Ninety years of melancholy

Memories of My Melancholy Whores is, as the title declares, a story of loneliness and degradation, a “narration of the miseries of my misguided life,” the protagonist declares. We never learn his name, but we do learn that he is a 90-year-old Colombian newspaper columnist. He’s spent all of his days in his decaying house with his books and music, and all of his nights in poorly-ventilated brothels with prostitutes.

“I was on the verge of ruin but well-compensated by the miracle of still being alive at my age,” he realizes on his 90th birthday. To celebrate, he determines to spend the night with a 14-year-old virgin, and he makes arrangements with a madam with whom he has done business for decades. But that night when he arrives at the rented room to meet the girl, she is asleep, and rather than wake her he spends the night watching her from the shadows. (Yes, it’s creepy.) Night after night he makes the same arrangements, and night after night she is sleeping when he arrives, exhausted from her long days of caring for her siblings and sewing buttons in a clothing factory.

He begins to care for her, bringing her flowers and food, repairing the room where she sleeps. Rather than seeing her as a means to his own gratification, he begins to think of her as a person: “I asked myself in astonishment: what does a woman think about while she attaches a button? . . . I learned how much my suffering had corrupted me.” He comes to see sex as “a servitude that had kept me enslaved since the age of thirteen” and “the consolation you have when you can’t have love.” The self-discovery process changes his habits and the tone of his columns, and when his readers notice, he becomes the subject of national conversation.

It’s an abrasive book, disturbing on multiple levels, not the least of which is the apparent cultural difference regarding the age of consent. But it also has a hopeful quality, as the protagonist—who has had hundreds of companions, but no companionship—discovers what it means to care for another human being. And the imagery, even when raw, is rich–picture the gaunt, miserable old man pedaling his basket-clad bicycle to a brothel in a cloud of cheap cologne.

Memories is the latest by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

Question: Is it plausible that after 90 years a person would suddenly learn fundamental lessons of humanity?

03. March 2006 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 5 comments

Comments (5)

  1. Hmmmmmmmmmmm…one might imagine that someone that old would be too hardened in their ways. On the other hand, they would probably also be much more cognizant of their mortality than ever before, and I could imagine that having a profoundly transformative effect.

    And theologically, I suppose my doctrine of the Holy Spirit requires me to believe that changes of that sort are plausible.

  2. Min,
    I’ve been interested in reading this book for a while now, so thanks for the review!

  3. This book sounds stretching. I will add it to my (ever lengthening) reading list.

    I agree with you that it sounds a bit creepy and with Mike that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit makes it possible!

  4. It’s A LOT creepy, actually, and highly sexual, so don’t necessarily take my comments as an endorsement. If the old protagonist was in America, he’d be listed on the sex offender registry. But Marquez’s status as a world-class writer obviously warrants careful reading and discussion.

    I, too, agree with Mike that the Spirit can and does change human hearts at his will–although Marquez is arguing for human love as the changing agent, rather than the work of God. When you read, look for page 65, where his books tell the old man that “the invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy love.” There is certainly a possibility of hope presented in this story, but from a Christian perspective, Marquez has misidentified the source of that hope.

  5. I haven’t read this, but I read about it when it first came out. (Having read One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was very interested.) It doesn’t surprise me that it’s highly sexual–that seems like it’s been a major part of Marquez’s writing life–so it’s interesting to read your synopsis of this book, in which it sounds like he’s reflecting, albeit in a ficionalized way, on his own life. Your review is quite helpful in determining how I will prioritize it on my list of future reading!