Monday, November 21, 2005

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

Yesterday I read Marquez's latest offering. The novel is tiny (115 pages) and overpriced (Rs. 425). And since it is both tiny and costly, I read it in the bookstore in one go over two cappuccinos, and rewarded the store by buying a Banville instead. I found the book a very satisfying read and I would definitely recommend it especially if you are a Marquez lover.

The story in a nutshell is about a 90 year old not-so-successful journalist/scholar, with a 75 year old rich history of sexual encounters, finding love for the first time in his 90th year. On his 90th birthday, he decides to have sex with an adolescent virgin -- a 14 year old poor girl ("disagreeable to contemplate", Updike writes in his review), and gradually falls deeply in love with her. The novel is centred on the developments in the next one year.

Of course, with Marquez, one doesn't know for sure what's real and what's unreal. (A character's memory cannot be completely trusted to detect the real from the other. Just as one forgets certain things that happened at some point, one may remember certain things that did not happen at all.) For instance, the protagonist gets an old cat as a birthday gift. That of course can be real. The cat does a lot of funny things, and that must be real. Then the cat is lost at some point. But in the final 'happy ending scene' (see this neat review by Falstaff for more on the 'happy ending'), the cat is suddenly there, "resuscitated". One wonders whether the final scene is real at all. Is that just a dream? But then why not? What can be more real than the lost cat reappearing at the end, when an old man is resuscitated in his 90th year, when he learns, for the first time, many things about himself?

I, for one, have started to believe that whatever Marquez writes is "real"! When I read several Marquez works in the early 90's, at one point, it struck me that the novelist could visualise the situation where the amputees feel the itching in their amputated parts. Only much later, after Vilayanur Ramachandran's popular book appeared, that I realised that the 'phantom' is something that's 'real'. I skimmed through the 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' to locate the phantom reference. It wasn't there. Then I re-read 'Love in the Time of Cholera', and I saw that Dr. Urbino had mentioned about it to Fermina Daza. I can think of a few other instances as well where I disbelieved Marquez only to correct myself later!

And Marquez is the only writer who has earned my trust to this extent. These days, I don't question him. If Dr. Urbino sits on the toilet seat while urinating in order not to wet the rim (since he can't focus the stream), I feel bad about his prostate gland. And I'm happy about the 90+ protagonist of 'Melancholy Whores' who doesn't have a prostate condition despite the very old age (though he was toilet trained this way too from an early age)!

I must point out that several admirers of Marquez aren't happy about the novel. Here are the links to a few reviews -- bad and good.

  • Alberto Manguel in The Guardian:
      ... take the theme of an old man's longing for the idealised wholeness of youth and turn it into powerful fables on human frailty. Memories of My Melancholy Whores, however, never seems to extend beyond the mere smutty story. It is as if the naming of the object of desire sufficed to justify the text: no attempt is made to dig beneath the surface, to question the passage from fantasy to deed. ... ... In Memories of My Melancholy Whores, García Márquez allowed his old Charon to forget, and the resulting memories are not melancholy, not even sad, but merely pitiful and disappointing.
  • Amanda Hopkinson in The Independent:
      The scenes and descriptions when the writing ignites are fewer and further between than in any earlier Garcia Marquez. This is matched by a variable translation that reads as if rushed. ... ... Edith Grossman is a past mistress of translation who has a dozen tomes by Garcia Marquez under her belt. But neither translator nor, more seriously, the author are truly on form in this, the slightest of their many works.
  • Theo Tait in The Telegraph:
      The circular narrative is oblique and hard to follow, but it undeniably builds up an eccentric momentum, all the while dropping in pearls of what might be wisdom, or might just be senile dementia. Memories of My Melancholy Whores seems like an old man's fever dream, full of bizarre, arresting meditations on love, nostalgia and mortality.
  • Andrew Holgate in The Times:
      ... Such unsteadiness is sadly typical of the book as a whole.
  • Ruth Scurr in The Times:
      Magic and cynicism, love and power, corruption and redemption: these abrasive pairings are hallmarks of the magic realism that García Márquez is famous for pioneering. Yet his voice is never genre-bound or predictable. There is not in this slender book one stale sentence, redundant word or unfinished thought.
  • John Updike in The New Yorker:
      ... a velvety pleasure to read ... it has the necrophiliac tendencies of the precocious short stories, obsessed with living death, that García Márquez published in his early twenties. ... ... Márquez has composed, with his usual sensual gravity and Olympian humor, a love letter to the dying light.
  • Falstaff @ A Considerable Speck:
      ... a beautiful, evocative and deeply satisfying read. And if Marquez, having brought us so far, allows himself to be optimistic, allows his concern for his characters to get the better of his judgement, this is only an old man's fooling, the harmless little joke of a world weary writer that we can only smile at sadly, because we bear him too much affection to scorn him something so small. There's a point in Memories of my melancholy whores where the narrator's old maid, tired of his ceaseless importuning says "Have you thought about what you'll do if I say yes?". It's this generosity of spirit, this sort of genial and kindly magic, that makes Marquez a writer you can't help being touched by.
I can't agree more with Falstaff there.


At 8:47 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said...

although i am not sure if i would ever read the book let alone find it 'satisfying'i am sure reading this review was a satisfying enough way to begin a day!

At 11:37 PM, Anonymous Anand said...

Nandakumar -- Thanks. I think you'll like the book. At least parts of it. Check it out!

At 8:09 PM, Anonymous neha said...

really nice review..and i completely agree with R.Nandkumar, amazing way to start off the day.

And when u say with Marquez, you never know whats real and not real..isn't that true of all our lives? This distinction between real and not real is what i have always wondered about..:)

At 8:35 PM, Blogger anthony said...

If only that crossword would open at Nirmal Lifestyles, the opening soon banner mocks at me on my way back home from work everyday. But I guess I will also do the same, read at the store. I like the confusion that Marquez creates in my head.

At 10:23 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said...

i have an observation on the 'tiny and overpriced' front.

'the argumentative indian', though it looks solid, has but just about 400 pages in large-ish font and is priced at 650 bucks (moreover, one should note it is primarily,'only' a compilation of already existing writing and not a fresh piece of scholarship). the usual marketing trick of making a book available only in hard cover till 'the primary readers' have all willy-nilly bought it has been very effectively employed there. well, if vikram seth, chetan bhagat and david davidar can be smart markerters, why not sen?

At 11:42 PM, Blogger Anand said...

Thanks Neha. Okay so it's true of our lives too. But I like to believe that life is real! And have started believing that whatever Marquez writes is also real!

Anthony -- Thanks. You have put it well: "the confusion ..."

Nandakumar -- These days Sen makes it a point to say in his lectures not to buy his book but to borrow it from a library to read it. He says, as an economist, he is bound to advocate the most cost effective way! Now one could argue that asking an audience not to buy one's book is a better marketing strategy to sell a book than directly advertising the book, but I think Sen means what he says.

At 12:39 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said...

i too would certainly like to believe sen means what he says!

still i would have been happier if there were a paperback edition of the book available at say 300-400 bucks. books like 'argumentative...' have very high re-read value (like any serious work of non-fiction) and someone interested in the stuff should ideally possess a copy.

At 2:57 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

Nandakumar -- That's right. It does have reference value and getting paperback sooner would have been ideal.


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