Marquez and his Melancholy Whores

(Review of Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)

When I first read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores (translated by Edith Grossman), a novella published in English in 2005, I did not like it. I’ve recently re-read it and found it much more rewarding.

I believe my first reading was influenced by the name Marquez and thus by expectations. But this is a different kind of book than those he is best known for and while some of his former style remains, such as syntax and tone, the fantastic element found in books like One Hundred Years of Solitude has been replaced by the fantastic nature of memory, perception and ego.

In this book, Marquez offers his take on a story idea we’ve seen before, most notably for me in Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties (from which Marquez borrows a quote for the story’s epigraph).

The skeleton of the story is this: on his ninetieth birthday, an aging Lothario decides he will treat himself to a virgin. The madam of a brothel he has frequented throughout his life arranges this for him. She provides a young girl drugged with bromide and valerian.

That part is similar to Kawabata’s story. But while in House of the Sleeping Beauties the old man can only lie beside and observe the young girl sleeping, in Melancholy Whores the narrator is expected to have sex with his provided girl, taking her virginity.

He doesn’t, however. Rather, he becomes infatuated with her and falls in love, or so he would describe it.

Many people didn’t like this book when it came out finding it lacking what had attracted them to many of the books that had made Marquez famous. But I think the inevitable comparisons readers make when they read something new from an author they’re familiar with are, in this instance, misleading. This book isn’t like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera. If it is similar to anything it might be The Autumn of the Patriarch.

Colombia's Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Photo: AFP)

Marquez isn’t interested here in communities, families, relationships, history, fable and many of the other elements that appear in his famous books. He is interested in one person and one person alone. In Autumn of the Patriarch, his interest is in a man of power and exploring that man’s nature.

His narrator in Melancholy Whores is like the man of power, although in the world he is not a powerful man. (He is a newspaper columnist.) But like Patriarch, this book is an exploration of the male ego, or at least one of its manifestations.

The young virginal girl the narrator names Delgadina only exists in the narrator’s head. It could be any girl, really. He fashions a character for her; he falls in love with this imagined character.

But it is hardly love since what he imagines all returns to, focuses on and is born out of him. Everything relates back to him. Everything is about his gratification – not sexual gratification but the gratification of his imagination. And his imagination is his ego.

This relationship with Delgadina that he creates in his head is a variation of all the relationships he has ever had with women: sex paid for or taken (rape). In the story he relates how, to his surprise, he discovers his housekeeper (whom he had raped over twenty years ago) had been in love with him. He, however, had been oblivious. She had existed for keeping his house and sex. Beyond that, he was hardly aware she existed.

He is an utterly isolated man with no apparent awareness of this or why it should be so.

I read Autumn of the Patriarch many years ago and my recollection of it may not be the best, but it struck me as something recounted in a delirium, the dreamlike memory of a patriarch. Similarly, Memories of My Melancholy Whores makes me think of someone talking nonstop about himself. No matter what subject comes up, he relates it to himself. Like Patriarch, the focus is always the same: the narrator.

It is this obsession with self that is responsible for his isolation. It is also this self-obsession that poisons those who get close to him, like his housekeeper; like his Delgadina.

If this book lacks the breadth that books like One Hundred Years of Solitude had it is because the narrator’s world lacks that breadth. He can only see the world in terms of himself and that diminishes life’s possibilities and constrains it.

This is the story of man who has lived ninety years alone and with no true awareness of why and no ability (or desire) to change it.

And about child prostitution …

A scene from the miovie Memoria de mis putas tristes (Memories of my Melancholy Whores)

I saw on that a movie of this book has been completed (Memoria de mis putas tristes). I also saw this story from October 2009 about a group suing the film protesting that it promoted child prostitution.

And that brings up a disturbing aspect of Marquez’s book, as well as Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties.

They do concern child prostitution and pedophilia. In both cases, however, they are about the mind of the person with the attraction to children.

In the case of Memories of My Melancholy Whores, we get a telling insight into what is really happening and why. Marquez’s narrator is consumed with himself. His ego obliterates all parts of his personality and tries to go beyond that by consuming the self of the young girl he calls Delgadina. As horrific as the physical aspects of child prostitution may be, perhaps the real violation is in being banished to non-existence; it’s in being obliterated by the other’s ego, as we see in Marquez’s story.

It’s not so much that they become chattel as it is they become props.

The aberrant behaviour results from the dominating ego that can’t incorporate with the rest of the world. It wants to shape and define the world in the service of itself. Like Marquez’s narrator who speaks of love, a person like this often talks about how much they love and care for their victim when it is anything but love. If anything, it is a kind of murder: a murder of the soul.

And that is what Memories of My Melancholy Whores is really about: a stunted, self-obsessed ego.

It is worth noting that the narrator is never named nor do we learn the real name of the girl in the story. In the romantic, sentimental fantasy the narrator’s ego constructs, individuality does not exist; only imagined characters do.

You don’t need a name if you don’t exist as an individual.