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Gabo and the virgin whore

6 October 2009

With the molestation of young girls in the news elsewhere, it was only a matter of time before Lydia Cacho would weigh in. Cacho turns her rightful wrath, weirdly enough, not Mexican child molesters, nor the still on-going sex tourism trade, but Gabriel García Márquez‘ short 2004 novel, Memoria de mis putas tristes.

Cacho, who was illegally jailed in Puebla after Los demonios del Edén was published, shocked the Mexican establishment, in 2005. Los demonios was “muckraking” at its muckiest… dealing with child prostitution and child pornography rings, headed by wealthy Cancún business executive, Jean Succar Kuri. Based on complaints of a Succar associate Kamal Nacif, Puebla governor, Mario Marín Torres, personally ordered Cacho’s arrest. She was kidnapped from Quintana Roo and jailed in Puebla, leading to not just a political scandal, but eventually to a change in Mexican libel laws, under which the writer was originally jailed.

Cacho is an expert on sexual abuse of children, and exposing the nasty sex tourism trade, but I think she may have misfired here. She is, after all, writing in a country where 14 year old girls are still bartered brides on occasion. In the 21st century… in reality, not in fiction.

Eva_Perón_-_15_añosUntil fairly recently, this was not just the case in “traditional” Latin American societies, but in even the more “advanced” regions as well.   The photo on the left — from 1935 — is a promotional photo of a performer who, after a few years of experience in the provinces, was moving on to the Buenos Aires.   Not a prostitute, but a young woman seen as an adult at a very early age.  In 1935, young Eva Duarte (who ten years later would marry Juan Peron) was only 15.

Andre Gide writes that “fiction is a mirror held up to reality”*.  Dealing with the sexual mores of the “real” time of the novel does not mean that one necessarily approves or disapproves.  The reality is just the background, as it is in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 Lolita, is set in a very real 1950s United States.  The fact that a middle-aged literary scholar could be sexually obsessed with 12 year old Lolita is only the frame for a darkly comic version of the great American road trip novel.

Which brings us to Gabriel García Márquez.  As John Updike wrote in a New Yorker essay in 2005:

The works of Gabriel García Márquez contain a great deal of love, depicted as a doom, a demonic possession, a disease that, once contracted, cannot be easily cured.  Not infrequently the afflicted are an older man and a younger woman, hardly more than a child…perhaps not so curious in the social context of the author’s native Colombia in the years of his youth…

Love — and the impossibility of love — are García Márquez’ themes, and there is nothing salacious about that.  The main character, the best years of an empty life behind him, has nothing to look forward to on his 91st birthday:

I have never gone to bed with a woman I didn’t pay … by the time I was fifty there were 514 women with whom I had been at least once … My public life, on the other hand, was lacking in interest: both parents dead, a bachelor without a future, a mediocre journalist … and a favorite of caricaturists because of my exemplary ugliness.

If anything, the 14-year-old (not 13-year-old, as others have misstated) girl, who sells her virginity to save her working class family from destitution and ruin is making an economic and political decision as an adult… in 1930s Colombia is the heroine of the tale.

That García Marquez uses sexuality (and the “sadness” of prostitutes) to explicate class and age and gender issues does not mean he’s supporting child prostitution — quite the opposite.  It is, as Updike writes of another García Márquez story involving young prostitutes, “Whoredom as martyrdom”.  For a Marxist steeped in Catholicism, greater love has no woman than she lay down… offering up her youth and her virginity to the ugly realities of tradition and unyielding tradition… to save her family.

And what happens in the fictional world of a fictional 1930s Colombia (the same period that the real Evita was having her photo shoot in  the real Buenos Aires), was — in the real world — legal at the time.  No disrepect is meant to Ms. Cacho… she has been vital in the fight both to protect the rights of minors, and those of journalists, and deserves our complete respect, but fictional mirrors held up to a reality that has changed for the better — in good part because of her excellent reporting — has nothing to do with what a Polish film director may have done in California in 1977… nor with what she knows best, and would be better off focusing her attention on:  the sexual exploitation of minors in the real Mexico of 2009.

* The quote is found in yet another 20th century novel that includes adults having sexual realtions with adolescents:   Les faux-monnayeurs (1925). Gide’s novel, set in Paris, includes as a sub-plot the story of a middle-aged novelist (the source of the statement about fiction and reality), sexually involved with his teen-aged nephew.

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