My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"There's no greater misfortune than dying alone."
Gabriel García Márquez was 78 years old when his sublime novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2005) was published. Cees Nooteboom was 76 in 2009 when he published the collection of short stories
The Foxes Come at Night . The two books, written in the twilight of their authors' lives, although completely different formally, thematically and stylistically, are so much alike in their depth, honesty and the clarity of message. Both are imbued with wisdom coming from long life experiences, both are unencumbered by worries about the near future and immune from pressures of currently prevailing social norms. And while Foxes is the best book I have ever read about what it means to die, Memories is one of the best books about what it means to live.
The first sentence sets up the plot:
"The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin."Indeed the narrator - a journalist, a scholar, and a once teacher - finds, with the help of a local madam, the suitable object of his desire: the average age of this unusual couple is 52, you "do the math." Although what transpires during that night is less than what the old man has planned, the gift he receives is priceless. The narrator spends the night watching the sleeping girl, not wanting to wake her up. Instead of a "libertine night", he - who had "never gone to bed with a woman [he] didn't pay" and whose tally of women he had been with at least once had 514 entries just by the time he was fifty - experiences an epiphany about what he had been missing all his life: love.
The narrator and his virgin continue having their unusual nightly rendezvous and after a few months he states:
"At the beginning of the new year we started to know each other as well as if we lived together awake."He is now "mad with love" and his life finally begins making sense whereas before meeting the girl he had contemplated writing about "the miseries of [his] misguided life" (in a neat metafictional joke he had planned to title his writings Memories of My Melancholy Whores).
Twisting and turning plot keeps the reader interested, and we are offered several asides that tease us with alternate readings: for instance, "[...] just as real events are forgotten, some that never were can be in our memories as if they happened." Yet to me one reading is obvious: the loud affirmation - in the face of not-that-distant death - of life not completely wasted on pursuit of unimportant things. This is a totally optimistic book - not something that I usually praise - because it helps us face the looming end with lesser fear: we know that we have experienced love and we can hope not to die alone.
Of course the novella is beautifully written (and well translated by Edith Grossman). Similarly to Chronicle of a Death Foretold it is almost a masterpiece, but not really in the class of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Maybe, if I live to 78, I will rethink the rating. I take issue, though, with the narrator's statement that Bach's six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello are "the most accomplished pieces in all of music." No, that would be either Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin or Beethoven's Late String Quartets.
But seriously: when I had finished writing this lame but heartfelt review I allowed myself to take a peek at the readers' reviews of the novella on Amazon.com and found a high proportion of negative and disgusted (!) reviews. Readers use words and phrases such as "paedophilia," "geriatric dysfunction," "lack of interest in the issues of poverty that pushes children into prostitution," etc. I believe this is the first time in my about 500 book reviews that I will purposefully insult the clueless readers. If you find this book disgusting or worthless, you wouldn't know true love if it bit you on your ass.
Four and a quarter stars.
And yet another gorgeous sentence from the novella:
When the cathedral bells struck seven, there was a single, limpid star in the rose-colored sky, a ship called out a disconsolate farewell, and in my throat I felt the Gordian knot of all the loves that might have been and weren't.
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