It’s a concept that practically screams “Ick!” at the top of its lungs: a 90-year-old man, hearing the ticking clock of mortality, calls his favorite brothel and arranges a dalliance with a virgin as a gift to himself. That said virgin is 14 years old, and that the man doesn’t have sex with her but mostly just watches her sleep makes the potential for creepiness even greater.
And yet Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores isn’t really creepy or icky. Disturbing, yes. Pretentious, sure. But this slim novel about an unnamed protagonist finding love, albeit unconventional, in his twilight years is weirdly touching and compulsively readable.
It is love, by the way, that the man at the heart of the story seeks, not sex. Though he recounts his sexual exploits willingly, there is a touch of wistfulness in his tales, particularly of the bride whom he left at the altar on their wedding day. Something is missing from his life and he worries that, at 90, it’s too late to recapture it. So, perhaps wishing to get a shot of youthfulness, he requests a young, unsullied companion.
Instead, he gets a frightened child, a girl who also works sewing buttons on shirts. She’s asleep when he goes to see her. He doesn’t wake her, but sleeps next to her, barely touching her. This becomes the pattern of their relationship: sleeping together, but not sleeping together. He falls in love, even while admitting to himself that the love he feels is based more on his ideas about this girl than on the actual girl. He even creates a name for her.
Though unsettling to read, Memories is never dull, and does touch on the problematic nature of love. Most relationships are based, at least in their initial stages, more on perception than reality. Granted, it’s not usually this extreme, but it happens. Also, the book is never really sordid, despite spending so much time in brothels. After all, the book isn’t really about sex, or even love, but about life, and about what happen when you get near the end of it.
Marquez’s book isn’t perfect, but it’s impossible to dismiss, and impossible to forget, just like woman who haunt its protagonist’s dreams.