Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera ends with Florentino Ariza, at last united with the woman he has loved from afar all his life, cruising up and down the Magdalena River in a steamboat flying the yellow flag of cholera. The couple are seventy-six and seventy-two, respectively.
In order to give unfettered attention to his beloved Fermina, Florentino has had to break off his current affair, a liaison with a fourteen-year-old ward of his, whom he has initiated into the mysteries of sex during Sunday-afternoon trysts in his bachelor apartment (she proves a quick learner). He gives her the brushoff over a sundae in an ice cream parlor. Bewildered and in despair, the girl commits unobtrusive suicide, taking her secret with her to the grave. Florentino sheds a private tear and feels intermittent pangs of grief over her loss, but that is all.
América Vicuña, the child seduced and abandoned by an older man, is a character straight out of Dostoevsky. The moral frame of Love in the Time of Cholera, a work of considerable emotional range but a comedy nonetheless, of an autumnal variety, is simply not large enough to contain her. In his determination to treat América as a minor character, one in the line of Florentino’s many mistresses, and to leave unexplored the consequences for Florentino of his offense against her, García Márquez drifts into morally unsettling territory. Indeed, there are signs that he is unsure of how to handle her story. Usually his verbal style is brisk, energetic, inventive, and uniquely his own, yet in the Sunday-afternoon scenes between Florentino and América we pick up arch echoes of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: Florentino undresses the girl
one article of clothing at a time, with little baby games: first these little shoes for the little baby bear,…next these little flowered panties for the little bunny rabbit, and a little kiss on her papa’s delicious little dickey-bird.
Florentino is a lifelong bachelor, an amateur poet, a writer of love letters on behalf of the verbally challenged, a devoted concertgoer, somewhat miserly in his habits, and timid with women. Yet despite his timidity and physical unattractiveness, he has during half a century of surreptitious womanizing brought off 622 conquests, on which he keeps aides-mémoires in a set of notebooks.
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 and drugged.
She was dark and warm. She had been subjected to a regimen of hygiene and beautification that did not overlook even the incipient down on her pubis. Her hair had been curled, and she wore natural polish on the nails of her fingers and toes, but her molasses-colored skin looked rough and mistreated. Her newborn breasts still seemed like a boy’s, but they appeared full to bursting with a secret energy that was ready to explode. The best part of her body were her large, silent-stepping feet with toes as long and sensitive as fingers. She was drenched in phosphorescent perspiration despite the fan…. It was impossible to imagine what her face was like under the paint …but the adornments and cosmetics could not hide her character: the haughty nose, heavy eyebrows, intense lips. I thought: A tender young fighting bull.
The first response of the experienced roué to the sight of the girl is unexpected: terror and confusion, an urge to run away. However, he joins her in bed and halfheartedly tries to explore between her legs. She moves away in her sleep. Drained of lust, he begins to sing to her: “Angels surround the bed of Delgadina.” Soon he finds himself praying for her too. Then he falls asleep. When he awakes at five in the morning, the girl is lying with her arms opened in the form of a cross, “absolute mistress of her virginity.” God bless you, he thinks, and takes his leave.
The procuress telephones to jeer at him for his pusillanimity and offer him a second chance to prove his manhood. He declines. “I can’t anymore,” he says, and at once feels relieved, “free at last of a servitude”—servitude to sex, narrowly understood—“that had kept me enslaved since the age of thirteen.”
But Rosa persists until he gives in and revisits the brothel. Again the girl is sleeping, again he does no more than wipe the perspiration off her body and sing: “Delgadina, Delgadina, you will be my darling love.” (His song is not without dark undertones: in the fairy story Delgadina is a princess who has to flee the amorous advances of her father.)
He makes his way home in the midst of a mighty storm. A newly acquired cat seems to have turned into a satanic presence in his house. Rain pours through holes in the roof, a steam pipe bursts, the wind smashes the windowpanes. As he struggles to save his beloved books, he becomes aware of the ghostly figure of Delgadina beside him, helping him. He is certain now that he has found true love, “the first love of my life at the age of ninety.”
