Sleeping Beauty

In all of these respects Florentino resembles the unnamed narrator of García Márquez’s new novella. Like his predecessor, this man keeps a list of his conquests as an aid to a book he plans to write. In fact he has a title ready in advance: Memoria de mis putas tristes, memoir (or memorial) of my sad whores, rendered by Edith Grossman as Memories of My Melancholy Whores. His list reaches 514 before he gives up counting. Then, at an advanced age, he finds true love, in the person not of a woman of his own generation but of a fourteen-year-old girl.

The parallels between the books, published two decades apart, are too striking to ignore. They suggest that in Memories of My Melancholy Whores García Márquez may be having another go at the artistically and morally unsatisfactory story of Florentino and América in Love in the Time of Cholera.

The hero, narrator, and putative author of Memories of My Melancholy Whores is born in the port city of Barranquilla, Colombia, around 1870. His parents belong to the cultivated bourgeoisie; nearly a century later he still lives in the decaying parental home. He used to make a living as a journalist and teacher of Spanish and Latin; now he subsists on his pension and the weekly column he writes for a newspaper.

The record he bequeaths us, covering the stormy ninety-first year of his life, belongs to a specific subspecies of memoir: the confession. As typified in the Confessions of Saint Augustine, the confession tells the story of a squandered life culminating in an inner crisis and a conversion experience, followed by spiritual rebirth into a new and richer existence. In the Christian tradition the confession has a strongly didactic purpose. Behold my example, it says: behold how through the mysterious agency of the Holy Spirit even so worthless a being as I can be saved.

The first ninety years of our hero’s life have certainly been squandered. Not only has he wasted his inheritance and his talents, but his emotional life has been remarkably arid too. He has never married (he was engaged long ago, but walked out on his bride at the last minute). He has never been to bed with a woman whom he has not paid: even when the woman has not wanted money he has forced it on her, turning her into another of his whores. The only enduring relationship he has had has been with his house servant, whom he mounts ritually once a month while she does the laundry, always en sentido contrario, a euphemism which Grossman translates as “from the back,” thus making it possible for her to claim, as an old woman, that she is still virgo intacta.

For his ninetieth birthday, he promises himself a treat: sex with a young virgin. A procuress named Rosa, with whom he has long had dealings, ushers him into a room in her brothel where a fourteen-year-old girl lies ready for him, naked …

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