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The schizophrenic reviews of Melancholy Whores

FANS AND critics are simultaneously excited and disappointed in the latest Gabriel García Márquez novel release. Excited because, after all, a new Gabo novel in circulation is a world-premiere event. Disappointed, because many fans and critics expected he would offer the next entry in his memoir trilogy (to follow up Living to Tell the Tale) instead.

And what we got instead was a slim, first-person accounting in Memories of My Melancholy Whores, which is neither a bona fide memoir nor a story about a brothel of suicidal working girls. While fans are happy to latch on to Gabo's latest, they seem a bit bewildered at what they latched on to.

Certainly the industry has been buzzing about this title since the original version, Memoria de Mis Putas Tristes, met with controversy just a year ago in Colombia. Random House Mondadori prepared for its new release with an initial print run of one million copies for Latin America and Spain. And that's when the chaos began. As we reported in Margin, pirates of the original manuscript bootlegged it and began selling it on the street in advance of its original release date, forcing Gabo to rewrite his novel's last chapter in order to distinguish black market copies from true first editions.

What writer wouldn't envy Gabo his circumstances? Except that the challenge to meet one's audience's demands can affect even the greatest of literary icons. Sudipta Datta of the India Express makes it clear that Gabo's fans will only be so patient for books two and three in Gabo's memoir trilogy. At the end of Living to Tell the Tale, Gabo left us back in the 1950s at the pinnacle of a romantic engagement. "As we wait for the second dispatch of his memoirs—which will contain the reply (we know it will be a yes) and of course how those great books got written, from One Hundred Years of Solitude to Chronicle of a Death Foretold and beyond—comes a digression, in the form of a novella, [García] Márquez’s first fiction in ten years."

The "digression" (others would call it a "sketch"), weighing in at between 96-115 pages (depending upon binding), is simply not what folks have been waiting for. But it's hardly the sinker, either. For one thing, its great title recalls Gabo's 1993 short story collection, Strange Pilgrims, where Maria dos Prazeres, an aging prostitute, discovers real love at the end of her days, days she'd carefully planned for. (How's this for planning ahead—a pre-purchased cemetery plot, a pre-planned funeral, and a beloved pet dog trained to cry on her gravesite). "Despite her age and the metal curlers," Gabo wrote, "she was still a slender, spirited mulatta, with wiry hair and pitiless yellow eyes, who had lost her compassion for men a long time ago."

Memories of My Melancholy Whores equally traces Gabo's favorite themes: love, loss, solitude, memory. Gabo gives us an ugly and lascivious old man who finds pure love unexpectedly in the arms of a young woman. The story begins in true Marquezian style: "The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin." He procures an expensive prospect, Delgadina, through his long-time madam friend. Delgadina visits her client only after having already logged in a long day's hard labor. The girl, in fact, is perpetually exhausted, slightly drugged and underfed every time she arrives at the protagonist's door.

The arrangement lasts more than a year, and during that time Delgadina sleeps through virtually every evening with the man, conjuring for the reader a kind of twisted version of Sleeping Beauty. Nothing categorically sexual occurs, however. Instead, a new kind of leaf storm (of the symbolic variety, as only Gabo can create) blows in and delivers our elderly protagonist the romance of his life.

Rather than fall into potentially tawdry fantasies about what it would be like for a 90-year-old man to seduce a 14-year-old girl, Gabo instead focuses on the protagonist's memories of hundreds of affairs he'd enjoyed over the decades, all of which he'd paid for, since they were all with prostitutes. His life, however overfilled with such physical liaisons, is one equally overcome with solitude, in direct contrast to Gabo's characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude, who are profoundly lonely from lack of any kind of love. Falling in love with Delgadina, in the meantime, changes everything for the sexually quenched protagonist in Memories of My Melancholy Whores.

The book's publisher has referred to this book as a "fairy tale for the aged," though there's clear dissension among the ranks of readers and critics as to whether the fairy tale aspects of the story really take hold. Some who've read the book consider it a straight shooter, while others trace elements of magical realism throughout.

In fact, the opinions expressed about Gabo's latest wonder (and the work of its translator, Edith Grossman) run the gamut, from glowing to harsh, with these contradictions often appearing simultaneously within the reviews themselves. It's become impossible to say whether the book is a critical success.

The waffling opinions about García Márquez's latest novel are, in fact, a curious phenomenon. His fans are far from fair weather. His critics typically eschew all magical realist efforts. The literary lines in the sand regarding magical realism were drawn decades ago. Either people like it (or Gabo), or they don't.

It makes one wonder: Has Gabo lost his touch? Or has the ongoing debate over the legitimacy of magical realism exacted its toll on 21st century critics? Could it be translator Grossman's fault that the story somehow doesn't work? That's entirely possible, as well.