A moral revolution takes place within him. He confronts the shabbiness, meanness, and obsessiveness of his past life and repudiates it. He becomes, he says, “another man.” It is love that moves the world, he begins to realize—not love consummated so much as love in its multiple unrequited forms. His column in the newspaper becomes a paean to the powers of love, and the reading public responds with adulation.
By day—though we never witness it—Delgadina, like a true fairy-tale heroine, goes off to the factory to sew buttonholes. Nightly she returns to her room in the brothel, now adorned by her lover with paintings and books (he has vague ambitions to improve her mind), to sleep chastely beside him. He reads stories to her aloud; now and again she utters words in her sleep. But on the whole he does not like her voice, which sounds like the voice of a stranger speaking from within her. He prefers her unconscious.
On the night of her birthday an erotic consummation sans penetration takes place between them:
I kissed her all over her body until I was breathless…. As I kissed her the heat of her body increased, and it exhaled a wild, untamed fragrance. She responded with new vibrations along every inch of her skin, and on each one I found a distinctive heat, a unique taste, a different moan, and her entire body resonated inside with an arpeggio, and her nipples opened and flowered without being touched.
Then misfortune strikes. One of the clients in the brothel is stabbed, the police pay a visit, scandal threatens, and Delgadina has to be spirited away. Though her lover scours the city for her, she cannot be found. When at last she reemerges in the brothel, she seems years older and has lost her look of innocence. He flies into a jealous rage, storms off.
Months pass, his rage dwindles. An old girlfriend offers wise advice: “Don’t let yourself die without knowing the wonder of fucking with love.” His ninety-first birthday comes and goes. He makes peace with Rosa. The two agree they will jointly bequeath their worldly goods to the girl, who, Rosa claims, has in the meantime fallen head over heels in love with him. Joy in his heart, the sprightly swain looks forward to “at last, real life.”
The confessions of this reborn soul may indeed have been penned, as he says, to ease his conscience, but the message they preach is by no means that we should abjure fleshly desires. The god whom he has ignored all his life is indeed the god by whose grace the wicked are saved, but he is at the same time a god of love, one who can send an old sinner out in quest for “wild love” (amor loco, literally “crazy love”) with a virgin—“my desire that day was so urgent it seemed like a message from God”—then breathe awe and terror into his heart when he first lays eyes on his prey. Through his divine agency the old man is turned in no time at all from a frequenter of whores into a virgin-worshiper venerating the girl’s dormant body much as a simple believer might venerate a statue or icon, tending it, bringing it flowers, laying tribute before it, singing to it, praying before it.
There is always something unmotivated about conversion experiences: it is of their essence that the sinner should be so blinded by lust or greed or pride that the psychic logic leading to the turning point in his life becomes visible to him only in retrospect, when his eyes have been opened. So there is a degree of inbuilt incompatibility between the conversion narrative and the modern novel, as perfected in the eighteenth century, with its emphasis on character rather than on soul and its brief to show step by step, without wild leaps and supernatural interventions, how the one who used to be called the hero or heroine but is now more appropriately called the central character travels his or her road from beginning to end.
Despite having the tag “magic realist” attached to him, García Márquez works very much in the tradition of psychological realism, with its premise that the workings of the individual psyche have a logic that is capable of being tracked. He himself has remarked that his so-called magic realism is simply a matter of telling hard-to-believe stories with a straight face, a trick he learned from his grandmother in Cartagena; furthermore, that what outsiders find hard to believe in his stories is often commonplace Latin American reality. Whether we find this plea disingenuous or not, the fact is that the mixing of the fantastical and the real—or, to be more precise, the elision of the either-or holding “fantasy” and “reality” apart—that caused such a stir when One Hundred Years of Solitude came out in 1967 has become commonplace in the novel well beyond the borders of Latin America.
