The Reading Life
By Vivian Lake, Puerto Rico Sun Book Editor
Memoria de mis putas tristes by Gabriel García Márquez Vintage Books, $10.95)This is the first novel from the author in ten years. Anticipation was so feverish that bootlegged copies of the book hit the streets in his native Colombia weeks before the official publication date. A revised ending written at the last minute has made the pirated versions obsolete. When the book finally hit the stores, sales were clocked in at 1,000 volumes per hour. One wonders what his compatriots have to say about this unexpected story.
A few guesses: Offensive, sad, misogynistic, ridiculous. Not words usually associated with the beloved Gabo.
A 90 year-old man wants a last fling with a young virgin for his birthday and falls in "love" for the first time. Not even García Márquez's formidable talent (still very much in evidence here) can make this story poignant or compelling.
Set in the Colombian coastal city of Barranquilla during the 1930's, the first-person narrative introduces the protagonist, a retired journalist, who is looking back at his life and preparing to face death. But first, he wants that virgin. For this he contacts an old friend of his, the madam of a whorehouse with whom he has a long acquaitance: he has never had sex without paying for it; even if the woman wasn't a prostitute, he insisted on paying. The old writer has kept a list of the women he has slept with (including descriptions and a scoring system); the list contains 514 names. He has lived alone, writing his columns, listening to classical music his whole life. He was almost married once, but ditched the bride on their wedding day. The misogyny fairly boils over the margins.
After some difficulty a young girl is found and the assignation made. When he arrives, she is asleep on the bed, nude, her face grossly made up. He doesn't wake her or touch her in any way, but watches her and leaves the next morning. He arranges to meet the girl several nights per week, for the same pathetic charade. She is always nude and asleep, he watches her and occasionally caresses her, nothing more. Eventually he brings his favorite music, books and objects to the room -- ostensibly for her, but she is always asleep.
When the house closes unexpectedly and the madam disappears, the man is bereft. Desperate to see the girl, he walks the streets, looking for her, imagining that he sees her, when he realizes that he wouldn't know what she looked like fully dressed and standing up. He doesn't know her name or the sound of her voice, and tries to imagine it. Then he realizes he doesn't want to hear it. He prefers her silent.
Amazed at his desperation to find her, his agony at not seeing her, he realizes that for the first time in his life he is in love. With what is unclear, since the girl has never even been awake in the same room with him. He knows the girl works her fingers to the bone every day in a factory as the sole support of her family, and he has done nothing to help her, even mocks her to the madam about it. He calls her "Delgadina" (little slender one) but she is described as malnourished by somone else (not that he cares). He does nothing to find out if she gets enough to eat, or to ensure she is getting a fair share of what he pays the madam. He loves her silent somnolence which neither demands nor complains. There is no poignant love story here, just a lingering distaste.
Review of Spanish language edition.
Burning Precinct Puerto Rico: Book Three by Steven Torres (Thomas Dunne Books, $23.95)This is the third novel featuring the no-nonsense Sheriff Luis Gonzalo of Angustias, Puerto Rico, a remote small town in the mountains. The year is 1989 and Sheriff Gonzalo has 25 years on the job. His last duty before an extended vacation is to attend his anniversary celebration in the town square, where he's bored to tears by the speeches and distracted during the ceremony. Then billowing smoke in the distance signals a major fire on the outskirts of town and all hell breaks loose.
When the smoke clears, a family has been killed and their home burned down. The Ortiz family seemed to be farmers, but the violence signals something more serious was going on. The story moves at breakneck speed as Sheriff Gonzalo starts investigating and two dangerous suspects come to light. Other leads indicate the drug trade blighting the cities has moved up into this mountain idyll. But how? The town is so impenetrable even the walkie-talkies don't work steadily. Solidly relentless, the Sheriff follows the investigation through more twists than a daytime soap, as deputies get shot, people disappear and the new mayor continues trys to get him off the case.
An intimate sense of place, vivid and well-devoloped characterization and fast-paced action make this crime-spree a must-read.
To read more of Lake's work, go to www.bookauthority.blogspot.com.