Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s controversial novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores is one of the most bittersweet valedictions (to life) I’ve read. Centered around an aged journalist, on the eve of his 90th birthday, the narrative explores the broken life of a broken man, who in the last chapter of his life attempts to find meaning through the one thing that has been romanticized and actualized as the highest order in attaining fulfillment – love.
However, this love from the get-go may be dismissed as tainted, disgusting, and vile as many critics of this work have. Thus, the purpose of this write-up here isn’t to review this novel per se, but to simply offer a very brief defense of it, in the hopes that it might allow the consumers and dissenters of this novella to see things in a different light (and maybe even encourage some people to visit this fantastic piece of fiction).
The controversy posed by the work stems entirely from the motives of the unnamed journalist. As he begins to understand the nature of his own mortality, a certain desire starts to ignite within him: he wants to sleep with a young virgin. In order to fulfill this, he reaches out to a certain “Madam” residing in his old Colombian town, to procure for him, a young Mary, who could satisfy his last desire. Essentially, he gets what he wishes for. The Madam finds for him a young maiden who like many others is a product of circumstance and still flushing with innocence.
This in and of itself raises plenty of red flags for people lost in righteousness and morality for obvious reasons. Superficially, this premise would suggest a condonation of pedophilia, or glorifying the exploitation of young girls for lecherous ends, or whatever variation of the damned-doing-damned things one can conjure up. However, that is NOT at all what the novella is portraying, let alone, condoning.
This isn’t a tale of depravity, but a tale of loss and reconciling with that loss. It’s a tale of attempted hope through senseless passion that isn’t scripted nor inhibited by societal normative. It is completely independent of your value system or my value system or society’s value system. It’s simply a tale of tragic hope that arises from bewilderment and spontaneity and gives the human heart a reason to beat. And yet, the old man never sleeps with the girl; he doesn’t even touch her. He frequents the brothel every night just to gaze at her, to hear her unsynchronized breaths, to want her without tainting her, to just feel alive again. He falls in love with her and desires her in a way that one would admire a beautiful flower or the way an artist does with his muse – in a way that reinvigorates his life with a spark that he never knew in all of the nine decades he’s existed.
And what an existence it has been for him. This is a man who has never felt the pangs of passion, or the conviction of heartbreak. The only thing he has known has been the whores he’s paid for. The transience with which he speaks of his life with reveals something that we cannot see until we drop the judgmental finger-pointing induced by our own bubble, and look at from the shoes of a man whose has never really lived. Life is often bound by circumstance and it’s unfair to dismiss the circumstances and the result of one’s reason for living or not living purely based on a refusal to understand. This is why I profess that this isn’t a novel to read so one can go on a social crusade about something which isn’t even a relevant point in the story, but rather to understand the many complexities of life and how it doesn’t always follow the assigned, normalized curve of social expectation. The entire flow, details, language, style of the story aren’t ambiguous. It’s clear that the story is not trying to 1) glorify the victimization of young girls (which doesn’t even happen) and thus isn’t even a part of the reality depicted in the actual narrative, nor is it 2) propaganda for prostitution. Everyone is a product of their situation; equally helpless and equally distraught. There is no cycle of use-to-abuse to be found here, just the meanderings of a man who experiences the fervor of pure love for the first time.
Another aspect of the novel that has been argued to be distasteful is the eroticism that Marquez instill in the dialogue and description. The young girl’s naked body is explicitly defined but it isn’t to defile her purity, but rather the opposite. The eroticism, as explicit and unsettling it may be for some, ascertains his unconditional love for her in a way that cannot be distilled down to “good love” versus “bad love”. And isn’t that love, anyways? There is nothing binary about it in the first place. The novella uses eroticism in a way that is sublime, graceful, and meaningful. It doesn’t feel cheap nor does it devalue the girl who actually becomes the sole reason of for a waxed-down candle to burn out with a flame more intense, and brighter than it’s ever burned.
Lastly, I’m certain many of the dissents regarding this work arise purely from cultural dissonance. This is natural to some extent. People impassioned by their values and beliefs will only focus on the fact that “an old man wants to bang a young girl” and how wrong that is because of conscripted absolutes they’ve arbitrarily given universal stock to. However, that is the worst way to experience art: to be blind to context. Marquez was Colombian, the narrator is Colombian; there is a huge gap in the cultural transcript of Colombian tradition and evolution than say, American. The age-old plague of “fearing or hating what one cannot understand or refuses to understand” is definitely a factor in how much one will appreciate this work. In short, this novella is hugely misunderstood as a gospel for sin when really it’s a culturally nuanced tale about a man who just wants to embrace his life with even a fraction of contentment.
Essentially, I’d highly recommend reading this novella if even just to experience the insight of Marquez’s understanding of complex human emotions and the realities of life brought about those very emotions. Life isn’t often as grand as we might believe it to be and that’s also a reality that is as important to understand as is the more optimistic, fantastic, or romanticized approach on life. Yet what can exist between both of these dualities is the possibility of change – even if it happens to be in one’s final moments.