Absurd as it may seem on first thought, Gabriel Garcma Marquez might be even more exalted had he not written the greatest novel of the second half of the 20th century. The author of "Love in the Time of Cholera," "The Autumn of the Patriarch," "The General and His Labyrinth," "In Evil Hour," "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" and at least half a dozen other masterpieces of long and short fiction would have been worthy of the Nobel Prize and the unofficial title of Foremost Living Writer of Fiction even had he never written "Cien Aqos de Soledad."
But the greatness of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" provided glib critics too easy a reference point from which to measure all his subsequent work against. (Garcma Marquez has been the first to admit that he augmented this single-minded identification with his fabulous city of Macondo by extending the lives of its inhabitants in story collections such as "Leaf Storm.") Consider, for instance, that the literary standing of Garcma Marquez's acknowledged inspiration, William Faulkner, might have been somewhat diminished had he written a single novel of Yoknapatawpha County as great as "One Hundred Years." (He didn't, you know.) His critics, like Garcma Marquez's, might have compared each subsequent work to it, with just a bit of disappointment seeping through the praise, suggesting that the new book, however luminous, wasn't on a par with the old masterpiece.
We ought to be grateful for any late-period Garcma Marquez -- he is now 80 -- including the journalism, memoirs and children's books of the last several years, and be content to place them in the context of his remarkable oeuvre. Instead, there's been a notable degree of carping about Garcma Marquez's new novella, "Memories of My Melancholy Whores," much of it, I think, unfair or beside the point. (Check out Adam Feinstein's review in the London Times Literary Supplement, where he referred to it as "a slight piece of work." I thought all novellas were "slight" pieces of work.)
The story concerns an unnamed narrator, "ugly, shy, and anachronistic" (in his words), a hack journalist who has reached the age of 90 without ever having "gone to bed with a woman I didn't pay" ("and a few who weren't in the profession I persuaded, by argument or by force, to take money even if they threw it in the trash"). Out of equal parts of pride and bitterness, he relates that "By the time I was 50, there were 514 women with whom I had been at least once." Rationalizing (it also seems to me) his inability to make emotional connection, he says, "Whenever someone asks, I always answer with the truth: whores left me no time to be married."
As he approaches his 90th birthday he is seized by a desire "so urgent it seemed like a message from God" and determines "to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin." His friend, Rosa Cabracas, a brothel keeper, procures a 14-year-old girl for him. Her day job is sewing buttons on shirts in a factory, so there's an element of class as well as sexual exploitation; she is, apparently, illiterate, or at least not especially talkative, as the narrator never quotes her. But then, his "Delgadina," as he calls her, is often asleep during his nighttime visits, and our narrator is too much of a gentleman to awaken her. (There is an opening quote from the Japanese novelist Kawabata, "He was not to do anything in bad taste, the woman of the inn warned old Eguchi, he was not to put his finger into the mouth of the sleeping girl, or try anything else of that sort.") This isn't a platonic relationship. It's blatantly sexual, but without consummation. Is this a contradiction? Very well, then, our narrator contradicts himself.
The relationship between the old man and the pubescent girl is giving some critics conniption fits. For instance, Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun: "That Mr. Garcma Marquez expects the reader to salute an ancient man's victory over a child rather than see it as pathetic or monstrous, is the latest measure of his fiction's heroic contempt for reality." Well, there is the reality of Garcma Marquez's characters -- "Reality seemed fantastic to me," gasps our narrator near the end of his tale, an exclamation that will draw smiles from those who recall Garcma Marquez as the father of Latin American "magical realism" -- and there is the reality of some of his critics. It seems a little late in the game to sic the p.c. police on the creator of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who, in "One Hundred Years," published in 1967, sired 17 sons by 17 different women. And why, one wonders are so many the critics upset? Because the old man pays for his time with the girl? Perhaps because they want the strange relationship to be consummated?
"Memories of My Melancholy Whores" is a love story, as odd and affecting in its own way as "Lolita" but without Nabokovian double talk about the author's aesthetic distance from his object of desire. (Garcma Marquez once proudly announced in an interview that "Every single line in all my books has a starting point in reality.") It's true the novella lacks the grand historical swirl that surrounds Garcma Marquez's big novels; as Norman Mailer once observed, Garcma Marquez is "the only great writer who can handle forty or fifty characters and three or four decades." Memories is a miniature about an unexpected relationship and its emotional consequences near the end of a long and previously unfulfilled life. "Don't let yourself die without knowing the wonder of fucking with love," Rosa cautions the narrator, and to his surprise, he finds the latter without missing the former.
There have been some complaints that the book lacks Garcma Marquez's usual gossamer-like imagery, and to a degree they are justified. I've never thought that the English of his recent translator, Edith Grossman, brought the same shimmering quality to Garcma Marquez's Spanish as Gregory Rabassa did for "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Then again, "Memories" is about a mediocre writer who tells us from the outset, "I don't possess the vocation or talents of a narrator, have no knowledge at all of the laws of dramatic composition I am the end of a line, without merit or brilliance, who would have nothing to leave his descendants if not for the events I am prepared to recount, to the best of my ability, in these memories of my great love." The poetry in his telling of the affair is in the plainness and subtlety in evoking a life that, as it approaches its end, glows, for the first time, with a hard gemlike flame.