At a key moment in this melancholy picaresque fable, the 90-year-old narrator announces: "Sex is the consolation you have when you can't have love." And he has had plenty of consolation: when he lost count of the prostitutes he'd slept with at the age of 50, he had been with 516 of them. Never once did he make love without paying for it. Except, perhaps, the one time he was overwhelmed with the thighs of a laundry girl and launched a rear-guard attack that leads to one of the outbursts of absurd crude humor that enliven the story.

This slender book is really a novella. Curiously, it has the kind of temporal compression one would find in a shorter fictional form, and a mysterious expansiveness that makes the book feel 200 pages longer. This magical effect is due, in large part, to the meditations and obsessions of its central character, who remains nameless throughout. A rouŽ who comes from a line of men so well endowed they could "make donkeys smile," he is reluctantly facing death with a series of stratagems designed to put off the inevitable.

Gabriel Garc’a M‡rquez assaults political correctness with the first line of the first page. "The year I turned ninety," the narrator says, "I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin." Alert Oprah and Dr. Phil we are in Lolita territory here. The narrator contacts an old madam and makes a contract for the deflowering of a working girl of 15. That night he totters to the whorehouse, where he discovers his virgin, naked and asleep. Here begins a scene both lyrical and uncomfortable for North American readers the old man spends much of the night inspecting the body of the naked child. He looks at everything with an erotic sorrow that leaves him haunted and almost remorseful by dawn. Readers have waited 12 years for new fiction from the Nobel Laureate, and this autumnal effort is a miniature jewel. It will alternately make them laugh out loud, sigh with their own memories and cringe at its erotic transgressions. Garc’a M‡rquez, himself facing winter, is clearly planning to tango all the way. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in nonfiction for The Devil's Highway, Luis Alberto Urrea is also the author, most recently, of the novel The Hummingbird's Daughter.

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