Don't Bury the Dead: Gabriel Garcia Marquez Performs an Autopsy - by Rebecca Lossin
"Memories of My Melancholy Whores" Translated by Edith Grossman
My motivation for writing about this novel is deeply personal and, I have to admit rather vague despite the sharpness of the catalyzing injury. It was conceived as a jerking of the knee more so than a conscious thought and will surely bear evidence of its origins. My reaction though, while initially invalidated by its simplicity and exaggeration, is not in itself invalid. If this were not the case than my experience of the world would not be valid either. I would be an invalid. Not fun.
One of my favorite jokes happens to be about feminism. It goes like this: -How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
-That's not funny.
I like it not so much because it is about feminists but because I am often accused of missing the joke. For this reason I avoid seeing movies that everyone seems to love until they have ceased to be common social currency and I am free to choose with whom I will discuss them. I think I may have lost friends over The Life Aquatic. In any case, I have become sensitive to this lack of perspective that characterizes my reactions, and so my first judgment of Memories of My Melancholy Whores was quickly followed by the thought that I must simply be missing the joke. Which, as it turns out, was true this time around.
The joke, as far as I can tell is this:
The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin. The statement is of course, laughable by virtue of its sheer impossibility. But he does in fact, will this (albeit partially) to happen, through a series of events lighthearted in their reminiscence of popular fairytales. Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, etc. And one would be hard pressed to find evidence that Marques is not poking fun at stuffy old men and the romantic ramblings that they offer as an excuse for literature. Not to mention the avid reading public that consumes these superfluous love letters so ravenously.
For it is the story of a man who falls deeply in love for the first time in his long, long life and becomes inspired to write what he unabashedly refers to as love letters -- an exercise that turns out to be received very well. One is tempted to roll their eyes at this plot -- man finds love of his life, man is finally able to write passionately, i.e. well. Or, man writes incessantly as a replacement for consummation of his passion with an unresponsive love object. But in the case of this narrator his love is neither consummated nor unrequited. It exists somewhere in between the two states, never confirmed yet never denied.
While I appreciate the ambiguity of this limbodic state of desire, I am not sure if this non-commitment pardons him for what is essentially necrophilia (or one could go so far as to say murder for it was he and his accomplice who were responsible for this unresponsive state in the first place), regardless of its previous literary incarnations. This exhumation of stale literary precedents, of a type of novel that has been declared dead more times than God, might be interesting but it is still an exhumation -- an act that can seem rather innocent if viewed as an abstract gesture, the digging up and desecrating of moldy old fairytales. But the unavoidable fact of the matter is that this potentially positive destructive act, this subtle and clever semi-deconstruction, could only be accomplished by way of a semi-dead woman.
While actual instances of necrophilia are few and far between the tradition of Western literature is littered with the bodies of women. The number of stories that unfold according to the anticipated death of the heroine are astounding. I am making some assumptions concerning the writing process that could very well be mistaken, but I also have a hard time believing that Zola ever intended to keep Nana alive.
Valerie Solanas -- whose writing I find to be quite funny incidentally -- seems a little less crazy when I take this into consideration. While it is going too far to say that all men are necrophiliacs, I think it is safe to say a certain tradition exists that is dependent on dead women to some extent or another; and from this perspective one can see why 1968 produced, among other things, the Society for Cutting Up Men, reactionary as the title may be.
This is not to imply that that other groups of people do not find themselves the victims of the cultural fantasy that plays itself so personally on the pages of literary history, but what I am reacting to is not literature in general. I am reacting, more or less, to my formal education and if women were not being literally killed off in front of me they remained collectively silent by default -- buried under syllabi full up with great writers: Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Freidrich Nietschze, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Charles Baudelaire, Soren Kierkegaard, Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Guillaume Apollinaire, Lawrence Durrell, Robert Musil, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marcel Proust, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Jorges Luis Borges, Slavoj Zizek, Plato, Michel de Montaigne, Vladimir Nabokov, Andre Breton, Honoré de Balzac ....
Just to be fair, I'll try it with the women: Mary Shelly, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte, Judith Butler, Madame de Lafayette, Marguerite de Navarre, Simone de Beauvoir, a handful of theorists whose names I have forgotten from a class called "feminist philosophy," ... Janet Beizer, : Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf ....
