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The greatest storyteller of our times
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November 10, 2005
Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it,' Gabríel Garcia Márquez in his memoir, Living To Tell The Tale.
If the English have little taste for ideas disguised as literature -- not much for ideas at all -- the Europeans and Latin Americans have even less for creative works without theories to support them. For them, the novel is never anything except a philosophy expressed in images. And, in a good novel, the philosophy disappears into the images.
A work that has to endure cannot do without ideas. And it is this secret fusion of experience and thought, of life and reflections on the meaning of life that makes a great novelist like Márquez one of the greatest storytellers of our times.
The work in question is his latest novel Memories Of My Melancholy Whores (also translated as A Memoir Of My Sad Whores) (Cape, special Indian price, Rs 425), which, contrary to what the title may suggest as tales of fornication and wild one-night stands, is about two central ideas that have dominated all of Márquez's writings -- the role of memory and of lost loves, which are 'always short but forgetting so long.'
Memory dominates all creative writing for Latin American writers, especially for Márquez. For him, the future, the notion of that which is yet to happen, is set behind the speaker. The past, which he can see because it has already happened, lies before him. He backs into the future unknown; memory moves forward, hope backward.
This is the exact reversal of coordinates with which we have organised our root metaphors under the literary Anglo-Saxon influences. All the same, it is important to bear this in mind because the future always intrudes in the development of the narrative.
Along with memory comes love -- in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde in 1995, Márquez said all his novels dealt with the central theme of love and its discontents, or remembrances of things that were centred round lost loves.
Memories Of My Melancholy Whores has nothing to do with whores, although the main protagonist in the Colombia of the 1950s has slept with all the 514 women he had a fling with in his youthful days.
Now, 'for my 90th birthday I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of mad love with an adolescent virgin.' If it is true that as a man grows older he talks about sex and thinks about money, Márquez' story bears it out.
He turns to his longtime madam, who provides him with a 14-year-old who becomes the love of his life. Yet he never violates her chastity or even talks to her; he just looks after her, night after night, as she returns from her sweatshop, all washed out only to sleep away her tiredness.
In a sense, Márquez seems to say that at the end of what is called 'the sexual life,' the only love that lasts is 'the love that has accepted everything, every disappointment, every failure and every betrayal, which has accepted even the sad fact that in the end there is no desire so deep as the simple desire for companionship.'
Márquez, who is stricken with cancer, uses the story to explore the idea of old age as a chance for rebirth and rejuvenation. The protagonist realises that everything he thought about himself was untrue.
He wants to challenge this belief that 'it is impossible not to end up the way others think one is.' The individual is master of his destiny who can take care of the slings and arrows of life if only he accepts the ups and downs as he goes along as part and parcel of life itself.
Women dominate the novel. Apart from the protagonist's mother, all the characters are whores. But they aren't women who are hustlers; they are the ever-patient pragmatists who keep the home fires burning.
Here 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 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.