[Paleopsych] TLS: (Garcia Marquez) Sleeping seamstress

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Sleeping seamstress

    Adam Feinstein
    10 December 2004
    MEMORIA DE MIS PUTAS TRISTES. By Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 109pp.
    Madrid: Mondadori. 17euros. 84 397 1165 4

    Gabriel Garcia Marquez's first novel for ten years was brought out
    early in a million-copy print-run in the Spanish-speaking world to
    beat the bootleggers and promptly sold 400,000 copies in its first
    week. As publishing sensations go, this was spectacular. The trouble
    is that the 109-page Memoria de mis putas tristes ("Memoir of My Sad
    Whores") - for all its warmth, humour and magnificent linguistic
    invention - ultimately emerges as a slight piece of work.

    The book begins memorably: "In my ninetieth year, I wanted to give
    myself the gift of a night of mad love with an adolescent virgin". The
    narrator is a music and theatre critic, a former teacher of grammar,
    known only by the nickname his former pupils had given him, Mustio
    Collado. Mustio appears to grasp the world largely through books: he
    came to understand why tuberculosis had made his mother so
    bad-tempered only through reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.
    He has always insisted on paying for sex, even if the girl was not a
    prostitute, and has kept a log, Leporello like, recording 514
    encounters by the age of fifty - though, by his own account, he has
    little in common with Don Giovanni, being "ugly, timid and

    A fourteen-year-old girl has been selected for his birthday present by
    the madame of the brothel, Rosa Cabarcas. Mustio names the girl
    Delgadina and finds himself falling desperately in love with her. She
    is so exhausted after a day's work sewing buttons on clothes that she
    spends that first night in profound slumber - and indeed never opens
    her eyes through the entire novel. A similar situation occurs in a
    1926 short story,"House of Sleeping Beauties", by the Japanese writer
    and fellow Nobel Laureate, Yasunari Kawabata, from which Garcia
    Marquez quotes on the frontispiece.

    Memoria de mis putas tristes, thin though it is, is a warmer work. It
    has tender echoes of some of Garcia Marquez's greatest novels -
    especially those, like Love in the Time of Cholera, which breathe
    optimism into old age. In its treatment of overpowering obsession,
    this latest novel is also curiously reminiscent, in some ways, of
    another of the author's short novels, No One Writes to the Colonel.
    But there are moments which bring to mind a much more self-indulgent,
    flawed and far more carelessly written - yet at times obstinately
    moving - study of an older man driven to recapture his waning powers
    through passion for a younger woman: Across the River and into the
    Trees, by Ernest Hemingway, an author who exerted a great influence on
    Garcia Marquez early in his career.

    Inevitably, the reader ponders the ways in which the ninety-year-old
    Mustio Collado resembles his seventy-six-year-old creator. Although
    the setting for the novel is unspecified, it is probably Barranquilla,
    the town on Colombia's Caribbean coastline where Garcia Marquez rented
    a room in a brothel while working as a young journalist. After his
    first, platonic night with Delgadina, Mustio declares: "The house,
    like all brothels at daybreak, was the closest thing there is to
    paradise". Now he experiences a new sense of liberation: the "unlikely
    pleasure", as he puts it, of contemplating a woman asleep without the
    pressure of desire. Until he met Delgadina, the sexual urge had served
    as "consolation to one for whom love is out of reach".

    Although Mustio informs us that he has "no vocation or virtue as a
    narrator", the novel employs a richly unsettling mix of anachronistic
    or unusual language and neologisms. The use in the very first chapter
    of the verb recordar (instead of the much more normal despertarse) to
    mean "to wake up" - even though it can be heard in Colombia, it is
    certainly not the first choice there - both reinforces the impression
    of Mustio's stubborn singularity but also gives an oddly courtly feel
    to his love for Delgadina. Yet his passion allows room for paternal
    protectiveness. As she sleeps, he reads her a version of The Thousand
    and One Nights which has been "disinfected" for children.

    An invented vocabulary - words like mutandas, bocapiernas and
    pintorreteado - fuels the novel's sense of hope and renewal. The book
    is due to be published in English next year, and it will be intriguing
    to see how the translator handles these linguistic intricacies.

    There are characteristically delightful passages of simple but telling
    physical detail: Rosa Cabarcas has difficulty walking on legs "swollen
    inside primitive cotton stockings". More surprisingly, there are
    sentences that shock with their banality: "I discovered, at last, that
    love is not a state of the soul but a sign of the zodiac". This novel
    is an imperfectly formed little jewel - sadly, not one destined to
    sparkle in the memory alongside the finest works of Gabriel Garcia

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