There is no proof that I am being honest about my own memory but if you will believe that this is the truth, it is not surprising that my experience of literature would lead to this reaction against the author of Memories of My Melancholy Whores. And yes, I was for the first half of the book angry at Marquez, not his novel. Contrary to academic belief you cannot really get angry at anything but another human being. Anger requires a capacity for blame and paper, as far as I know, is not itself guilty of anything. You, I thought, are guilty of acquiescence in the name of irony. The Author is guilty of non-intervention. And so I proceeded to build my case against him and in the process discovered several arguments for, if not his innocence, his redemption from guilt by way of a genuine and self-conscious confession.
I am not particularly pleased by this development but evidence is evidence and when the actual dead body appeared it was not the body of a woman but an anonymous banker found in the brothel. The necrophiliac romance is interrupted by this rude reminder of what it really is. The brothel closes, Delgadina disappears and the narrator begins his descent into depression (one might even say hysteria). Reality never quite manages to break in despite this disruption of fantasy and the narrator imagines her "in her unreal life as she woke her brothers and sisters, dressed them for school, gave them breakfast if there was any food and bicycled across the city to serve out her sentence of sewing buttons."
But regardless of this continuing invention of Delgadina, his insistence that her real life was with him, the world created by the story was not quite living up to the standards of romantic fiction and it is probably only for this reason that he does not proceed to bleach his fingernails with lemons and swallow some arsenic, for he has clearly developed some of the same patterns of behavior as our favorite 19th century hysteric. He has also abandoned the classics for romantic authors but the story is much to clever to let him die of love and the narrator, like the half dead girl, is really only half crazy. "I always understood that dying of love was mere poetic license," he remarks during the girls extended absence.
But it is not Marquez's recognition that he is toying with literary themes that excuses him from molesting the sleeping body of Delgadina, for this alone would just be another example of women's bodies being used in literary games -- and particularly self-serving games of literary self-discovery via an Other. An entirely calculated activity veiled by the assumption of insanity. Apart from Delgadina, however, the other half does quite a bit of speaking in this novel. In fact, the only voices other than the narrator's (outside of a few sentences spoken by 'minor' characters) are the voices of two whores who, despite their age have "maintained in tact the audacious speech of [their] trade."
And it is this audacious speech that first addresses the reality of death, as Rosa Cabrecas instructs him on how to dress the naked corpse that she finds in her brothel. "There's nothing more difficult than dressing a dead man," he quips. To which she responds frankly. "I've done it more than once ... It's easy if someone holds him for me." The appearance of a corpse makes it impossible to ignore the necrophilia lurking in the romance, the regular intersection of the brothel and the morgue. The fantasy has clearly collided with a brutal material reality yet the narrator refuses to recognize it.
His agonizing separation from Delgadina is punctuated by a series of fruitless and delusional searches (at one point he becomes convinced that the cat can find her) culminating in a final encounter with a mangled bicycle that he swears is the same he bought Delgadina. A young girl had been hit by a bus and the bike was left in a bloody pool. When he sees her "her skull is covered in bandages, her face indecipherable, swollen black and blue, but all [he] needed to see were her feet to know that she wasn't Delgadina." The joke that I initially found so offensive for it flippancy, has become rather gruesome; no longer laughable for its near impossibility and far from light-hearted in its reference to received ideas of romance. Romance exposed as fetishism, and fetishism, in turn exposed as violence. Not actively violent, as the tradition of great literature cannot be said to be actively violent in the way that murderers are, but guilty of not seeing violence. "What would I have done if had been [Delgadina]?" he wonders. The thought is dismissed before it even formulates but his unsettling blindness in the face of this tragedy is exposed as part and parcel of his love for Delgadina; a type of love that, however literary, is undeniably disturbing.
It is immediately doubtful that he could have identified Delgadina by her feet but not entirely impossible -- he did spend hours staring at her. The fetishist though, the man in love, is patently unobservant and when he sees Delgadina after that long, long month she "looked so different and so radiant that it was hard for [him] to recognize her." In the course of a month it appears "her breasts had grown so much they didn't fit in [his] hand, her hips had finished developing, and her bones had become firmer and more harmonious." Shortly thereafter, Rosa Cabrecas points out that the jewels she is wearing are fake. "The Jewels? They're mine, all you have to do is touch them to see that the stones are glass and the precious metals tin."
The lack of observation on the part of the narrator condemns him. I find myself able to pardon Marquez because he has not pardoned his character. He has not offered the insanity of genius or of love as a defense. On the contrary, it is precisely this performance of sanctified insanity that the novel condemns in the end. And not for the damage it has done to the narrator but for the damage that they do to the world around them.
Pure speculation it may be, but I like the idea of Marquez on his deathbed, engaged in his last rights, getting it all off of his chest, confessing his sins and those of his trade and finally telling someone where the body has been hidden.