Memories of my Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel García Márquez, trs Edith Grossman

What's that growing in the purple patch?
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The Independent Culture

Back in the 1970s, One Hundred Years of Solitude appeared in student bedsits more dependably than rising damp or Jimi Hendrix posters (often with the back cover torn for marijuana spliffs). Unfortunately for Gabriel García Márquez, his glittery Colombian saga has spawned countless imitations. Now it seems that even Márquez has grown weary of his own example. His latest novel is a tired, Lolita-like fable about an old man's lust for a teenage girl.

Throughout, Marquez contrives a musically sensuous prose and fairy- tale atmosphere of enchantment. Yet there is not much solid mental stuff in his imagery of rustling frous-frous and twilight amours; rather, a general prettiness of effect. Memoria de mis putas tristes (the title sounds slightly better in Spanish) remains a slender work fraught with a morbid sensuality and hot-house purple patchery. The plot is easily summarised. On his 90th birthday, a Colombian journalist wakes up and, in a fit of lunacy, decides to award himself "a night of mad love with a virgin adolescent".

A local madame arranges for the desperado to sleep with a 14-year old girl. So far he has led a solitary bachelor's life in a colonial house cluttered with books and paintings. By deflowering a teenager he hopes to begin a new life at the point where most people die. The pensioner finds his virgin lying naked (and sedated) in the darkened room of a whorehouse. The girl's "newborn breasts are full to bursting with a secret energy that was ready to explode". (And so on, I regret to say.)

In the first volume of his projected three-part autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, Marquez eulogised the brothels of the Colombian capital of Bogota, where he studied law. The future writer was savagely beaten there by pimps for failing to pay a prostitute. Accordingly, this novella is filled with scenes of violence and the metaphysical speculations on death we associate with Latin American "magical realism". Indeed, the reporter has no sooner abused the girl than another "important client" is found stabbed to death in the brothel. By now the old man has realised that "sex is the consolation one has for not finding enough love"; he writes about this startling discovery in his Sunday newspaper column and, briefly, becomes locally quite famous.

We know that One Hundred Years of Solitude was written to the sound of Debussy's "Preludes" and "A Hard Day's Night". Memories of My Melancholy Whores heaves with allusions to music. Mozart, Chopin, César Franck, Schumann, Wagner and Bruckner are all name-checked here. Mention of these composers, however, adds little substance to this 100-page bagatelle about a nubile pubescent and her nonogenarian pander.