Love in the Time of Cholera

by Gabriel García Márquez

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Mementos Mon

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In 1948, as a young journalist in Barranquilla, Gabriel Garcia Marquez amused his readers by comparing love to a liver disease that could lead to the fatal complication of suicide. Four decades later, he recognizes that it is love that keeps readers turning the pages. That is why, despite its apocalyptic undertones, Love in the Time of Cholera has already sold over a million copies in Europe and Latin America.

Set in a stagnant tropical port at the turn of the century, Love in the Time of Cholera tells the story of Florentino Ariza's prolonged passion for Fermina Daza, a passion that is finally consummated after fifty years, nine months and four days, when they are both over 70-years-old. The consummation takes place on a riverboat that flies the cholera flag in order to protect their privacy. When Fermina undresses, Florentino finds her "just as he imagined her. Her shoulders were wrinkled, her breasts sagged, her ribs were covered by a flabby skin as pale and cold as a frog's"—which does not prevent him from exploring "her withered neck with his fingertips, her bosom armored in metal stays, her hips with their decaying bones, her thighs with their aging veins." The boat cannot land because of the cholera flag, so the couple, enjoying "the tranquil, wholesome love of experienced grandparents," are destined to live out their lives perpetually journeying up and down the river through a calamitous and ruined landscape, clinging hopefully to the last vestiges of life.

The humor of this autumnal romance cannot, however, dispel the odor of mortality. On the very first page, the reader is greeted "with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide" and the suicide of the Caribbean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour. The doctor who writes the death certificate is Fermina Daza's 81-year-old husband, Juvenal Urbino, who hours later is killed falling from a ladder as he tries to coax a parrot from a tree. It is at the funeral that Florentino renews a courtship he had begun half a century earlier.

The novel retraces the story of their love and separation. Fermina's adolescence under the jealous guardianship of a father who had made his money in contraband and wanted her to be a great lady, her brief engagement to the illegitimate and lowly Florentino, her marriage to the brilliant European-educated doctor Juvenal Urbino, and her then exemplary life (marred only by a two-year separation caused by her husband's infidelity). Meanwhile, Florentino has a brilliant career with the riverboat company and becomes an impenitent and bizarre womanizer who, when he is over 60, is capable of assaulting a maid "in less time than a Philippino rooster" and leaving her in the family way. His lovers include a 50-year-old widow who receives him stark naked with an organdy bow in her hair, an escapee from the lunatic asylum and, when he is over 70, a schoolgirl "with braces on her teeth and the scrapes of elementary school on her knees."

The humor and pathos of aging and death are subjects that have obsessed Garcia Marquez from his earliest writings. His first novel, Leafstorm, was about a funeral. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, there are dozens of tiny vignettes of death—Amaranta Ursula preparing her own shroud, Jose Arcadio Buendia's dying dream of walking through room after room until he meets the man he has killed, and the matriarch, Ursula, concealing her blindness from her children before lucidly dying. In Love in the Time of Cholera bodies fail long before passions are spent. Florentino goes bald when he is still young. He suffers from blennorrhea, a swollen lymph gland, four warts and six cases of impetigo in the groin. When Dr. Urbino begins to lapse into senility, Fermina "helped him to dress: she sprinkled talcum powder between his legs, she smoothed cocoa butter on his rashes, she helped him put on his undershorts with as much love as if they had been a diaper, and continued dressing him item by item, from his socks to the knot in his tie with the topaz pin." On their riverboat idyll, she helped Florentino "to take his enemas, she got up before he did to brush the false teeth he kept in a glass while he slept and she solved the problem of her misplaced spectacles, for she could use his for reading and mending." Both of them, by this time, have the "sour smell of old age."

Decay is part of the landscape. The colonial Caribbean port where Fermina and Florentino pass most of their lives is familiar Garcia Marquez territory. It was in towns such as this that he wrote his first sketches for a novel in the late 1940s and which he chronicled as a journalist in Barranquilla and Cartagena. It was here that he collected the repertoire of legend, anecdote, smalltown boredom and eccentricity that he has drawn on ever since. Not that there is any nostalgia in Love in the Time of Cholera, which moves from the stagnation of colonialism to the devastation of modernity in the time it takes to turn a page. Although the cobbled streets of the city recall "surprise attacks and buccaneer landings," "nothing had happened for four centuries except a slow aging among withered laurels and putrefying swamps." On the edge of the town are the old slave quarters, where buzzards fight over the offal from the slaughterhouse. Cadavers are everywhere, some dead of cholera and others in the wars. Returning from his studies in Paris, Dr. Urbino sails into a bay "through a floating blanket of drowned animals." "The ocean looked like ashes, the old palaces of the marquises were about to succumb to a proliferation of beggars, and it was impossible to discern the ardent scent of jasmine behind the vapors of death from the open sewers." On a trip that Florentino takes upriver in an effort to forget Fermina, he sees "three bloated, green human corpses float past, with buzzards sitting on them"; when Fermina and Juvenal Urbino take a balloon ride to celebrate the year 1900, they look down on banana plantations strewn with the bodies of workers who have been summarily executed.

