While the jury is still out on the contentious issue of whether creative genius has a shelf life, a sell by date, if you may, a careful and sober consideration of Nobel Laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores (Penguin 2005) reopens that debate anew.
The slim volume of just 115 pages is a not-so-gentle exploration of sex and desire and ageing, a heady cocktail that ordinarily should not mix. But Marquez tackles the subject with almost juvenile aplomb.
The story which reads like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in reverse is told in the voice of 90-year-old man who, on the day he turns 90, decides to give himself “the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.”
And to make his desire real, our narrator who has never married nor been in love in all of his 89 years, puts a call through to Rosa Cabarcas, the owner of a whore house he has frequented for years.
His request made, our narrator dresses up and goes for his rendezvous. The girl he meets is asleep and in the summer of her youth. Overcome suddenly by a strange emotion, our narrator who had never slept with a woman he didn’t pay, who had never known love and who, legend notes, was blessed with the sexual “organ of a galley slave” falls indescribably in love with the sleeping young girl left naked for him to satisfy his craving and commemorate his 90th birthday.
Love does not come easy for this lothario and what follows is a dance of desire that is at once ennobling in the purity of his affection but also troubling in the wrongness of it all; in the objectification of the young sexual slave who almost never speaks and who serves no other purpose but as a tool for sexual gratification.
There are moral and ethical questions aplenty in the narrative told by a narrator who is the scion of wealthy folk and who is himself a man of culture. The sub-text is simple, culture and refinement are no match for raw desire.
In his desire for the sleeping beauty whom he renames Delgadina, our narrator becomes not just a man in love, he becomes a boy again in the full flush of adolescence, experiencing for the first time and in all its befuddling glory, the palm drenching pangs of desire and passion.
In this book, Marquez who has always shown a fascination with love and passion does not rise to the heights of previous novels like Love in the Time of Cholera or One Hundred Years of Solitude which cemented his literary reputation and brought him the Nobel prize.
The book Memories of My Melancholy Whores reads like the laboured breathing of an old man and Delgadina for all the moral and ethical questions her almost-dalliance with our narrator elicits is no more than a metaphor for an unattainable ideal and on that score, Marquez still shows a maestro’s touch like he did in previous novels with the same theme.