Or is this, indeed, a sign that the Marquezian style is going out of fashion? It might be that Gabo is simply tired—García Márquez, age 78, is undergoing cancer treatment, after all. Writing novels would, understandably, be a hard row to hoe in one's later years. By picking and panning Gabo simultaneously over this latest effort, maybe critics are just being sensitive to his situation while trying to do their jobs.

Or maybe they just don't get it (it wouldn't be the first time). Even a cursory examination of the plot of Melancholy Whores reveals a typically Marquezian commentary on postcolonialism. Taking it further… have any of these critics heard of Innocent Erendira? Couldn't this be a continuation on that theme, with a reversal in perspective? Erendira was also asleep through her infamous career as a prostitute. There's remarkable interconnectivity between this plot and the entire chain of plots that make up Gabo's œuvre. I say, give this one to the professors of literature, and see what they come up with. The critics could simply be mistaken, or they could be acting on the unfair expectation that all Nobel laureates produce enormous prize-winning literature each and every time they put ink to page. Maybe Gabo was just having a little fun.

Most of all, isn't Gabo in the perfect position to write this one novel, with his own mortality lingering at the windowsill? When critics rave, on the one hand, that this latest book of his is the pure essence of García Márquez, then what's the waffling on the other hand all about?

Here's an example of what I mean. Norm Goldstein for the Cincinnati Enquirer writes of Melancholy Whores: "Was it worth waiting for? Yes, yes. And no." And later in the review. "Don't let the racy title turn you off. Or turn you on." Okay, Norm, which is it?

I think that Marcelo Ballvé, reviewer for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, puts it most accurately, without even knowing it: "It's hard to say anything bad about Gabriel García Márquez's new book, Memories of My Melancholy Whores." Why is Ballvé spot on? Because everyone has, in fact, said something bad out Gabriel García Márquez's new book. It's just that no one wants take down a literary giant, especially this literary giant, and definitely not over a quirky little "sketch" book like Melancholy Whores.

Woe is the reviewer's life. It's easy to be critical of a first-time novelist, or a midlist author of little reknown…not so easy with an irreplaceable icon of contemporary world literature.

Check out this sampling of schizophrenic reviews below, and judge for yourself. And if you've read the book, then tell us this: Does Memories of My Melancholy Whores pass muster? Send us your opinion in an email and we'll publish the most interesting arguments for and against the book in an upcoming edition of Margin.

"[García] Márquez's new novel a gem"
Norm Goldstein for the Cincinnati Enquirer:
"Was it worth waiting for? Yes, yes. And no. …Don't let the racy title turn you off. Or turn you on."

"Love in the Time of Memoirs"
Sudipta Datta for the India Express:
"Though it’s a seemingly simple tale of love and life, and narrow in ambition by Marquezian standards—the protagonist doesn’t even have a name—(remember the abundance of Aurelianos and Jose Arcadios in Solitude?)—it’s the first among his major works of fiction (Love in the Time of Cholera apart) where solitude is not the solitary theme: love, tormenting love, is."

BUT

"In part one of his memoirs, Marquez writes of his grandparents’ home and grandmother’s stories and how it influenced Solitude; he tells us how he plunders memories of his parents for Cholera. Here’s to part 2 of Living to Tell the Tale— please, no more digressions."

"Ruth Scurr reviews Memories of My Melancholy Whores
Ruth Scurr for Times Online:
"[T]his book [is] beautifully translated by Edith Grossman. … The journalist in García Márquez counters the sentimentality of this fantastic story, with his sharp eye for the telling details of everyday life. … 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: something worth banging on windscreens about, even in London."

"Love's Redemptive Power"
Andrew Holgate for Times Online:
"… Love rather than Latin America’s messy politics has increasingly come to dominate Garcia Marquez’s fiction (the latter is barely nodded to here), and it is love’s transformative and redemptive powers that he returns to in Memories of My Melancholy Whores…The journalist becomes transfixed by visions of her, and finds she feels more real in his dreams than in real life."

BUT

"Those anxious about the 78-year-old Colombian Nobel laureate’s continued vigour as a fiction writer will not have their anxieties allayed by his new novel. In size, style and subject matter, this is a work suffused with a sense of exhaustion. …Compared to such rich and suggestive ambivalence, much of the rest of the novel has a strangely sketched-in feel. …Occasionally, we gain glimpses of a richer García Márquez idiom more familiar to readers of his earlier work—there are descriptions of the journalist typing with 'a hen’s arduous pecking' or an ocean liner emitting a 'doleful bull’s bellow'—but such lively flourishes are rare."

"The old man and the virgin"
Howard Kissel for the New York Daily News:
"At 96 pages, it might more accurately be called a novella than a novel. Even more accurately, it might be called a sketch.… As one might imagine, the prose, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman, has its own magic. The time setting is vague, which heightens the sense of a lush and timeless world in which the narrator is an eccentric and beguiling if emotionally uninvolving figure."