By the end of the novel and its "happy ending," the mood is paradoxically apocalyptic. Fermina and Florentine's love boat, which once had steamed through an idyllic landscape, now passes "calcinated flatlands stopped of entire forests." The manatees "with their great breasts that had nursed their young and wept on the banks in a forlorn woman's voice were an extinct species, annihilated by the armored bullets of hunters for sport." Natural life has almost disappeared, "the parrots, the monkeys, the villages were gone, everything was gone."

For this is the irony of Garcia Marquez's novel—that the genial good humor disguises apocalyptic foreboding. The same civilization that idealizes lovers produces a global wasteland, and the private fantasies of romance are rafts on a sea of public devastation. Fermina and Florentino salvage their own idyll but are themselves part of the destruction, a last nineteenth-century romance that can only find a heart of darkness (not for nothing is Joseph Conrad a character in the novel; he is accused of cheating Fermina Daza's father in a shady arms deal). Fermina and Florentino's love boat, indeed, adds to the devastation, since it has polluted the river waters and consumes the last of the forests on the riverbanks. It is this ambiguous relationship of private felicity and mass destruction that provides the novel with its disturbing undertow.

In his novels, Garcia Marquez constantly returns to one particular historical period—from independence to the first decades of the twentieth century. It is the hundred years of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude and of the dictatorship in The Autumn of the Patriarch. What fascinates him, evidently, is the meeting of fierce Latin idiosyncrasy with rationalism and modernity. Yet Love in the Time of Cholera is not only about the past but also about the anachronistic life forms that still survive in the ruins left by nineteenth-century progress. In this respect, the novel shares the fin de siecle mood of much contemporary Latin-American writing.

Source: Jean Franco, "Mementos Mon," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 246, No. 16, April 23, 1988, pp. 573-74.

The Love-Dream of a Prodigious Sleeper

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The city, ancient, decaying, tropical, lies at the mouth of Colombia's Magdalena River. Weeds grow in the cracks of 17th-century palaces; the sewers are open, and the corpses of victims of endemic cholera float downstream from the hinterland. It is a city "where flowers rusted and salt corroded."

It is scene of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magnificent new novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, a book that moves a triple romance, spanning more than a half-century, through a rich, comical and totally still world that could be the dream of a prodigious sleeper lashed to the bed.

Garcia Marquez's universe is organized around a fundamental element: stasis. It replaces oxygen, it produces a brilliant anaerobic life. It has a tacit political connotation. The evolution of liberal, capitalist, consumerist Westernism has submerged the authentic life of the Latin American Third World, while remaining alien to it. Perhaps only a revolution will deliver it. Garcia Marquez, a leftist, doesn't say. Meanwhile, it will remain inert.

Inert in everything except the imagination. Magic realism is what moves when nothing else does. It is what a stage director looks for when he instructs a performer to keep the hands or feet still; to bind them, so that the features or shoulders can make a more expressive performance. Garcia Marquez's art is a mighty transfiguration of these bound movements.

There is no external order. There are no proportions, limits or hierarchies of logic or feeling. Everything is tangled together, and when you finger a thread, you have no idea what it will be attached to. There are no roads in this artist's jungle because there are no destinations. There is profuse life that goes on in spite of the absurd and ramshackle forms assigned to it.

The sole principle of order belongs to Garcia Marquez. It consists of the extraordinary sweetness he finds in his characters; a sweetness that provides energy, and does not cloy, thanks to his feverish spirit of play and his willingness to let his tall tales grow taller.

Love's 50 years center around the turn of the century. The city, loosely modeled on a mix of Cartagena and Barranquilla, is a microcosm of Colombian provincial society with its extremes of extravagantly moneyed families, abject poverty, recurring civil war between liberals and conservatives, a superficial faith in progress, and a monumental inertia.