Is the cat in Memories of My Melancholy Whores just a cat or is it a visitor from the underworld? Does Delgadina come to her lover’s aid on the night of the storm, or does he, under the spell of love, merely imagine her visit? Is this sleeping beauty just a working-class girl earning a few pesos on the side, or is she a creature from another realm where princesses dance all night and fairy helpers perform superhuman labors and maidens are put to sleep by enchantresses? To demand unequivocal answers to questions like these is to mistake the nature of the storyteller’s art. Roman Jakobson liked to remind us of the formula used by traditional storytellers in Majorca as a preamble to their performances: It was and it was not so.
What is harder to accept for modern readers of a secular bent, since it has no apparent psychological basis, is that the mere spectacle of a naked girl can cause a spiritual somersault in a depraved old man. The old man’s ripeness for conversion may make better psychological sense if we take it that he has an existence stretching back beyond the beginning of his memoir, into the body of García Márquez’s earlier fiction, and specifically into Love in the Time of Cholera.
Measured by the highest standards, Memories of My Melancholy Whores is not a major achievement. Nor is its slightness just a consequence of its brevity. Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), for instance, though of much the same length, is a significant addition to the García Márquez canon: a tightly knit, enthralling narrative and at the same time a dizzying master class in how multiple histories—multiple truths—can be constructed to cover the same events.
Yet the goal of Memories is a brave one: to speak on behalf of the desire of older men for underage girls, that is, to speak on behalf of pedophilia, or at least show that pedophilia need not be a dead end for either lover or beloved. The conceptual strategy García Márquez employs toward this end is to break down the wall between erotic passion and the passion of veneration, as manifested particularly in the cults of the virgin that are such a force in southern Europe and Latin America, with their strong archaic underlay, pre-Christian in the first case, pre-Columbian in the second. (As her lover’s description of her makes clear, Delgadina has something of the fierce quality of an archaic virgin goddess about her: “the haughty nose, heavy eyebrows, intense lips…a tender young fighting bull.”)
Once we accept a continuity between the passion of sexual desire and the passion of veneration, then what originates as “bad” desire of the kind practiced by Florentino Ariza upon his ward can without changing its essence mutate into “good” desire of the kind felt by Delgadina’s lover, and thus constitute the germ of a new life for him. Memories of My Melancholy Whores makes most sense, in other words, as a kind of supplement to Love in the Time of Cholera, one in which the violator of the trust of the virgin child becomes her faithful worshiper.
When Rosa hears her fourteen-year-old employee referred to as Delgadina (from la delgadez, delicacy, shapeliness), she is taken aback and tries to tell her client the girl’s humdrum real name. But he does not want to listen, just as he prefers that the girl herself should not speak. When, after her long absence from the brothel, Delgadina reappears wearing unfamiliar makeup and jewelry, he is outraged: she has betrayed not only him but her own nature. In both incidents we see him willing upon the girl an unchanging identity, the identity of a virgin princess.
The old man’s inflexibility, his insistence that his beloved adhere to the form in which he has idealized her, has a looming precedent in Hispanic literature. Obeying the rule that every knight errant must have a lady to whom to dedicate his feats of arms, the old man who calls himself Don Quixote declares himself servitor to the Lady Dulcinea of Toboso. The Lady Dulcinea has some tenuous relation to a peasant girl from the village of Toboso on whom Quixote has had an eye in the past, but essentially she is a fantasy figure he has invented, as he has invented himself.
Cervantes’s book begins as a send-up of the chivalric romance but turns into something more interesting: an exploration of the mysterious power of the ideal to resist disillusioning confrontations with the real. Quixote’s return to sanity at the end of the book, his abandonment of the ideal world he has tried so valiantly to inhabit in favor of the real world of his detractors, strikes everyone around him, and the reader too, with dismay. Is this what we really want: to give up the world of the imagination and settle back into the tedium of life in a rural backwater in Castile?
