I quite enjoy the novelty value of reading obscure books by famous writers – particularly when it’s the only book I’ve read by them. It’s quite fun to say “No, I’ve not read Crime and Punishment, but I have read The Eternal Husband,” or “Not Lolita, but Mary,” and so on and so forth. Add Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the list. Because the only book I’ve read by him is the one I read for book group a month or so ago: Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004; translated by Edith Grossman in 2005).
I chose it for book group – or, rather, somebody recommended we read some Marquez and I wanted us to avoid the super-long books. This one certainly can’t be accused of that: it’s a novella of scarcely over a hundred pages – and the last book he published.
Marquez was in his late 70s when he wrote Memories of My Melancholy Whores, and the main character is a man approaching his 90th birthday. He is still active as a columnist for a newspaper, considered dated but so longstanding as to have nostalgic value. Outside of work, he doesn’t seem to have many companions, and certainly no partner. Most of his sexual partners have been bought. And he decides to ‘celebrate’ his 90th birthday by requesting a 14 year old virgin. (It is perhaps important to note that the age of consent in Colombia, where this is set, is 14.)
The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin. I thought of Rosa Cabarcas, the owner of an illicit house who would inform her good clients when she had a new girl available. I never succumbed to that or to any of her many other lewd temptations, but she did not believe in the purity of my principles. Morality, too, is a question of time, she would say with a malevolent smile, you’ll see. She was a little young than I, and I hadn’t heard anything about her for so many years that she very well might have died. But after the first ring I recognised the voice on the phone, and with no preambles I fired at her:
“Today’s the day.”
So far, so icky, right? (And after I recommended The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, about a man in love with a young girl, my book group might view my future suggestions with mistrust.) Somehow, it isn’t. It certainly helps that the man and the girl don’t have sex, once she is procured; a faithful madam manages to find a willing prostitute, but she is asleep when he arrives. He lets her sleep. And the same thing continues on various occasions.
In all of this, we don’t see lechery from the journalist. I’m certainly not condoning his actions, but Marquez has not written a book of elderly wish-fulfilment, and there is none of the gross introspective fantasising that made me give up on Lolita after a handful of pages. Instead, we just feel that the man is sad and lonely and completely unfulfilled.
I don’t know what I’d expected the writing to be like – perhaps more ornate? But it is that sort of fluid, subtly beautiful writing that I love. Few sentences cry out for quotation, but there is a lovely lyricism throughout – captured by Grossman in her translation, presumably – that elevated the novella above it’s slightly bizarre themes. But it is really a consideration of age and of refusing to face the end properly – and of last minute changes. And I rather suspect (contrary to the opinions of some at book group, I should say, who took it entirely on face value) that it is playing with the critics and the journalists – pretending to be autobiographical, pretending to show his fantasies. But, as I said, there is no fantasising here – it seems to me like a clever authorial trick, and, though no plot summary would persuade me that I’d like this novel, I really rather did.