A Spanish galleon lies, according to legend, at the bottom of the mouth of the Magdalena, with a cargo of gold and jewels valued in the billions. (As in any dream, all figures are vastly inflated; one of the three main characters numbers his love affairs at more than 600.) The image hovers throughout: a fabulous sunken treasure stuck like a plug to bottle up the energies of a people and their river.

The three sides of the love triangle are occupied by three prominent citizens. There is Juvenal Urbino, scion of a mighty family, the town's leading doctor and the herald of all kinds of progressive ideas that he has used to damp down the periodic epidemics of cholera.

Fermina Daza, his wife, is the daughter of an immigrant Spaniard, a nobody who made a fortune in various unsavory ways. Snubbed at first by local society, she has become one of its pillars and the patroness of its artistic life.

Florentino Ariza, a poet and musician by temperament, has worked his way up to wealth and power in the riverboat company founded by his uncle. He has been hopelessly in love with Fermina since they were both teenagers, but since a man needs relief, he has prowled the city for 50 years picking up women.

So much for their public personas. But in Garcia Marquez's country, the externals have no solidity. Juvenal, Fermina and Florentino are fey and unpredictable spirits, haunting rather than inhabiting their positions, their clothes, their habits and even their dispositions. The play of the book is the play of these free spirits in and out of their own constrained lives.

The book starts a year or two before the climax that will end it. Juvenal, in his 80s, falls off a stepl-adder while trying to catch his pet parrot. He dies with such an expression of terror that plans for a death mask have to be canceled. His terror is not for himself but for the thought that Fermina, after 50 years, will have to manage alone.

After the funeral, Florentino appears with his black suit, stiff collar and a strand of hair brilliantined across his bald pate. He reiterates his lifelong passion to Fermina—they are both in their 70s—and in shock and outrage, she throws him out.

It is an explosive beginning, though here as always, Garcia Marquez laces his detonations with diversions and sidetrips. We then go back in time, following the trio from youth to old age. Their stories snake in and out against the tropical background.

Florentino, pale and nervous, gets a shaky start with his uncle. His business letters are poetry; he switches to telegraphy and works his way up. He is splendidly suited to business, in fact, except when it involves writing. It is the author's conceit that the poetic mind is ideal for a businessman's incursions upon reality.

Florentino spots Fermina, closely chaperoned by her aunt. He gets up the courage to write to her. They correspond passionately, even when her father finds out and sends her to stay with relatives in the backland. Florentino uses his fellow telegraphers around the country to relay messages.

The passion is total, and totally abstract. Upon her return, Fermina suddenly sees Florentino in all his awkwardness; she switches to the urbane and assured Juvenal, just back from Europe. Perhaps the finest thing in the book is Garcia Marquez's story of a long, fractious, funny and powerful marriage. The quarrels are memorable; an argument over whether Fermina has put soap in the bathroom leads Juvenal to sleep at the hospital for several months.

All the servitude, conventionality and weight of a provincial Latin American marriage is there; yet underneath it, two free spirits flutter in utter originality. Society's two pillars are light as air, as erratic as a tropical breeze. Florentino, meanwhile, pursues his 600 affairs, many of them quite lunatic. Their chronicling eventually seems repetitious and even burdensome, despite their wit and quirkiness.

But if the richness of Garcia Marquez's textures feels briefly excessive, the book's ending has a brilliance and audacity that more than makes up for it.

After Juvenal's death, and after Florentine's unceremonious rejection, the cycle of courtship begins all over again. He writes Fermina letter after letter. They are cool and philosophic, as befits a septuagenarian, and slowly they fill the emptiness that Juvenal's death has made in his widow's life.

Even so, it takes 140 letters—Garcia Marquez's extravagant numbers again—before she replies. A slow courtship ensues; a seduction that is gentle, quiet and astonishingly adapted to the infirmities of two aged bodies. The author gives us geriatric sex aboard riverboat, and makes it deeply comic and deeply moving.

Finally, through a series of bizarre incidents, the ancient couple are set to cruise for the rest of their lives up and down the Magdalena. It is entirely real and entirely magical. It is not so much an ending as a triumphant departure in a balloon. Love in the Time of Cholera, beautifully translated by Edith Grossman, may be Garcia Marquez's best work since One Hundred Years of Solitude. If the tigers in his Rousseau-like moonscapes are less startling, because we are not seeing them for the first time, the moon, lighting his three lovers, is whiter, more mysterious and more transforming.

Source: Richard Eder, "The Love-Dream of a Prodigious Sleeper," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 17, 1988, p.3.


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