Finding and losing love at life's end

In Garcia Marquez's new book, an octogenarian forms an unlikely bond with a teenage prostitute

Novel

November 06, 2005|By JUDITH REDDING | JUDITH REDDING,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Alfred A. Knopf / 115 pages

Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez leaves behind his trademark magical realism in his latest novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores. The Colombian-born author of the esteemed One Hundred Years of Solitude, exemplar of the style that has become synonymous with much of Latin American fiction, has chosen a decidedly more accessible and ordinary reality for this meditation on aging, desire and true love.

In Memories of My Melancholy Whores, an unnamed, newspaper columnist recounts the debaucheries of his youth, his nightly visits to the brothels of his unnamed native city.

Now, on the eve of his 90th birthday, Garcia Marquez's protagonist decides to indulge in a hitherto unexperienced delight: a virgin.

Instead of a nubile Scheherazade, the newspaper columnist gets a terrified, illiterate teenager who, to steady her nerves, has taken a tad too much sedative, and so sleeps straight through what was intended to be the columnist's bliss.

When this scenario is repeated the following night, it has an unexpected effect on the narrator: He finds himself falling in love with the sleeping teenager and, with this first experience of love, discovers that what he wants from her is not sex but intimacy. And so, each night, he joins her at the bordello to sleep curled around her, content with feeling her sleeping body against his, as if in her sleep she can tell him all that he needs to know about love.

The journalist names her Delgadina, from a tango popular in his youth. When he discovers that the girl - who by day sews on buttons in a clothing factory - talks in her sleep, the columnist decides to educate her by reading to her as she dozes, starting with Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, and moving to Perrault's Fairy Tales and The Arabian Nights. The columns he writes for the newspaper cease to be social commentary and become love letters, increasing his popularity.

Then, one night, a murder occurs at the brothel. He is roused by Rosa, the madam, to help dress the dead man. She sends him home before the police arrive, telling him that she'll take care of the girl.

But the following day the police have shuttered and locked the property. Of Delgadina and Rosa he can find no trace, and so begins the narrator's decline into depression and despair. His columns become a howl of lovesickness, the chronicle of a man in torment.

Parallel to the story of the protagonist's love for Delgadina is the story of his own life, the tale of a precocious only child, the last of a prominent family line, living in the decaying family mansion, unable to part with his moldering library. His only gift is his words, and he receives his job as a newspaper columnist as a young man by virtue of his mother's social connections, a job he has held onto tenaciously all these years.

He has decided that it is time to retire, but his editor convinces him otherwise. For his 90th birthday, his colleagues give him an aging cat from a shelter, a gift he is ambivalent about but which he accepts. The cat, it turns out, is dying, but the narrator, seeing his own end quickly approaching, refuses to have his new pet put down.

Fans of Garcia Marquez's previous works will find Memories unusually slim, but the brevity is deceptive - all of Garcia Marquez's usual depth resonates here, as does his sense of storytelling. No magical realism occurs, as much as the narrator might like it to: His cat cannot guide him to the missing Delgadina, just as he cannot catch sight of her riding the bicycle he gave her to her factory job.

Instead of intervention from beyond, the columnist must wait for time to provide an end to his quest. And so our protagonist's ruminations on aging and his past lead him to contemplate the future, a future suddenly rich with possibilities, a future for which he wishes to live to 100.

Judith Redding is an experimental filmmaker and the co-author of "Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors."

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