On the Throes of Love

Admittedly, my reach into Latin American literature has, so far, been limited. It was for this reason that I embarked on a journey that took me to the heart of Latin American literature. It was the first time I had done so. For over six weeks, I exclusively read works written by Latin American writers. It was an experience I relished for it provided me with deeper insights into the region, its colorful culture, its turbulent history, and its diverse peoples. The experience has also introduced me to new names, at least to me, such as José Donoso, Cherie Jones, Maryse Condé, and Roberto Bolaño. At the same time, this reading journey made me re-experience the prose of writers I am already familiar with.

The region boasts five Nobel Prize in Literature winners and several other award-winning writers who have swept the world over. One of the region’s most celebrated writers is Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. The winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, he dazzled the world with his works like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Of Love and Other Demons, and Love in the Time of Cholera. These three novels also happen to be the first three García Márquez novels I have read, with One Hundred Years of Solitude one of my baptisms of fire in magical realism. It goes without saying that a Latin American reading journey will not be complete without a work by García Márquez. As such, his novella, Memories of My Melancholy Whores became part of the aforementioned journey.

My fifth García Márquez novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores tells the story of an anonymous old man who was celebrating his 90th birthday. Related through his perspective, he described himself as “ugly, shy, and anachronistic.” He has neither been in love nor been married. He also doesn’t have intimate friends and he lived in a colonial house passed down by his parents, the very same house he was born and grew up in. He worked as the cable editor at El Diario de La Paz for four decades, with his weekly column appearing on the Sunday edition. As it was his ninetieth birthday, he planned to write a column about his age: “I never have thought about age as a leak in the roof indicating the quantity of life one has left to live.”

“I have never done anything except write, but I don’t possess the vocation or talents of a narrator, have no knowledge at all of the laws of dramatic composition, and if I have embarked upon this enterprise it is because I trust in the light shed by how much I have read in my life. In plain language, I am the end of a line, without merit or brilliance, who would have nothing to leave his descendants if not for the events I a prepared to recount, to the best of my ability, in these memories of my great love.”

~ Gabriel García Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores

But while he has never been married, our unnamed narrator has had his fair share of liaisons, mostly without attachments beyond pleasure and financial: “I have never gone to bed with a woman I didn’t pay, and the few who weren’t in the profession I persuaded, by argument or by force, to take money even if they threw it in the cash.” He even kept a directory of all the women, mostly prostitutes, he has gone to bed with. His journal also included the “circumstances and style of lovemaking.” By the time he became a quinquagenarian, he has slept with 514 women at least once. He eventually stopped recording their names and their ages because he can longer keep track. A portion of the novella detailed his sexual awakening. Because of his vast experiences with women, he planned to write about his life. The first title that came to his mind was Memories of Melancholy Whores.

His dalliances provided the readers a profile, albeit superficial, of the novel’s primary character. These dalliances also laid out the landscape of the story. It then comes as no surprise that on his ninetieth birthday, he “wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” This was notwithstanding his age. Through the assistance of Rosa Cabarcas, a brothel owner, he was able to arrange a night with a fourteen-year-old virgin. However, he found her sleeping after she was sedated by Rosa. She was also exhausted from sewing “two hundred buttons with needle and thimble.” Surprisingly, he did not protest, opting to observe her she sleeps.

They were never able to consummate the “transaction”. However, the first night was followed by more nights. It was always with the same setup, him sitting by a chair beside her bed, she, sedated and exhausted, soundly sleeping. The book’s premise was both interesting and discomfiting. However, what ensued gave the story a different complexion. The more that they meet, the unnamed primary character was finding himself more and more drawn into the young virgin who she named Delgadina. Ironically, the name was derived from a Mexican folk song, or corrido about a young woman who refused to marry her father. As referred to in the book, Delgadina was the “king’s youngest daughter, wooed by her father.”

For the first time in his life, he found himself falling in love. Ninety years he spent in the beds of different women but only a virgin, sleeping, would mark the turning point in his life. Despite his age, small changes started taking place. They were minute changes but it was filling him with a happiness that he had previously never known. He was smiling more. The turbulence that once occupied his interiors was replaced by a lightness that was making him glow, look younger. As one character noted, he looked twenty years younger. He was like a teenager, giddy at the prospect of first love. It also influenced the other facets of his life. He started writing more about love. Love was making him a better person: “Thanks to her I confronted my inner self for the first time as my ninetieth year went by.

