is beautifully naked, sacredly pure, deep in slumber. Somehow, life goes on in that wayward paradise. Men die. Messages are scribbled on mirrors: "The tiger does not eat far away," the girl scrawls on a mirror during a rare nocturnal visit to the bathroom. "Dear girl, we are alone in the world," he writes in return.
As nights pass and he becomes addicted to the sight of her warm flanks, her bedeviling placidity, he comes to a jarring conclusion: She is the only woman he has ever loved. "Ah, me," he concludes, paraphrasing a poem of Leopardi, "if this is love, then how it torments." Attuned as he is to affairs of the heart, he begins to dedicate entire newspaper columns to the subject. The town sighs with comprehension. And something ancient and elemental begins to pulse through that sad and nameless Latin American city.
Like every Garcia Marquez novel, this is a tale of obsession. But it is one so pruned, so pared, so truncated to bare essentials, that a reader will find herself turning to read every page again and again, parsing its pronunciamentos. Unlike the mesmeric novels of Garcia Marquez's past, this one is skeletal, horned. Requiring near biblical contemplation.
And unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera, it has no town full of characters, no branching tree of ancestral relations. Our old man has no relatives to speak of, no intimates. Not that he regrets it. He expects to die alone, in the bed on which he was first deposited. He is "the end of a line, without merit or brilliance, who would have nothing to leave his descendants if not for the events" of this strange little story.
And yet, though it be the chronicle of one man's head and heart, Memories has its unforgettable characters: There is Rosa Cabarcas, the ancient wench with the clear, cruel eyes of a seer; Ximena Ortiz, the jilted bride with the quick, muscled loins of a wildcat; Marco Tulio, the editor whose charms would melt the most hardened of journalists. The novel may unfold more elliptically than readers are accustomed to (the imagery is packed; the prose, beautifully translated by Edith Grossman, downright runic), but the story is classic Garcia Marquez. Its affect is rich. Multi-tentacled. Dendriform. Full of surprise. And the grace it finally delivers is clear: This is a story of love. A man mustn't die without knowing the wonder. When that red evening comes, Garcia Marquez seems to be saying, we are all one and the same: third-rate hacks, sniffing out love, chasing salvation. And if we don't quite reach love, there will be consolations.
That is the quarry here. That is the gift. But pointing it out will not rob you of the pleasures of finding it. When all is said and done, you'll read this book for that unmistakable sound: ever more puny, but inexhaustible.
It is the voice of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Still talking. *
Marie Arana is the editor of Book World.