I’ve loved Gabriel Garcia Marquez ever since I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude when I was in uni and spent a month in spring living in the heavy heat of the South American rainforest. His writing is beautiful, his characters as clear and dear as if I’d grown up down the street from them, and his works linear enough to follow but tangential enough to keep you hooked.
So when, in the midst of a reading drought, I saw Memories of my Melancholy Whores on the shelf in a bookstore in Brunswick, I couldnt’ resist picking it up. The novella only took me a few days to read, and successfully reintroduced me to the joys of reading in paperback – the feel of paper between your fingers, the slowly unravelling story, the smell of new ink – never mind that it was a work from an author I love that I’d never even heard of before I saw it on the shelf.
The protagonist is a lonely old man, having never married or procreated in his long life. On the day of his ninetieth birthday, he decides to treat himself to a night of unbridled passion with a young virgin. He phones up the mistress of the brothel he has frequented since his youth, puts in his request – and so begins a year of slowly rejecting and accepting old age, falling in love with a girl whose name he doesn’t know and who he’s never even seen awake.
It’s a bit weird, a bit of a perversion – he refuses to wake the girl up, preferring to watch her sleep, sleep beside her, live in his imagined life with her rather than explore the possibility of something real and risk it not working out. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s writing is languid and beautiful as usual, though sparser than his older works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude. The protagonist is the only character we learn anything real about, and we only see the city that he sees. There are no side chatacters who get to be the stars of their own chapters, none of the city living around the protagonist. Just him, his little corner of the world, and his sudden realization that he is old.
It almost feels like the protagonist is a part of the author, that the author suddenly realised he was getting old and went, “What? None of that, thanks.” It’s a beautiful reminder of the fact that old people are more than just their sagging skin and distance with the world they find themselves in; that once upon a time they were vibrant and alive, and that they’re just as astonished by the world as the world is by them. I loved the protagonist’s attitude – he never feels like an old man, though there is definitely something in his voice that means that you never quite forget that he is. He is self-aware enough to recognize that he’s ageing, but sensible enough to realise that it doesn’t really matter.
It was really interesting getting to know the girl through the protagonist’s eyes. We learn little tidbits about her through the brothel mistress, such as the fact that she puts her brothers and sisters to bed before coming to meet the protagonist and that she works in a factory attaching buttons; but we never know anything about her. W don’t know what sort of clothes she wears, because she sleeps naked. We don’t know what her voice sounds like, or what colour her eyes are, or even what her name is. These mainstays of romantic obsession are created by the protagonist, and so all we know for sure about the girl he’s decided that he loves is how her sweat gathers in the hollows of her body in the heat of the night. Not much to be going on, really.
But there’s something incredibly human about the protagonist’s wish to keep things the way they are. He’s fallen in love with a beautiful young girl, and as long as he doesn’t awaken her, nothing can go wrong. She can’t be silly or selfish, can’t let him down gently because he’s an old man and she’s only in it to support her family. He calls her Degladina, doesn’t even wish to know her real name, because she’s not really herself – she’s a vision of the woman the protagonist wants to fall in love with. How many times have we let something be, refused to take a chance, because what we had was already as close to perfect as we thought we could get? Crossing from fantasy to reality is a big step, and we’re all too aware of how wrong things can go.
So the protagonist keeps on visiting his love, falling asleep next to her and waking up alone. Until, a year later, his birthday rolls around again, and he finds out that his girl loves him too.
I went out to the street, radiant, and for the first time I could recognise myself on the remote horizon of my first century… It was, at last, real life, with my heart safe and condemned to die of happy love in the joyful agony of any day after my hundredth birthday.