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style remains, such as syntax and tone, the fantastic element found in books like One Hundred Years of Solitude has been replaced by the fantastic nature of memory, perception and ego.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.

You need poetry in your posts

What the world really needs is poetry in posts. Seriously. Keep in mind, when we use the word poetry we usually mean it in one of two ways.

There is the very technical use when we are talking about something like a Shakespearean sonnet. But there is also the much more common use, in the general population, where it refers to really damn well done communication.

When it is damn well done communication it often uses metaphors, similes and analogies. It uses examples and descriptive language without going overboard. It creates images that communicate sense and makes what we read relatable and understandable.

Bald facts are boring. And they’re often difficult to wrap your head around. But poetry, in a very broad sense, makes them clear and drives home their meaning. Let’s try an example to see if I can communicate this notion.

I could write a post that would have the merit of being brief by simply writing, “Before any public speaking engagement, it is important to go to the bathroom beforehand.”

Or, I could write this:

About 45 minutes into my two hour lecture before 1,000 students at the University of Ottawa, I crossed my legs. Roughly five minutes later, I crossed them more tightly.

Not long after, perhaps five minutes, I began to perspire freely although the room was climate controlled and quite pleasant. Unfortunately, I had to pee. And I had about 50 more minutes to go at the lectern.

As it turned out, I humiliated myself by peeing my pants before a thousand eyes and thus learned my lesson: always pee before a public engagement!

Imagery conveys meaning and imagery is often the element that adds poetry to a post, in the sense I’m using the word.

Why would a news network send someone to a place devastated by an earthquake when they can simply say it registered 7.9 and over 500 people lost their lives? It costs money to send people all around the world. But the data doesn’t quite convey the meaning. Images of people and structures ravaged by the event do. It makes the event relatable and understandable.

So put some poetry in your posts. Make it mean something to me and everyone else.

Put another way, try telling a story that makes your message vivid.

Jack Layton and an end to dogma

PM Stephen Harper and Jack Layton share a joke.

Canada’s Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party, passed away yesterday and there was a huge upswell of grief and commiseration expressed.

In all the remembrances of the man and in all the accolades sent his way, it’s worth asking why he should be remembered. I think there is a very specific reason.

He should be remembered less for what he achieved and more for how he achieved it. He was realistic, practical and never a dogmatist.

In the world’s current climate, that is a rare thing. He had very definite beliefs, values and convictions. But he also knew they had no merit — no hope of being obtained — if buried within dogma. His beliefs were informed by a vision of Canada, one that involved community, goals and accords achieved together, unachievable aspirations for anyone straight-jacketed by doctrine.

There was never any sense of a wishy-washy politician in Mr. Layton — far from it. Nor was there ever a sense of an opportunist who would say whatever was necessary to get what he wanted. He came across as someone who would actually listen and give consideration to views he didn’t share. One of his most used words was “we”; he loved the plural. He seemed to love the idea of mutual agreements.

Jack Layton understood the importance of, and he mastered as well as it can be mastered, the art of consensus. He had no choice. Consensus was his vision.

It is this I think he should be remembered for and I only hope he is not the last non-dogmatist. In a world increasingly entrenched in its polarized positions, we can’t really afford to lose a Jack Layton.

Sadly, we have.

Passion without a harness

иконографияikoniWe hear and read all the time about how we have to be passionate about what we do and, yes, we do. It’s hard to generate enthusiasm in others if we don’t feel passion and it is also hard to hold our own interest in something if we aren’t passionate about.

But we have to keep a lid on it.

I’ve just written over 3,000 words (and growing) for something requiring 1,000 to 1,200 words. It feels as if I could go on forever, though I’m sure there is an end point somewhere.

All these words are a result of caring about the subject.

Here is the problem: It is never simply what you write that makes it work; it is also how you write about it. The “how” often means personalizing it. This works great guns for making something more immediate, accessible and interesting to readers. But it also leads you down paths you don’t need to go down. It can clog the delivery of what you are writing.

That we are interested — passionate — about a subject is great. But we have to keep the reader in mind.

In what I am currently writing, I need to find balance between the factual information I need to impart and the anecdotal, personal writing that makes it immediate and engaging. I need to stop writing and drop about 2,000 words!

It got so long because it is so interesting to me. I am so passionate about it, I want to deliver everything.

You can’t. No one will read it if I do; it will be too long and meandering.

We need passion in what we do but we also need to keep that passion in control. Passion without a harness to keep it in check becomes tedious, unfocused and far, far too long. It’s a horse without a rider.

I shall now assume my role as editor and begin the cutting process. :)

Video and interesting backgrounds

икониMy last video was kind of awful mainly because it was a mash-up stitched together from a webcam, a Canon ZR850 and a Canon PowerShot. The first third probably could have been scrapped. Still, the tip about avoiding “the furtive glance” was valid, I think.

I have another video tip, this time about backgrounds, and it is a bit better though still not where it should probably be. (Still can’t resist mixing and matching source material). The tip is simple: video is visual so think of it and use it in those terms.

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