The proposer of the book had first read Marquez when in South America. He had been amazed by “A Hundred years of Solitude”, the most celebrated work of Marquez. Born and raised in Colombia, Marquez had worked as a foreign correspondent, allowing him to travel extensively in Europe. He was also a political activist, and a friend of Castro’s, and had become very disenchanted with Colombia and South America. He now lived mainly in Mexico and the USA. His acceptance speech for his Nobel prize in 1982 had scorned South America for its dysfunctionality, in particular the tendency of its countries to get involved in wars.
Marquez was now 78, and had suffered from lymphatic cancer in recent years. This new book, published in 2004, might therefore be his last work of fiction, although a three volume autobiography was in preparation. The book picked up some characteristic Marquez themes, notably small South American towns, an obsession with death, and love gone wrong (but unusually did not include a military officer).
The Group responded very positively to the book. It had a beguiling simplicity, lyricism and beauty in its language, and the story was well told. The book was poised and poetic, and the central character – the old man of ninety – was very sympathetically drawn. The story was engaging and life-affirming – it did not end with the old man’s death as might have been expected.
Despite its brevity and simplicity, the novella was rich in the complexity of its meanings. Much more emerged on a second reading. There were teasing statements such as that “morality was only a question of time” and that “in the end it is impossible not to become what others think you are”. What was the meaning of the lipstick-scrawled message on Delgadina’s mirror that “the tiger does not eat far away”? The madam suggested that someone dying might have written it. Was the tiger the grim reaper? And there was the intriguing introduction of the angora cat. Was that there only to illustrate the narrator’s difficulties in forming relationships, and to counterpoint the aging issue – or did it have some wider symbolic meaning?
There was the all-too-human humour – as when the narrator in a fit of sexual jealousy denounces Delgadina as a whore, whereas he would never have met her if she had not been. The richness of the descriptions – both of place and of age – stood out, for example the heightened lucidity of detail as the narrator expectantly and nervously made his way to his first appointment with Delgadina. (We debated in this context whether, as one ages and the senses deteriorate, patterns and colours make a correspondingly greater impact. And was life easier at ninety than at, say, seventy, because you worried less and were less easily shocked?)
Was this an erotic book? Only to a limited extent. The title seemed rather misleading, given the actual tenor of the book, and might be even more so in Spanish with the harsher words “putas tristes” for “melancholy whores”. Were we shocked by the book? No, although there might have been a public fuss if a similar story had been produced by a venerable Nobel Prize winning British author at the age of 78. We also understood that South American attitudes to prostitution were more tolerant than in Europe.
And was it “magic realism”? Marquez certainly used this approach in “A Hundred Years of Solitude”, picking up his grandmother’s habit of telling tall tales with a straight face. We noted that the practitioners of “magic realism” were quite disparate in their approach, and that Marquez did not go in for the distortion of the natural order that could be found in the work of Borges or Julio Cortazar. But after some debate we concluded that “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” was not really written in the “magic realism” mode.
The book contained echoes of many other works. It reminded one reader of “No-one writes to the Colonel” by Marquez himself, which had a similar simplicity and beauty (in both English and Spanish versions). For him, Marquez was at his best in his novellas and short stories, not in his more ambitious longer works. The opening quotation is taken from “House of the Sleeping Beauties”, by the Japanese author Kawabata, a story about an old man who has paid to spend a night, chaste but lecherous, in bed with a young woman drugged into insensibility. Others were reminded of “Any Human Heart” by William Boyd, with its hero Logan Mountstuart living in every decade of the twentieth century, and having a considerable interest in whores. Both books seemed partly inspired by the millennium, although the Marquez book had a timeless feel to its setting. Others thought of “Earthly Powers” by Anthony Burgess, with its notorious opening sentence. A quite different analogy – picking up a moral fable involving an old man redeemed by a child – was George Eliot‘s “Silas Marner”, and another – picking up the idea of an adult fairy tale and the Kawabata title- might be “Sleeping Beauty”.
But what was the book really about? At the obvious level, it was a story about a man discovering love, as opposed to sex, for the first time in his old age. He had previously lived two separate lives in parallel – one of culture and journalism, and the other in brothels, where he had been “client of the year”. He had “never gone to bed with a woman he did not pay, and the few that were not in the profession I persuaded by argument or force to take money…” yet now he was “mad for love”. But it was not as simple as that. His relationships prior to Delgadina were not completely limited to sexual relationships. He had maintained good relationships with two former mistresses, and with Rosa Cabarcas, although he had not found a partner as such. And the love he had now found was hardly that of a rounded loving relationship: he was only able to relate to Delgadina when she was asleep, or possibly drugged. (We thought drugging might be apposite, given the Kawabata reference). He flees from the idea that he might live with Delgadina. This is a fairly dysfunctional, obsessive type of love.
Someone had described the book as “an elegy on aging”, but we felt the book was hardly elegiac in tone – that was too negative. The narrator is re-animated by his relationship with Delgadina – he gains new celebrity as a writer, and he starts to face up to the future with optimism. His ninetieth birthday column was “not the usual lament, but glorification of old age..”. One attractive theme of the book was that, even at a great age, it was possible to discover new things about oneself : “Thanks to her, I confronted my inner self for the first time as my ninetieth year went by”. Age was shown to be irrelevant to life. We were drawn into a lengthy discussion on the character of the unnamed ninety year old narrator, although we had to remind ourselves that Marquez was not necessarily aiming for great psychological realism in his characters, as they are essentially literary constructs allowing him to explore his themes.
More broadly, we noted that a number of great artists, if a minority, have been fortunate enough to produce a work at the end of their career which fittingly rounds off their life’s work. For example, Shakespeare’s “Final Plays” fall into that category, with their magical and uplifting exploration of issues of love and time. Thomas Hardy’s “The Well-Beloved”, at the end of his career as a novelist, gives his characteristically quirky take on the themes of love and time. We felt that in “Memories of my Melancholy Whores” – probably his last work of fiction – Marquez had produced his own meditation on time, aging and love. It was a deceptively slight but richly complex novella, which was a very worthy finale to the career of a great South American novelist.