"Memories of My Melancholy Whores"
Marcelo Ballvé for the San Francisco Bay Guardian:
"It's hard to say anything bad about Gabriel García Márquez's new book, Memories of My Melancholy Whores."

BUT

"…in the end, Memories of My Melancholy Whores is vaguely dissatisfying. The novel, among other things, is a genuflection to the aesthetic compression of Japanese literature. The introductory quotation reveals that the plot is adapted from Yasunari Kawabata's House of the Sleeping Beauties. García Márquez tells this story of an eccentric, life-affirming passion with concision and restraint. But he overdoes it: He stuffs all his themes and symbols into a tight-fitting corset. No one is saying he needs to write another 400-page multigenerational saga. The muted weirdness and delirious suspense of the 1981 Chronicle of a Death Foretold show that García Márquez is capable of achieving near perfection at this same length. The problem with Memories of My Melancholy Whores is that the characters—a clairvoyant cat, the "sleeping beauty" herself, the narrator's sexually martyred housemaid—are too obviously symbols. They seem to be gasping for life in the novel's rarefied, stripped-down climate. Oxygen, blood, sinew, and bone—that's what's missing."

"The father of Magic Realism opts for sensual, straight-ahead narrative
Charles McNair for Paste Magazine:
"Márquez, nearly 80, may himself be weary of opening books to find butterflies floating out of the pages. Memories of My Melancholy Whores, his first work of fiction in a decade, displays magic—gorgeous descriptions and renderings of place—but the white rabbit is gone. No MR, expected or feared.

BUT

It’s Lolita as Sleeping Beauty, with unexpected turns after the liaison—the stuff of an aging writer’s dreams (or at least fantasies), unsettling and erotic. Our hero recounts his amorous Greatest Hits for good measure. Even with partners, it’s 100 pages of solitude … a bio of one human’s yearning, rendered in beautiful prose."

"Dilapidated, Disappointing Red Light ‘Memories’"
Angie Baecker for the Daily Californian Review:
"The book is surprisingly sparse on the expected modes of magical-realisim, erotica and memoir. In fact, it's somewhat disappointing.…Problematically for the reader but not for the narrator, we're never quite sure if he actually meets Delgadina at all.…Love and power have always figured centrally in his work, and this addition to Marquez's œuvre is no different. But love metamorphoses into something different in this work, and the narrator's adoration for his muse is marked more by necrophilia than anything else. … The narrator's adulation of his whore blurs our understanding of intimacy and solitude, but the novella remains characterized by literary fatigue and vagueness. Perhaps this reflects the reality of life as a 90-year old, and certainly tiredness and ambiguity are relevant to a text exploring the limits of vigor and age. But when he realizes in the end that 'There's no greater shame than dying alone,' the reader wonders if [García] Márquez has lost his ability to provide us any insights that are more substantial."

"Fantasies of a fading master"
Amanda Hopkinson for The Independent:
"The scenes and descriptions when the writing ignites are fewer and further between than in any earlier García Márquez. 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 García Márquez under her belt. But neither translator nor, more seriously, the author are truly on form in this, the slightest of their many works."

"BOOKMARK: As Marquez sees it "
V V for the Business-Standard [New Delhi]:
"Here [García] Márquez elaborates what he said in his Memoirs Living to Tell the Tale: 'Women are the ones who sustain the world, while we men mess it up with our historical brutality.' … This is a line that [García] Márquez has always taken in his previous 12 novels; he has only elaborated his feminism at much greater length here. One wishes, however, he had chosen another word for Whores! It is bound to put off his many women admirers."

"Master of Melancholy"
Peter Oliva for the Globe and Mail:
"I wonder what Nabokov would have said about this slim, shocking novel. Instead of the verbal wit of Lolita, we have [García] Márquez's trademark irreverence with gut-real mortality. We hear gossip and street life and squandered privilege. We have a thousand throwaway lines that only [García] Márquez could have written. … The book is quick; it flies. It is a surefire antidote for melancholy. There are hallucinations, dreams, fortune telling and murder. There is old love and there is madness. And with all this crazed love there is spanking new self-awareness. The result is a delight, a clean gem from a master storyteller.… [I]t will stand on its own as one more surprising book from the world's greatest living writer."

"Anemic effort hurt even more by translation"
Felipe Nieves for Cleveland Plain Dealer:
"Memories is in fact a meditation on mortality, self-delusion, missed opportunity and the nature of love. The child may not even exist. Still, the novella implicitly enshrines the exploitation of women and children as basically harmless. The narrator admits that he prefers the girl asleep.…An unfortunately flat-footed translation by Edith Grossman is often merely literal. She misses puns and other flourishes that are part of Gabriel García Márquez's stylistic signature.…Memories of My Melancholy Whores amounts to a trifle in the author's extraordinary opus. Like some of those small drawings dashed off by a certain, celebrated Spanish painter who lived into his 90s, this may be a minor work, but it is still the work of a master."

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