Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Translated by Edith Grossman
Published in Penguin Books 2006
My preoccupation with death always finds its way in the books I choose to read. Be it Murakami, Marquez, Banana Yoshimoto, or Tolstoy, death has established an important place in my psyche and I often read books to understand how these writers understood it and what other perceptions exist around the topic. The classic Murakami text puts forth an unsurprising yet deep realization:
“Death exists not as the opposite but as a part of life”.
This statement very well summarizes Marquez’s novella “Memories of my Melancholy whores”. If one way to talk about death is by visualizing end, there exists an argument that sides more with the introspection around the passing years and the time that remains to be spent.
When the anonymous narrator of the novella turns ninety, he decides to gift himself ‘a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin’. For a man who had spent his nights in brothels sleeping with different women, to make this demand is a bit unusual. But as the brothel owner Rosa Cabarcas said, “Morality, is a question of time”. As the story unfolds, readers encounter some major changes this desire brings into the narrator’s life that too in an age ‘when most mortals have already died.’
As the cable editor at El Diario de La Paz, the narrator is best known for his Sunday columns. The contemplation on age, one of the significant themes of the novella is the very topic of the column on his ninetieth birthday. With the objective of making his birthday column about ‘glorification of age’, the narrator gives us some ‘reflections’ on his life and the moments when he realized he was getting old. The whole page is filled with the symptoms of aging – amnesia, weight loss and pain.
Like writing that forms the first half of his day, nights at brothel make the other half which the narrator terms as his ‘real’ life. Calling his nights a narration of ‘misguided life’, he decides to name this recollection ‘Memories of my Melancholy whores’. The misstep begins with the title which gives the false impression of the recollection being the stories about women our aged narrator spent his nights with. But it turns out to be a tale about a ‘libertine’ writer, working at a local newspaper. A strict bodily business reduces the women to mere objects, turning them into typical stock images and by centering their role as a “provider”, whose job can be compensated with money, Marquez does not leave a room for any emotional exchange, revelations and discussions.
Marquez decides to take the name away from his narrator. The only name we encounter in the novella is the one given by his students “Professor Gloomy Hill”. His ‘whores’ have names, identities but all are recalled for their trade. She could very well be Ayushi or Aline but names don’t matter, labels do. The girl with whom he falls in love with is too deemed nameless. The narrator becomes an authority by providing her with the name ‘Delgadina’, the heroine of a medieval ballad that tells the story of the incestuous love of a king for his youngest daughter. Sounds like Lolita!
Donning Spencer, our anonymous storyteller describes his lady as ‘naked and helpless’ as on the day ‘she was born, Delgadina was ‘dark and warm’. Even after being subjected to a ‘regime of hygiene and beautification’, the adornments could not conceal her ‘character’: “the haughty nose, heavy eyebrows, [and] intense lips. I thought: A tender young bull”. She is ‘voiceless’ and ‘blank’ just like Spenser’s ‘beloved’ with only one difference. In Spenser’s sonnets, the beloved is a tormentor but in Marquez, Delgadina becomes a source of revival for the narrator.
Post-romance, the narrator changes the ‘spirit of [his] Sunday columns’. He ‘wrote them as love letters that all people could make their own.’ Well embraced by readers, his columns are read on radio newscasts and sold like ‘contraband cigarettes’. He maintains the persona of a ninety-year-old man in his articles that ‘had not learned to think like an old man’.
The love in this novella is platonic. Though the narrator gives us vivid descriptions of Delgadina’s body, his yearning for it recedes by the time we reach the end of the novella. The nature of his love is made evident from his own remark: ‘Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love’. What matters to him is Delgadina’s presence. He doesn’t want to hear her ‘vulgar’ voice. He just wants her asleep. His behavior is very much like the father of the character Delgadina – singing songs into her ear, decorating the room and taking care of her financially.
Although the novella is primarily based on the exploration of love and lust from the perspective of an old man but it does explore the socio-political conditions of Latin America. Sudden killing, patrolling and corruption are mentioned in different instances. The conversation between Rosa Cabarcas and the narrator reveals the poor condition of women who can’t sustain themselves through factory work and had to enter into prostitution just like 14-year-old Delgadina did. Only some are lucky to leave behind this life, like Casilda Armenta who was the narrator’s ‘old love-for-hire’, married a Chinese man and went on to live a life of ‘dignity’.
It’s a classic plot of encounter, obstacles and finally a union but as explained earlier, only from the point of view of the narrator. He is not reliable. As he explains, memory is selective, so does his account. There is no depth in the narrative. The descriptions are beautiful but do not help in forming an opinion about characters except for our anonymous narrator.
Told from a man’s perspective who throughout his life has formed certain opinions on women and their conduct, the novella does not take sides. But instead of question the virtue that the world seems to place in virginity, it boils down to a fanfiction that tries to imagine an alternative universe of the otherwise pristine individual. It just presents the worldview around the existence of the female sex, the view that doesn’t take intellect and emotions into consideration but instead categorize women’s status on the basis of the place they choose to have sex – at home with “dignity”, in a brothel as a “provider”. “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” is a well ‘written’ novel but depthless.
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