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Originally published Friday, November 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Memories of My Melancholy Whores": A tale of old age and sleeping beauty

A few months before his death in 1982, American writer John Cheever brought out a slim novella that bid a lyrical-raunchy farewell to the sensual...

Seattle Times book critic

"Memories of My Melancholy Whores"
by Gabriel García Márquez
Knopf, 115 pp., $20

A few months before his death in 1982, American writer John Cheever brought out a slim novella that bid a lyrical-raunchy farewell to the sensual wonders of the world. Those wonders, for his narrator, ranged from one last turn on his favorite ice-skating pond to a spontaneous tryst with a Manhattan elevator man (followed by a fishing trip with the same cordial fellow).

The rueful title of that book: "Oh What a Paradise It Seems."

Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, who has been battling lymphatic cancer since 1999, offers a similar slender valedictory tome with his first work of fiction in 10 years, "Memories of My Melancholy Whores." It, too, is a lyrical-raunchy portrait of an old man taking what may be his last taste of the world.

The nameless narrator, still working as a newspaper columnist, is about to hit his 90th birthday, and he knows exactly what he wants for it: "the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin." A habitué all his life of various brothels around town, he has no trouble arranging for such a tryst. But it doesn't pan out as planned.

The girl, only 14 years old, is tired out from her long day working at a button factory, and so scared about her first sexual encounter that she's been drugged to sleep by the brothel madam. The old man, hating to wake her, merely studies her, thus discovering "the improbable pleasure of contemplating the body of a sleeping woman without the urgencies of desire or the obstacles of modesty." Then he, too, falls asleep.

And so this perverse tale of a spring-winter affair (early, early spring and late, late winter) becomes a mischievous variation on "Sleeping Beauty," as old man and young girl repeatedly meet but can never stay awake at the same time. That, however, doesn't stop García Márquez's promiscuous old dandy from falling in love.

Complications — hallucinations, a murder, a violent rain storm — keep delaying the moment when this unlikely pair will rouse themselves from their respective snoozes. In the interim we get a sly portrait of a nonagenarian who admits to being "ugly, shy, and anachronistic," and a slave to his desires since losing his own virginity at age 11.

He talks about his passion for books and music. ("Movies are not my genre," he says. "The obscene cult of Shirley Temple was the final straw.") Even more intense are his fond memories of his parents — dead for more than half a century now — and his love for his unnamed city (local place names indicate it's Barranquilla) where he's a figure of modest prominence.

Nobel laureate García Márquez ("One Hundred Years of Solitude") renders the flavor of that city in full, with translator Edith Grossman delivering the goods as usual, blending the finest rococo flourishes with the most amiable profanities. The drama here isn't of a prurient nature but more to do with how this strangely chaste windfall of love has turned the narrator's careful, cultivated bachelor habits inside out, revealing them to be "a complete system of pretense invented by me to hide the disorder of my nature."

The energy of eros, even if it's eyes-only eros, infuses each corner of this little book and promises to carry its willing victim past his 100th birthday. If this is García Márquez's last work of fiction (he's said to be working on the sequels to his memoir "Living to Tell the Tale"), it's a wonderful note to go out on.

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