Vintage Garcia

Published : Jan 14, 2005 00:00 IST

Memorias de Mis Putas Tristes (A Memory of My Melancholy Whores)by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Vintage Espanol; pages 109.

THERE is a story told about Gabriel Garcia Marquez by another Latin American novelist, who was once his neighbour. Every night, after slaving over their respective sentences, the writers would meet for a drink. Garcia Marquez would tell his friend about what he had written during the day and the friend would eagerly await the next instalment. This went on night after night until the book was finished. Then, one day, Garcia Marquez's friend walked into a bookshop, only to find there was not a single aspect of One Hundred Years of Solitude he recognised - not a character, not a plot twist, nothing. He realised that Garcia Marquez had, in effect, produced two novels: one written and one oral. He did not know which was worse - the fact that he had been strung along or that there was no record of the fabrication; it had evaporated with all their hard-earned drinks.

You might think this story in itself was some Borgesian legend, had Garcia Marquez not confessed to the habit in his recent memoir, Living to Tell the Tale. "I soon learned that telling stories parallel to the ones you are writing is a valuable part of the conception and the writing," he explained. "I am convinced telling the real story brings bad luck. It comforts me, however, that, at times, the oral account might be better than the written one and, without realising it, we may be inventing a new genre that literature needs now: the fiction of fiction."

True to form, his latest novella is a trick of a book. The 76-year-old Nobel Prize-winner, who has been seriously ill for some years, was thought to have been working on volume two of his memoirs, but instead he has written his first novel in a decade and used the word `memoir' in its title.

Memorias de Mis Putas Tristes, as yet only available in Spanish but due to be published towards the end of next year under the English title A Memory of My Melancholy Whores, has been so eagerly awaited that, in Mexico City, where Garcia Marquez lives, pirated copies were being sold before he had even decided how to end it. But the novel turns out to be a decoy in more ways than one: throughout the apparently simple story, you anticipate a mode that does not come - magical-realism, erotica, memoir, children's fiction.

No doubt, debate will focus on whether the story, which centres on the love of a 90-year-old man for a 14-year-old girl, is pornography or a love story. It explores, in its muted way, ideas about time, love, sex and death familiar to readers of his earlier books. There are elements recognisable, too, from his own fabulated life - brothels, tropical heat, a house full of ghosts and a fondness for European culture in a continent better defined by boleros. But, in the end, Memoria de Mis Putas Tristes is, more than anything, a fairy tale: sentimental, unforgiving, wise, ironic and twisted.

On the eve of his 90th birthday, our narrator, a supposedly mediocre hack who describes himself as `an ugly, shy anachronism', is overcome with a desire to sleep with an adolescent virgin. He calls a brothel and the sarky madam eventually comes up with the goods, a girl so young the narrator accepts with the quip: `I don't mind changing nappies.' The man has never slept with a woman he did not pay. He used to keep a log of his conquests; by the time he was 50, there were 514 women he had slept with at least once. But when he arrives at the brothel to meet his virgin, the girl is asleep. He watches over her all night, never waking her. When he gets home, `counting minute by minute the minutes of the nights that were left to me before dying', he discovers he is in love with the girl. Every night at 10 p.m. he returns and does the same thing. `This must be what doctors call senile dementia,' the madam sighs. `Why don't you marry her? Seriously, it would work out cheaper.'

The idea is not that he cannot have sex with her, though this suspicion hovers at the edges of the picture, but that he prefers her asleep. And if the overtones of necrophilia were not strong enough already, one night she turns over on the bed and leaves behind what he thinks is a pool of blood. In fact, it is only sweat.

He calls her Delgadina (`Little Slender One') and sings her a traditional song of that title, which ends with the king's servants finding Delgadina dead of thirst in her bed. He reads her children's stories: The Little Prince, A Thousand and One Nights, the fairy tales of Charles Perrault.

On the rare occasions we get an objective opinion of the girl, it only shows how much the narrator is masking. One day, when she is ill, a doctor comes and is alarmed by her state of malnutrition. She is said to be asleep because every day she sews 200 buttons on by hand in a factory, but she may also be drugged (the first night, the madam gives her some house remedy that contains valerian drops).

You are never sure quite how alive she is. He reads to her, as if she were in a coma or a trance and, at one point, when she talks in her sleep, he finds it so jarring he thinks it must be the voice of a stranger she carries within her. One night, the narrator goes to the bathroom and finds on the mirror a message written in lipstick: `Tigers never stray far for their prey.' In the morning, he asks the madam what she thinks Delgadina must have meant. "She doesn't know how to read or write," she replies. It must have been "someone who died in that room".

Eventually, someone does die, not in that room but in another part of the brothel. The place is shut down and the narrator finds himself dying of lovesickness. He looks for Delgadina everywhere and realises he would not recognise her, awake and dressed. Nor would she recognise him, since she has never seen him. It is at this point that you realise the slumbering assignations are not merely poetic. "We began to get to know each other as if we lived together and awake," the narrator writes.

In the Perrault version of Sleeping Beauty, the heroine is 15 years old, sleeps for 100 years and is not touched by the prince; his mere presence wakes her. This book ends with the narrator lying next to his untouched sleeping beauty, looking forward to his 100th birthday. "Don't lose that creature," he has been advised, as if Delgadina were not an ambiguous cure for solitude. "There's no greater shame than dying alone."

Guardian NewspapersLimited 2004

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