“Today I know I was right, and I know why. The adolescents of my generaiton, greedy for life, forgot in body and soul about their hopes for the future until reality taught them that tomorrow was not what they had dreamed, and they discovered nostalgia. My Sunday columns were there, like an archeological relic among the ruins of the past, and they realized they were not only for the old but also for the young who were not afraid of aging.”

~ Gabriel García Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores

In discovering what it feels like to be in love for the first time in his life, he has reached a moment of epiphany. In a discussion with the brothel owner, he exclaimed: “Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love.” He found a new purpose. But in this unusual love story between a ninety-year-old man and a fourteen-year-old virgin, García Márquez underscored how the timeworn nature of men’s love has barely changed. Beauty is the primary factor but men also prefer their women to be quiet and demure. While he has not realized it, her submissiveness, albeit caused by sedation and exhaustion, was also one of the traits that drew him in.

Love aside, the novel also grappled with some social concerns. Power dynamics were depicted by the story. Delgadina’s submissiveness was a vivid example. The novella also stressed how the rich and the powerful always exploit the poor, the weak, and the uneducated. The rich and the powerful are ostentatious in their flaunting of the control they have over the weak. Those trapped in the quagmires of poverty and hopelessness tend to resort to illicit but high-paying occupations in order to have something to bring home, in order to survive. These have emphasized the differences that persist among the social classes. The rich spend their time finding leisure while the poor spend their time earning money.

Adding a layer to the novel were the cultural touchstones. The cultural touchstones emphasized the lifestyle of the rich as they listen to music like Wagner’s Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra, Debussy’s Rhapsody for Saxophone, and Bruckner’s String Quintet. The main character also read Degaldina literary classics such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, Charles Perrault’s Tales, Secret History, and The Arabian Nights. His occupation also it imperative for him to acquire books related to writing. He was born to a well-to-do family and was passionate about writing. Delgadina, on the other hand, was learning to read through the lessons the protagonist wrote in the mirror.

The novella can be divided into two distinct parts. The first half of the book laid out the landscape of the story. In the first half, the first ninety years of the main character’s life were captured. It was desolate, in want of company. There was a sadness that lurked on the seams. The first part also laid out the psychological profile of the unnamed primary character. The first half made him come alive, not just as a figment of imagination. It was also the first half that prepared the readers for what the second half has in store.

“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 cancel 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, that I am punctual only to hide how little I care about other people’s time. I learned, in short, that love is not a condition of the spirit but a sign of the zodiac.”

~ Gabriel García Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores

The second half was interspersed with philosophical junctures but there also lingered a sense of disbelief: “It troubled me that she was real enough to have birthdays.” There was a fixation on purity, the highest form of love is anchored on this value. Once purity is defiled, the spell of love is also broken. There were also reflections on aging, both physical and sexual, and the beauty of youth. While reading the book, I was reminded of a work by another Nobel Prize in Literature winner. The book’s premise reminded me of Yasunari Kawabata’s The House of Sleeping Beauties and I was surprised to learn that I wasn’t the only one to notice it.

It was the character and his intimate voice that propelled the story. The plot, on the other hand, was thin. There was very little that happened and the philosophical intersections were, at times, banal. Despite the palpable weaknesses, one can’t deny the beauty of García Márquez’s prose; it was one of the book’s better elements. Wonderfully translated by Edith Grossman, his language was magnificent, despite the discomfiting subject. Like most of his works, the book was well-written and one can only wish that it was longer.

Beyond its discomfiting aspects and its flaws, Memories of My Melancholy Whores underscored the timeless power of love to change an individual. It showed that love can blossom at any age. Love may not come when we want it to but it can also come when we least expect it to. The message on not giving up was clearly delivered. Do not be misled by the book’s rather explicit title; it can easily be misinterpreted, understandably so. The book’s message was rarely of a sexual nature. Rather, the unnamed character’s musings danced around life, love, and our perpetual pursuit of happiness.

Ratings

64%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 
16%
Writing (25%) – 
20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
8%

Book Specs

Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Translator: Edith Grossman
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: November 2006
Number of Pages: 115
Genre: Literary

Synopsis

On the eve of his ninetieth birthday, a bachelor decides to give himself a wild night of love with a virgin. As is his habit – he has purchased hundreds of women – he asks a madam for her assistance. The fourteen-year-old girl who is procured for him is enchanting, but exhausted as she is from caring for her siblings and her job sewing buttons, she can do little but sleep. Yet with this sleeping beauty at his side, it is he who awakens to a romance he has never known.

Tender, knowing, and slyly comic, Memories of My Melancholy Whores is an exquisite addition to the master’s work.

About the Author

To learn more about Gabriel Garcia Marquez, click here.