- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 26, 2005

MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Knopf, $20, 115 pages

Readers had every reason to hope that Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s latest novel

“Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” his first work of fiction in 10 years, would be something to behold. But there is a wrinkle, and it rests in the limitations of the book’s own central and disturbing act of “beholding.”

The protagonist (unnamed throughout) opens the book this way:

“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.”

Whether she believed him or not, Rosa provided the newspaper columnist, whom she called her “sad scholar,” with exactly what he’d asked for. The young girl, frightened at the prospect of what she was about to do, was given “a mixture of bromide and valerian to drink.” Though it was intended to calm the girl’s nerves, instead it put her right to sleep. This did not deter the narrator.

“There was no escape. I went into the room, my heart in confusion, and saw the girl sleeping in the enormous bed for hire, as naked and helpless as the day she was born … . She had been subjected to a regimen of hygiene … . Her hair had been curled, and she wore natural polish on the nails of her fingers and toes, but her molasses-colored skin looked rough and mistreated… ”

And so he watches. Closely watches. And then he ruminates about closely watching, leaving readers to wonder why we are watching him watch the sleeping girl he calls Delgadina, the heroine of a ballad he sings to her while she sleeps. And though the time he spends in this strange and strangely passive trance allows him to consider to past loves, past flings and how nicely his life is changing, the question remains unanswered.

Moreover, what might have been a literary enterprise on the scale of Yasunari Kawabata’s “House of Sleeping Beauties,” (a story that also places an elderly man at a brothel observing young girls sleeping) is something less here — a tale that hints at a deeper moral fable but never gets far beyond skimming the surface of character and plot.

And that is too bad because this is, not surprisingly, a beautifully written book. Edith Grossman’s fluid translation supports the tone of the book, which is soothing, hypnotic even, and one reads to find out just exactly where the protagonist’s mostly cerebral erotic adventure will lead him. But it’s a journey that’s doomed by shorthand. Readers expecting the layered tapestries of “Love in the Time of Cholera” or “One Hundred Years of Solitude” will certainly feel cheated, and some readers may simply not be able to get beyond the creepy voyeurism. Without much to occupy the time of this Humbert Humbert for the Viagra generation, readers are forced to rely on his charm, and frankly, there is not much of that either.

Yes, the protagonist writes his column to some acclaim. Yes, he appears to be well read and worldly. And yes he seems to have possessed and still appears to possess some measure of animal magnetism. But all of this gets lost when he makes appointment after appointment to watch a drugged and sleeping underage girl. Her beauty and his appreciation of her would hold the day if it all weren’t so fundamentally, well, let’s say it, seedy.

Halfway through the book, the narrative seems to switch gears and it seems as if the sight of this girl actually works some beneficial changes upon the narrator. He believes she is “the love of his life” and as such his life is transformed.

“Thanks to her I confronted my inner self for the first time as my ninetieth year went by. I discovered that my obsession for having each thing in the right place, each subject at the right time, each word in the right style, was not the well- deserved reward of an ordered mind but just the opposite: a complete system of pretense invented by me to hide the disorder of my nature. I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue 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 evil-minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to succumb to my repressed rage … .”

But this burst of self-knowledge is little consolation to the perplexed reader. Of the multitude of whores he admits to having spent time with over the years, we learn little more than the most superficial of details. And toward the end of the book, when someone at the brothel is murdered and the reader’s hope rises that this then will bring the self-absorbed habit and musings of the narrator into focus, it falls away.

In the end one returns to the book’s epigraph for a reminder of why Mr. Marquez wrote this book. It is taken from Yasunari Kawabata’s “House of the Sleeping Beauties” and reads:

“He was not to do anything in bad taste, the woman of the inn warned old Eguchi. He was not to put his finger into the mouth of the sleeping girl, or try anything else of that sort.”

To the credit of the narrator, he never violates the young girl. And to Mr. Marquez’s credit, there is a somewhat discreet remove from the lascivious book this might have been. Nevertheless, it is difficult to shake the feeling that one has been to a peep show. Fortunately, and over time, readers will remember Gabriel Garcia Marquez for his other books.

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