The Nonagenarian and the Nymphette
Gabriel García M√°rquez
Memoria de mis putas tristes
Alfred A. Knopf, 2004
The year of my ninetieth birthday I wanted to give myself a night of mad love with an adolescent virgin.
For most readers, this opening line may smack more of Henry Miller or Vladimir Nabokov than of the perfumed, sensual prose of Gabriel García M√°rquez; but, like the Nobel Prize winner’s previous novels, the first sentence of Memoria de mis putas tristes (literally ‘memoir of my sad whores’) engages the reader while encapsulating the central motivation of the narrative. The book—García M√°rquez’s first work of fiction in a decade—relates the nonagenarian narrator’s first encounter with actual love, revealing the late-blooming romantic hidden deep within himself.
The anonymous narrator, self-described as ‘ugly, timid, and anachronistic’, lives in a crumbling but beautiful aristocratic home in an unspecified city on the Caribbean coast. The solitude of old age and life-long bachelorhood dominates his existence: he lives alone, subsisting on memories of his saintly mother and the meagre pensions provided him by careers in journalism and teaching. His only activities outside his dilapidated residence are the occasional concert and a weekly column in the local newspaper. His sole accomplishment before we meet him on his ninetieth birthday, he admits, has been his prodigious sexual career. ‘I have never slept with a woman without paying her’, he boasts—no small financial feat considering that between the ages of twenty and fifty he had slept with 514 different women. His meticulous record of names and other ‘details’ was to become, literally, the eponymous Memoir of My Sad Whores. We only receive an incomplete version however, as these former encounters are eclipsed by the events of his ninetieth birthday. He reflects that 29 August represented ‘the beginning of a new life at an age when the majority of mortals are dead’.
In order to fulfill his fantasy and find the above-mentioned adolescent virgin, the narrator enlists the help of Rosa Cabarcas—a brassy madam not unlike Gone with the Wind’s Belle Watling—who is more concerned with the possibility of finding a virgin on such short notice than the anonymous protagonist’s age. ‘I don’t mind changing diapers’, he dryly remarks upon learning the only girl willing is 14 years old. Rosa eventually drugs the girl to alleviate her fears, leaving the virgin passed-out and unconscious of her imminent deflowering.
On the edge of pornography, García M√°rquez wrenches us back into the benignly erotic: rather than sleep with the unconscious girl, the narrator watches her attentively, overcome by her innocence and beauty. Night after night he returns to Rosa Cabarcas’s bordello to lie next to the girl he christens Delgadina, ‘little skinny girl’. Although no longer drugged, Delgadina sleeps—or pretends to sleep—through each encounter, interacting with the narrator only through body language and the occasional note left on the bathroom mirror in lipstick. Gradually the old man manufactures an ‘identity’ for the silent girl, complete with personal tastes, aspirations, and responsibilities, and subsequently falls in love for the first time. However, the protagonist is not merely a Pygmalion enamoured with the ‘perfection’ of an inanimate form. He feeds off of this perceived perfection (read: her youthful form as well as the invented ‘content’ of her life) and becomes rejuvenated himself; the mere possibilities of his relationship with Delgadina drives him, not just her aesthetic attributes. Theirs is an abstract yet fulfilling love, one that emancipates him from the ‘servitude that kept [him] subjugated since the age of thirteen’; in other words, it frees him from sex itself.
The delicacy of this deferred release adds a particular potency to García M√°rquez’s prose; the reader searches and waits for a climactic discharge to the bottled-up frustration of the couple’s erotic yet sexless lives. Instead the author offers only tales of the corrupted diversions the narrator had experienced in his bizarre encounters with previous ‘sad whores’. During this highly erotic period of late-life celibacy, the narrator tells us of his fi rst sexual experience at the age of twelve, when he was raped by some local prostitutes, and then recounts numerous failed and superficial love affairs: the forced sodomizing of a washerwoman and other such dysfunctional sorts of ‘love’. Only when he frees himself of the apparent necessity of sexual intercourse is he able to find true love with Delgadina. He discovers ‘that love is not a state of the soul but rather a sign of the Zodiac’, particularly revealing for a narrator born under Virgo.