The reader of Don Quixote can never be sure whether Cervantes’s hero is a madman under the spell of a delusion, whether on the contrary he is consciously playing out a role—living his life as fiction—or whether his mind flickers unpredictably between states of delusion and self-awareness. There are certainly moments when Quixote seems to claim that dedicating oneself to a life of service can make one a better person, regardless of whether that service is to an illusion. “Since I became a knight errant,” he says, “I have been valiant, well-mannered, liberal, polite, generous, courteous, bold, gentle, patient, [and] long-suffering.” While one may have reservations about whether he has been quite as valiant, well-mannered, etc., as he claims, one cannot ignore the quite sophisticated assertion he makes about the power a dream may have to anchor our moral life, or deny that since the day Alonso Quixana took on his chivalric identity the world has been a better place; or, if not better, then at least more interesting, more lively.
Quixote seems a bizarre fellow at first acquaintance, but most of those who come into contact with him end up half converted to his way of thinking, and therefore half quixotic themselves. If there is any lesson he teaches, it is that in the interest of a better, more lively world it might not be a bad idea to cultivate in oneself a capacity for dissociation, not necessarily under conscious control, even though this might lead outsiders to conclude that one suffers from intermittent delusions.
The exchanges between Quixote and the Duke and Duchess in the second half of Cervantes’s book explore in depth what it means to pour one’s energies into living an ideal and therefore perhaps unreal (fantastic, fictive) life. The Duchess poses the key question politely but firmly: Is it not true that Dulcinea “does not exist in the world but is an imaginary lady, and that your grace [i.e., Quixote] engendered and gave birth to her in your mind?”
“God knows if Dulcinea exists in the world or not,” replies Quixote, “or if she is imaginary or not imaginary; these are not the kinds of things whose verification can be carried through to the end. [But] I neither engendered nor gave birth to my lady….”
The exemplary cautiousness of Quixote’s reply is evidence of a more than passing acquaintance on his part with the long debate on the nature of being from the pre-Socratics through to Thomas Aquinas. Even allowing the possibility of authorial irony, Quixote does seem to be suggesting that if we accept the ethical superiority of a world in which people act in the name of ideals over a world in which people act in the name of interests, then uncomfortable ontological questions such as the Duchess’s might well be postponed or even brushed under the carpet.
The spirit of Cervantes runs deep in Spanish literature. It is not hard to see in the transformation of the nameless young factory hand into the virgin Delgadina the same process of idealization by which the peasant girl of Toboso is transformed into the Lady Dulcinea; or, in the preference of García Márquez’s hero that the object of his love remain unconscious and wordless, the same distaste for the real world in all its stubborn complexity that keeps Quixote at a safe distance from his mistress. As Quixote can claim to have become a better person through serving a woman who is unaware of his existence, so the old man of the Memories can claim to have arrived on the doorstep of “at last, real life” by learning to love a girl whom he does not in any real sense know and who certainly does not know him. (The most quintessentially Cervantean moment of the memoir occurs when its author gets to see the bicycle on which his beloved rides—or is claimed to ride—to work, and in the fact of a real-life bicycle finds “tangible proof” that the girl with the fairy-tale name—whose bed he has shared night after night—“existed in real life.”)
In his autobiography Living to Tell the Tale, García Márquez tells the story of the composition of his first extended fiction, the novella “Leaf Storm” (1955). Having—as he thought—finalized the manuscript, he showed it to his friend Gustavo Ibarra, who to his dismay pointed out that the dramatic situation—the struggle to get a man buried against the resistance of the authorities, civic and clerical—was lifted from Sophocles’ Antigone. García Márquez reread Antigone “with a strange mixture of pride at having coincided in good faith with so great a writer, and sorrow at the public embarrassment of plagiarism.” Before publishing, he revised the manuscript drastically and added an epigraph from Sophocles to signal his debt.
Sophocles is not the only writer to have left a mark on García Márquez. His earlier fiction bears the imprint of William Faulkner to such an extent that he can justly be called Faulkner’s most devoted disciple.
