This year is the 50th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," a book about a middle-aged man who loves and preys on a 12-year-old girl. The very fact that this anniversary has been widely celebrated shows how completely Nabokov's novel has outgrown its original scandal. A book that was considered too indecent to publish, which was widely condemned as pornographic, and which Nabokov himself called a "time bomb," seems today as securely canonical as "David Copperfield." Now, as if to mark the sea change in our attitudes to sex and literature, comes "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" (Alfred A. Knopf, 96 pages, $20), a story about a 90-year-old man who pays to deflower a 14-year-old girl. It is certain that no one will protest or try to ban this short novel, and not just because it is the first fiction in a decade from the beloved Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Nor is it because our attitudes toward the sexual abuse of children have become more tolerant in the last half century. Just the opposite: The purchase of a child prostitute, if it were reported in a newspaper rather than imagined in a novel, is just the kind of exploitation most likely to enrage the very people who read Mr. Garcia Marquez.
Rather, Mr. Garcia Marquez manages to deflect moral or even psychological judgment on the acts of his characters because the "magic" of his fiction annuls the "realism" that is supposed to go along with it. He never demands for his creations the kind of sympathy that enables and necessitates judgment. Rather, he endows them with the grandiosity, and the irresponsibility, of heroes from fable and romance. They are so innocent they ascend into heaven (Remedios the Beauty in "One Hundred Years of Solitude"), so devoted they cherish an unrequited love for 50 years (Florentino Ariza in "Love in the Time of Cholera"), so evil they serve their enemies for dinner with a side dish of cauliflower (the dictator in "Autumn of the Patriarch"). But this means that they are not really innocent or devoted or evil at all, in the way we ourselves might be. Like the world they inhabit, Mr. Garcia Marquez's heroes are stupendous, and therefore stupefying; larger than life, and therefore not really alive.
"Memories of My Melancholy Whores," made into lucid English by the translator Edith Grossman, is not nearly as fantastical as Mr. Garcia Marquez's major works; there are no flowers raining from the sky here. But the book still depends on the license of its exaggerations. The unnamed narrator, a lifelong hack journalist known to the residents of his small South American town as "the Scholar," is not just old, but ludicrously old. The girl he arranges to purchase, as a present to himself on his 90th birthday, is not just young and beautiful but angelically young and beautiful. And the romance that flourishes between them is not just pure but absolutely virginal.
The narrator gives us to understand that he is a legendary patron of whores, "twice crowned client of the year" by the ladies of the red light district. Only once did he consider getting married to a respectable woman, backing out at the last minute in favor of a symbolic marriage to the entire staff of a brothel - "a night of great sacrileges in which twenty-two women promised love and obedience." But when he arrives at the establishment of Rosa Cabarcas, an earthy, crafty madam, to claim his 14-year-old prize, the Scholar's career of lechery suddenly melts away. Naming the girl "Delgadina," after a princess in a ballad, he simply goes to sleep alongside her, and is thereby initiated into a new world of romantic love: "That night I discovered the improbable pleasure of contemplating the body of a sleeping woman without the urgencies of desire or the obstacles of modesty."
Thus begins a love affair that might have been invented as a satire on male sexual and romantic vanity. Mr. Garcia Marquez is, indeed, alert to the self-delusions that make possible the Scholar's last-minute epiphany. He visits Delgadina mainly in order to watch her when she is asleep, utterly passive, the blank mirror of his own desires. When she talks in her sleep one night, the Scholar notices that her "voice had a plebeian touch" not suited to the Delgadina of his fantasies, and realizes "the last shadow of a doubt disappeared from my soul: I preferred her asleep."
Eventually, his fantasy of Delgadina becomes so vivid that it can keep him company even when the girl herself isn't there. During a violent rainstorm that floods his apartment - a metaphor for passion turned naively literal, in a touch typical of the author - the Scholar is able to summon her spirit: "I did not see myself alone in the house but always accompanied by Delgadina. I had felt her so close during the night that I detected the sound of her breath in the bedroom and the throbbing of her cheek on my pillow."
But Mr. Garcia Marquez does not, finally, want us to see the Scholar's love as a delusion, a species of egotism, in the way Nabokov regards Humbert's. In the simplified world of Mr. Garcia Marquez's fiction, there is nothing more bewitching than a grand, passionate gesture, regardless of how its motives or effects would appear in a recognizably human setting. Thus the Scholar's passion, after being tested by Delgadina's mysterious disappearance, is finally rewarded, in a denouement that cannot avoid sounding like wish-fulfillment. His masculine potency - which is, of course, an image of his 77-year-old creator's literary potency - scores one last success on the edge of the grave. That Mr. Garcia Marquez expects the reader to salute an ancient man's victory over a child, rather than see it as pathetic or monstrous, is the latest measure of his fiction's heroic contempt for reality.