I grabbed a copy of Garcia Marquez’ book “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” at City Lights when I was in San Francisco recently, for something to read on the plane. The title of the book caught me, though I knew for a live fact just from the title that the story was going to drive me nuts.
And horrify me it is. The main character is a single, 90-year-old journalist, and he asks his customary whorehouse for a virgin to celebrate his birthday. Here’s the opening paragraph:
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. Morality, too, is a question of time, she would say with a malevolent smile, you’ll see. She was a little younger than I, and I hadn’t heard anything about her for so many years that she very well might have died. But after the first ring I recognized her voice on the phone, and with no preambles I fired at her: “Today’s the day.”
His wish is fulfilled by an uneducated laborer, just turned 14, who takes care of her sick mother after shifts at a button factory. They give the girl something, and she sleeps through the entire book, which doesn’t deter the falling into love that the story demands. In the romantic tradition of old men and their young muses, he renames her, while she sleeps all oblivious.
Here’s a juicy tidbit to give you a feel for the theme of casually brutal misogyny:
The only unusual relationship was the one I maintained for years with the faithful Damiana. She was almost a girl, Indianlike, strong, rustic, her words few and brusque, who went barefoot so as not to disturb me while I was working. I remember I was reading La Lozana Andaluza—The Haughty Andalusian Girl—in the hammock in the hallway, when I happened to see her bending over in the laundry room wearing a skirt so short it bared her succulent curves. Overcome by irresistible excitement, I pulled her skirt up in back, pulled her underwear down to her knees, and charged her from behind. Oh, Senor, she said, with a mournful lament, that wasn’t made for coming in but for going out. A profound tremor shook her body but she stood firm. Humiliated at having humiliated her, I wanted to pay her twice what the most expensive women cost at the time, but she would not take a cent, and I had to raise her salary calculated on the basis of one mounting a month, always while she was doing the laundry, and always from the back.
I ask myself what are we to make of this craziness? Garcia Marquez is a star in the literary pantheon, presumably he’s got the exquisite self-awareness of a sophisticated writer. The critics quoted on the jacket have the decency to call it “disturbing”. Elitist manners, I suppose. I wonder if Garcia Marquez is only trying to get under the skin of readers like me, people who take things too literally and are incensed at every instance of male desire having dominion over women.
The professional readers are no help. David Hellman of the San Francisco Chronicles does tsk tsk a bit in his review, about the objectification of women, but then concludes this way:
“Memories of My Melancholy Whores” is reminiscent in many ways of the spare but graceful novels of Camus, in which simplicity belies depth. It is an existential riff on the many qualities of love and a skillfully controlled and disciplined work of literature. In 2000, a hoax was perpetrated that led many to believe that García Márquez was near death, and though the maestro’s health has been fragile for years, this work proves there is much left in those old bones.
Nov 27, 2005
I feel like screaming at the use of the word love here, but I tell myself it’s obsequious, it’s fawning. The whole endeavor of reading the book feels oppressive and depressing.
At the risk of apologizing for this book, I would say Garcia Marquez is taking confessional honesty, or memoir, to its extreme, showing us the limits of those genres. As we see in “Memories of My Melancholy Whores”, the confessional crosses into the obscene in the wink of an eye. By exposing himself so rawly, the line is drawn and stepped over, time and again. On the one side reasonableness, decency, home values, and on the other all the demands of whim, obsession, and self-indulgence. One might conclude that his work steps outside the personal authorial voice for this reason. Failing to find his imagination sufficiently met in the personal, he ventures into the hallucinatory and dream-like. From that vantage point he could see through just the type of petty, transitory attachment that is played out in this novel.