In the case of Memories, the debt to Yasunari Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968, is conspicuous. In 1982 García Márquez wrote a story, “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane,” in which Kawabata is specifically alluded to. Seated in the first-class cabin of an airplane crossing the Atlantic beside a young woman of extraordinary beauty who sleeps throughout the flight, García Márquez’s narrator is reminded of a novel by Kawabata about aging men who pay money to spend nights with drugged, sleeping girls. As a work of fiction the “Sleeping Beauty” story is undeveloped, no more than a sketch. Perhaps for this reason, García Márquez feels free to reuse its basic situation—the no longer young admirer side by side with the sleeping girl—in Memories of My Melancholy Whores.
In Kawabata’s “House of the Sleeping Beauties” (1961) a man on the brink of old age, Yoshio Eguchi, resorts to a procuress who supplies drugged girls for men with specialized tastes. Over a period of time he spends nights with several of these girls. The house rules forbidding sexual penetration are mainly superfluous, since most of the clientele is old and impotent. But Eguchi—as he keeps telling himself—is neither. He flirts with the idea of breaking the rules, of raping one of the girls, impregnating her, even asphyxiating her, as a way of showing his manhood and his defiance of a world that treats old men like children. At the same time he is attracted by the thought of taking an overdose and dying in the arms of a virgin.
Kawabata’s novella is a study of the activities of eros in the mind of a sensualist of an intensive and self-aware kind, acutely—perhaps morbidly—sensitive to odors and fragrances and nuances of touch, absorbed by the physical uniqueness of the women he is intimate with, prone to brood on images from his sexual past, not afraid to confront the possibility that his attraction toward young women may screen desire for his own daughters, or that his obsession with women’s breasts may originate in infantile memories.
Above all, the isolated room containing only a bed and a living body to be handled or mishandled, within limits, as he pleases, unwitnessed and therefore at no risk of being shamed, constitutes a theater in which Eguchi can confront himself as he really is, old and ugly and soon to die. His nights with the nameless girls are filled with melancholy rather than joy, with regret and anguish rather than physical pleasure:
The ugly senility of the sad men who came to this house was not many years away for Eguchi himself. The immeasurable expanse of sex, its bottomless depth—what part of it had Eguchi known in his sixty-seven years? And around the old men, new flesh, young flesh, beautiful flesh was forever being born. Were not the longing of the sad old men for the unfinished dream, the regret for days lost without ever being had, concealed in the secret of this house?
García Márquez does not so much imitate Kawabata as respond to him. His hero is very different in temperament from Eguchi, less complex in his sensualism, less inward-looking, less of an explorer, less of a poet too. But it is in what goes on in bed in the respective secret houses that the true distance between García Márquez and Kawabata must be measured. In bed with Delgadina, García Márquez’s old man finds a new and elevating joy. To Eguchi, on the other hand, it remains an endlessly frustrating mystery that unconscious female bodies, whose use can be bought by the hour and whose floppy, mannequin-like limbs can be disposed as the client wishes, should have such power over him that they bring him back to the house again and again.
The question regarding all sleeping beauties is of course what will happen when they awake. In Kawabata’s book there is, symbolically speaking, no awakening: the sixth and last of Eguchi’s girls dies at his side, poisoned by the drug that sent her to sleep. In García Márquez, on the other hand, Delgadina seems to have absorbed through her skin all the attentions that have been poured on her, and to be on the point of waking, ready to love her worshiper in return.
García Márquez’s version of the tale of the sleeping beauty is thus much sunnier than Kawabata’s. Indeed, in the abruptness of its ending it seems deliberately to close its eyes to the question of the future of any old man with a young love, once the beloved is permitted to step off her goddess pedestal. Cervantes has his hero visit the village of Toboso and present himself on his knees to a girl chosen almost at random to be the embodiment of Dulcinea. For his pains he is rewarded with an earful of pungent peasant abuse flavored with raw onion, and quits the scene confused and discomfited.
It is not clear that García Márquez’s little fable of redemption would be sturdy enough to bear a conclusion of this kind. García Márquez might take a look too at the Merchant’s tale, the sardonic story of cross-generational marriage in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and in particular at its snapshot of the couple caught in the clear dawn light after the exertions of their bridal night, the old husband sitting up in bed in his nightcap, the slack skin of his neck quivering, the young wife beside him consumed in irritation and distaste.