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Sleeping Beauty

J. M. Coetzee

Gabriel García Márquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera ends with Florentino Ariza, at last united with the woman he has loved from afar all his life, cruising up and down the Magdalena River in a steamboat flying the yellow flag of cholera. The couple are seventy-six and seventy-two, respectively.

In order to give unfettered attention to his beloved Fermina, Florentino has had to break off his current affair, a liaison with a fourteen-year-old ward of his, whom he has initiated into the mysteries of sex during Sunday-afternoon trysts in his bachelor apartment (she proves a quick learner). He gives her the brushoff over a sundae in an ice cream parlor. Bewildered and in despair, the girl commits unobtrusive suicide, taking her secret with her to the grave. Florentino sheds a private tear and feels intermittent pangs of grief over her loss, but that is all.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores
by Gabriel García Márquez, translated from
the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Knopf, 115 pp., $20.00

América Vicuña, the child seduced and abandoned by an older man, is a character straight out of Dostoevsky. The moral frame of Love in the Time of Cholera, a work of considerable emotional range but a comedy nonetheless, of an autumnal variety, is simply not large enough to contain her. In his determination to treat América as a minor character, one in the line of Florentino's many mistresses, and to leave unexplored the consequences for Florentino of his offense against her, García Márquez drifts into morally unsettling territory. Indeed, there are signs that he is unsure of how to handle her story. Usually his verbal style is brisk, energetic, inventive, and uniquely his own, yet in the Sunday-afternoon scenes between Florentino and América we pick up arch echoes of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita: Florentino undresses the girl.

Florentino is a lifelong bachelor, an amateur poet, a writer of love letters on behalf of the verbally challenged, a devoted concertgoer, somewhat miserly in his habits, and timid with women. Yet despite his timidity and physical unattractiveness, he has during half a century of surreptitious womanizing brought off 622 conquests, on which he keeps aides-mémoires in a set of notebooks.

In all of these respects Florentino resembles the unnamed narrator of García Márquez's new novella. Like his predecessor, this man keeps a list of his conquests as an aid to a book he plans to write. In fact he has a title ready in advance: Memoria de mis putas tristes, memoir (or memorial) of my sad whores, rendered by Edith Grossman as Memories of My Melancholy Whores. His list reaches 514 before he gives up counting. Then, at an advanced age, he finds true love, in the person not of a woman of his own generation but of a fourteen-year-old girl.

The parallels between the books, published two decades apart, are too striking to ignore. They suggest that in Memories of My Melancholy Whores García Márquez may be having another go at the artistically and morally unsatisfactory story of Florentino and América in Love in the Time of Cholera.

The hero, narrator, and putative author of Memories of My Melancholy Whores is born in the port city of Barranquilla, Colombia, around 1870. His parents belong to the cultivated bourgeoisie; nearly a century later he still lives in the decaying parental home. He used to make a living as a journalist and teacher of Spanish and Latin; now he subsists on his pension and the weekly column he writes for a newspaper.

The record he bequeaths us, covering the stormy ninety-first year of his life, belongs to a specific subspecies of memoir: the confession. As typified in the Confessions of Saint Augustine, the confession tells the story of a squandered life culminating in an inner crisis and a conversion experience, followed by spiritual rebirth into a new and richer existence. In the Christian tradition the confession has a strongly didactic purpose. Behold my example, it says: behold how through the mysterious agency of the Holy Spirit even so worthless a being as I can be saved.

The first ninety years of our hero's life have certainly been squandered. Not only has he wasted his inheritance and his talents, but his emotional life has been remarkably arid too. He has never married (he was engaged long ago, but walked out on his bride at the last minute). He has never been to bed with a woman whom he has not paid: even when the woman has not wanted money he has forced it on her, turning her into another of his whores. The only enduring relationship he has had has been with his house servant, whom he mounts ritually once a month while she does the laundry, always en sentido contrario, a euphemism which Grossman translates as "from the back," thus making it possible for her to claim, as an old woman, that she is still virgo intacta.

For his ninetieth birthday, he promises himself a treat: sex with a young virgin. A procuress named Rosa, with whom he has long had dealings, ushers him into a room in her brothel where a fourteen-year-old girl lies ready for him, naked and drugged.

She was dark and warm. Her hair had been curled, and she wore natural polish on the nails of her fingers and toes, but her molasses-coloured skin looked rough and mistreated. Her newborn breasts still seemed like a boy's, but they appeared full to bursting with a secret energy that was ready to explode. The best part of her body were her large, silent-stepping feet with toes as long and sensitive as fingers. She was drenched in phosphorescent perspiration despite the fan.... It was impossible to imagine what her face was like under the paint ...but the adornments and cosmetics could not hide her character: the haughty nose, heavy eyebrows, intense lips. I thought: A tender young fighting bull.

The first response of the experienced roué to the sight of the girl is unexpected: terror and confusion, an urge to run away. She moves away in her sleep. Drained of lust, he begins to sing to her: "Angels surround the bed of Delgadina." Soon he finds himself praying for her too. Then he falls asleep. When he awakes at five in the morning, the girl is lying with her arms opened in the form of a cross, "absolute mistress of her virginity." God bless you, he thinks, and takes his leave.

The procuress telephones to jeer at him for his pusillanimity and offer him a second chance to prove his manhood. He declines. "I can't anymore," he says, and at once feels relieved, "free at last of a servitude"-servitude to sex, narrowly understood-"that had kept me enslaved since the age of thirteen."

But Rosa persists until he gives in and revisits the brothel. Again the girl is sleeping, again he does no more than wipe the perspiration off her body and sing: "Delgadina, Delgadina, you will be my darling love." (His song is not without dark undertones: in the fairy story Delgadina is a princess who has to flee the amorous advances of her father.)

He makes his way home in the midst of a mighty storm. A newly acquired cat seems to have turned into a satanic presence in his house. Rain pours through holes in the roof, a steam pipe bursts, the wind smashes the windowpanes. As he struggles to save his beloved books, he becomes aware of the ghostly figure of Delgadina beside him, helping him. He is certain now that he has found true love, "the first love of my life at the age of ninety."

A moral revolution takes place within him. He confronts the shabbiness, meanness, and obsessiveness of his past life and repudiates it. He becomes, he says, "another man." It is love that moves the world, he begins to realise--not love consummated so much as love in its multiple unrequited forms. His column in the newspaper becomes a paean to the powers of love, and the reading public responds with adulation.

By day--though we never witness it-Delgadina, like a true fairy-tale heroine, goes off to the factory to sew buttonholes. Nightly she returns to her room in the brothel, now adorned by her lover with paintings and books (he has vague ambitions to improve her mind), to sleep chastely beside him. He reads stories to her aloud; now and again she utters words in her sleep. But on the whole he does not like her voice, which sounds like the voice of a stranger speaking from within her. He prefers her unconscious.


To be concluded in the next issue. This article was first published in nybooks.com.



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