At an age when most mortals have already died, his life was beginning. He had spent all the days of his life without a wife or fortune, inhabiting the colonial house where he was born and where he hopes to die. It was his libertine night; his moon was full. Don Scholar affirming that he is not confirmed to eternal youth longed for the impossible on his 90th birthday. Hence he gave Madam Rosa Cabarcas the owner of the illicit house a call insisting for a virgin girl who is not USED;his girl had to be available to him that same night!
Still a renowned journalist with all the blessing of patience that comes with age, patience disappeared as his chest became heavy with the anxiety of waiting for his virgin-whore. In waiting, he reflects on his sexual chronicles and ethics through the years.
‘I have never gone to bed with a woman I didn’t pay, and the few who weren’t in the profession I persuaded by argument or by force, to take money even if they threw it in the trash. When I was twenty, I began to keep a record listing name, age, place and a brief notation on the circumstances and style of lovemaking. By the time I was fifty there were 514 women with whom I had been at least once. I stopped making the list when my body no longer allowed me to have so many…’
While reading this book, It becomes unbelievably hard for a reader not to put on a moral lens. As I struggled between lenses, Don Scholar continued further to reflect on the miseries of his misguided life.
‘… My public life was lacking interest: both parents dead, a bachelor without a future, a mediocre journalist and a favourite of caricaturists because of my exemplary ugliness. I slept in the red-light districts, the Barrio Chino, two three times a week, and with such variety of comparisons that I was twice crowned the client of the year’
Reflecting on how his bonding with whores left him no time to marry, Madam Rosa calls to display she knew her trade. She offers him a 14yr old girl who would meet him at 10pm after she feeds her younger brothers and sisters and put them to sleep and helps her mother, crippled by rheumatism into bed.
A night like this was far beyond the miser Don Scholar’s means but by his words, his fantasy was worth any cost.
‘From the money box hidden under my bed, I took out two pesos to rent the room, four for the owner, three for the girl, and five in reserve for my supper and other minor expenses.’
There went Don Scholar’s salary for the month as he happily set out into the radiant night in a cooled weather to encounter his mistress of virginity. He meets with Madam Rosa who gives him a brief of her client.
‘She’s beautiful, clean, and well-mannered, but dying of fear because a friend of hers who ran away with a stevedore from Gayra had bled to death in two hours…Poor thing, besides all that she has to work the whole day attaching buttons in a factory… Now she’s asleep…you ought to let her rest for as long as her body needs it, your night is longer than hers.’
Madam Rosa leaves him alone with his terror. With a heart now full of confusion and no escape route, he walks into the room to see the girl sleeping in the enormous bed of hire, as naked and helpless as the day she was born. He named her Delgadina.
It is indeed difficult not to engage this book with a moral lens; the looming possibilities hereafter were indeed disturbing. Night after night, meeting his Delgadina became Don Scholar’s ritual. The writer does not fail to build suspense around this. While I try to unravel the details of this nightly tango, I am caught in my thought for the many Delgadina’s we know or read of. The 2014 UNICEF study, Hidden in Plain Sight, estimates that around 120 million girls under the age of 20 (about 1 in 10) have been subjected to sexual exploitation at some point of their lives. Boys are not left out, though they suffer to lesser extent than girls. All of these are gross violation of children’s rights
With this book written in 2004, the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez had created characters and narratives we love to hate. Rosa Cabarcas reminds me of the modern day Italian Mamans. The likes of Madam Rosa in many cities, remain the only liberals with power in government, and hence they thrive. Delgadina is a replica of the children of the night that pimps make their living off while Don Scholar remains the notorious client of the skin trade who we know but refuse to acknowledge.
While this book highlighted the issues of ageing and the psychosocial transformations that occur as a result, it did focus more on the normalization of child-prostitution. It is indeed our silence that makes the abuse of Delgadina’s childhood normal.
Don Scholar had always chosen brides for a night only, but his last night bride had an enigma. She was an absolute mistress of virginity and a source of epiphany that liberated him from a servitude that enslaved him. Thus he was able to confront his inner self for the first time in 90yrs.
With this profoundly haunting novel, I think the Late Gabriel Garcia Marquez has shared a story that all people can sincerely relate to. Perhaps in ending it the way he did, he is wishing that all Don Scholar’s replicas out there who prefer pubescent partners will confront their inner truth to the point of rupture. As I drop the book, I am earnestly wishing all Delgadina’s world over will tonight go home with an inheritance, a kiss on their forehead and a long forgive me from us all.
~Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye
Interesting perspective Adaobi, as I knew you would. So before kissing Delgadina on the forehead and begging forgiveness did he or did he not … I’m afraid that I cannot sever my moral inclinations while reading any kind of literature. Afterall if they’re written for the world at large then each must come to them with their own perspective, right or wrong, insightful or naive. I will pass on my copy of Love in the time of Cholera to you as promised and see what you think.
A morality tale, imaginably gross and ambivalently bound in guilt, pain and regret – ameliorated somewhat and liberated by innocence.
In this review, Adaobi most skillfully traces the lines, and connects the dots between this fictional character and modern day sex trade and childhood sexual exploitation, and the multitude of Delgadinas’ forced to trade their innocence, mostly by force or compulsion, either for sustenance or survival – one that may not be easily overlooked as we contemplate contemporary issues of poverty, human emancipation, gender equality and international development.