Up to this point, those familiar with the source of the book’s epigraph—the Japanese Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s short story ‘The House of the Sleeping Beauties’—will quickly see many parallels. In ‘The House of the Sleeping Beauties’, the main character Eguchi frequents a surreal brothel where old men pay to sleep beside young, drugged virgins. As Eguchi learns to experience Eros without physical contact, he recounts past conquests and longs to return to the height of his sexual prowess. Love as discovered under the sheets next to a dormant maiden is a curse: the impossibility of release frustrates the Japanese gentleman to the point of anguish. The narrator of Memoria de mis putas tristes approximates Eguchi in a biographical sense; obviously García M√°rquez drew heavily on his appreciation for Kawabata during his writing process. However, the Latin American narrator finds new life rather than sorrow in his love for Delgadina. His abstinence springs not from physical inability but psychological fulfillment; sex has become marginal, merely ‘the consolation that one has when love doesn’t reach him’.
In the second half of the novel’s mere one hundred pages, García M√°rquez distils the timeworn progression of literary romance: initial bliss, followed by jealously, separation, and reconciliation. The narrator channels these emotions into his newspaper articles-cum-love letters, emerging as a strange sort of sex symbol within the tropical town. The depth and verity of his love for Delgadina is demonstrated when he suspects that Rosa Cabarca has ‘rented’ Delgadina to another man. Suddenly this ninety-year-old becomes a raging monster, destroying everything in sight and rebuking the girl as a whore, thereby grouping her with his previous, meaningless conquests. No one ‘grows up’ when it comes to love, or perhaps García M√°rquez thinks no one ought to; even at ninety the protagonist’s passions are as deeply volatile a mix of love and hate as could be found at a sixth-form social.
In the ensuing separation—during which time he licks his emotional wounds—the narrator rekindles a relationship with a previous ‘sad whore’ and they travel together, ruminating on age, sex, and love. The seasoned prostitute reprimands him for losing Delgadina, saying ‘there is no worse misfortune than to die alone…You are not going to die not having tried the marvels of screwing with love’. Galvanized, the old man returns to Delgadina to find what he describes as ‘real life, at last’. The narrator and Rosa Cabarcas become pseudo-parents to the girl, making her benefactor of both their estates.
The book closes, in stark contrast to Kawabata’s short story, with the protagonist looking to the future with anticipation—resigned to a happy death well into his hundreds. In the end, we have little choice but to identify with the narrator and surrender any reservations about abnormal forms of love or sexuality we had been harboring throughout the book. The undeniable universality of growing old—fostered within the novel by the anonymity of the protagonist—cannot but touch any reader, regardless of age. And it is dangerously difficult to avoid speculating that the author has not thrown a bit of himself into his aged character; although a presumptuous conflation, the narrator’s perspectives on old age become more poignant with García M√°rquez’s 76-year-old voice echoing behind the written word. However, Memoria is most successful not as a tale about growing old, but rather rejuvenation and first love, even in the strangest of circumstances.
Admittedly, to some readers it might appear that the plot of Memoria is merely a Latin American stereotype, too full of sex and humidity. García M√°rquez has executed another work of extreme verbal and narrative fecundity, a style made famous in novels such as One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985). However, I would caution the English-language reader of García M√°rquez (the second most translated Spanish-language author after Cervantes) from conceiving of any part of Memoria de mis putas tristes as typifying Latin American literature as a whole. Such cliché (though often endearing) elements as fantastical sexual histories, isolated tropical towns, and decaying colonial mansions are not archetypes of Latin American writing in general but rather of García M√°rquez himself. For this reason, Memoria is a welcome, if inevitably minor, addition to his oeuvre, with little chance of reaching canonical status (although publishing practices in the Anglophone world may make it appear as such).
The English translation of Memoria de mis putas tristes will carry the title A Memory of My Melancholy Whores (an odd rendering of the original) and is due out in September 2005. Edith Grossman, the book’s translator, has worked extensively with the pillars of modern Latin American literature, García M√°rquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Nicanor Parra (her version of Vargas Llosa’s Feast of the Goat  is of particular note). Hopefully her ‘melancholy whores’ can approximate the density and playfulness of García M√°rquez’s putas tristes.
Glen Goodman is an American MPhil student in European literature at Exeter College, Oxford. His work focuses on Latin American Literature.