Sleeping beauty

Gene H. Bell-Villada, who teaches Spanish at Williams College, is the author of several books, including "Garcia Marquez: The Man and His Work" and a memoir, "Overseas American: Growing Up Gringo in the Tropics."

FANS of Gabriel Garcia Marquez might think "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" is the eagerly awaited sequel to his recent memoir, "Living to Tell the Tale." But his new book's audacious handle is in many ways a bit of a joke. It is the first novel from "Gabo" (as he's affectionately referred to anywhere south of San Ysidro) in 10 years. Luminous and brief, it wondrously fuses an everyday plot with the high points of a long life span.

Though best known for his magical realism, Garcia Marquez has delighted readers far more regularly as a spinner of love stories. Even his masterpiece of magic realism, "One Hundred Years of Solitude," sings of every possible kind of romantic tie. The word "love" graces the titles of two of his most memorable novels, "Love in the Time of Cholera" and "Of Love and Other Demons." The horrific short novel "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" mingles a mock-courtship tale with traditional Iberian issues of family honor. "Memories," first published in Spanish in 2004, also evokes amour, but not the sort you'd expect from its brash title.

Set in a colonial town that vaguely recalls Colombia's Cartagena, "Memories" is narrated by a nameless 90-year-old bachelor. Cultured, refined, almost precious, he's earned his keep the last few decades by crafting -- longhand, in ink -- a weekly column for the local Sunday newspaper. (His essays have given him a modest following; schoolgirls and cab drivers recognize him.) He resides in his ancestral mansion, has no surviving kin and, save for the family maid (who once harbored an unrequited passion for him), no companionship at home. His pastimes include dipping into Greco-Roman literature, thrilling to classical music and, on occasion, visiting a brothel.

An explanation is due: In Latin America, there's little stigma attached to men seeing prostitutes. Many a Latin teen has had his erotic initiation with a paid sexual worker (as was the case with this protagonist, at age 12). In Garcia Marquez's novels, moreover, whorehouses often function as social centers, privileged spaces where men seek refuge, solace, friendship, even love. That, more or less, is what our nonagenarian essayist reminisces about in these pages.

"The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of wild love with an adolescent virgin." So opens the book. The narrator's friend Rosa, the equally withered madam of a habitual house of pleasure, finds a suitable sex partner for him and phones him with the good news. A droll odyssey-by-taxi transports him to Rosa's shop. She leads him to a secluded room. And there, that evening, begins a romance like no other. The expectant lover observes a "molasses-colored" damsel stretched out on the bed, sound asleep and with her back turned to him. That's how she'll remain all through the night as he contemplates her, sometimes strokes her, dubs her "Delgadina" (from delgada, Spanish for "slender") and eventually dozes off at her side. When he departs at sunrise, the beauty still sleeps.

This courtly liaison will become more intricate over a year's time. At various points the protagonist addresses Delgadina in her sleep, recites to her the initial drafts of his weekly articles, reads "The Little Prince" and "The Arabian Nights" to her while she is in deep slumber. He writes his columns for her, making them into oblique love letters, and they cause a sensation among his reading public. For her part, Delgadina, always asleep, will smile at him just once and speak her sole, cryptic sentence: "It was Isabel who made the snails cry."

Then a ghastly crime occurs inside the brothel. The ensuing legal imbroglio temporarily shuts down Rosa's business, interrupting his visits to Delgadina. As the months drag by in suspense, he chastely revisits a now-married whore, attempts to pawn his Italian mother's prized jewels and just reminisces, awaiting Delgadina's return to her nocturnal job. (She sews buttons by day, her location unknown.)

Will "boy" and girl be reunited? Will the constant lover win? Will this love endure? That, dear reader, is the subtle ending to be revealed when, late one night, our tearful hero counts 12 bells as he turns 91.

Mingling with the inamorato's daily doings are his remembrances of things past -- of his late parents, his journalistic career, his musical passions, his first-time sex with a worldly wise tiger-woman, his flight from a nuptial ceremony and his uncanny re-encounter, decades later, with his almost-spouse, now wheelchair-bound. We intuit a life's experience through Gabo's richly textured, bittersweet, oft-quotable and comical prose. The entire action of "Memories" unfolds sometime before 1960, further adding to the wistful sense of worlds forever gone. This is an exquisitely wrought tale, and Edith Grossman's translation ably captures its autumnal beauty. *

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